It’s a common misconception that overseas visitors can only spend up to 6 months in any 12-month period in the UK. That is not to say that a 180-day rule does not exist, it does, but only insofar as the maximum length of stay for each standard visit is limited to 6 months.
In this guide, we look at the so-called ‘UK visitor visa 180 days rule’, dispelling the myth that visitors cannot stay in the UK for more than 180 days in total in any given year.
What is the misconception when it comes to the 180-day rule?
The 180 day visitor rule is commonly misunderstood as meaning that any person who enters the UK with a visitor visa cannot stay more than 180 days in any single 12-month period. This common misconception has also taken the shape of the 6 month time-limit set out under the rules being misinterpreted as a rule that visitors can spend no more than 6 months out of any 12 months inside the UK. In reality, the ‘UK visitor visa 180 days rule’ does not exist in this way. For example, it is not the case that if an overseas national comes to the UK with a visitor visa and stays between January to May and, having returned to their home country, comes back to the UK under a new visa for a further stay in October of the same year, they would only be able to stay for an additional month. Similarly, if that same person initially came to the UK on a long-term visitor visa, spent 5 months in the UK and then sought to re-visit later in the year, it is not the case that they would only be allowed to stay for a further four weeks. As such, the 180-day rule is misconceived.
How long can visitors stay in the UK?
Under the UK’s Immigration Rules for visitors, or otherwise under immigration law in the UK, there is no such thing as the ‘UK visitor visa 180 days rule’. The true position, when it comes to a standard visitor visa, is as follows: for those seeking to visit the UK to undertake the activities as permitted under the rules, for example, for the purposes of tourism, visiting friends and family, or for short business trips, a visa will be granted for ‘up to 6 months’.
The maximum 6-month rule essentially means that an overseas national, when coming to the UK as a standard visitor to take a holiday, spend time with loved ones or to do business, will be able to stay for no more than 6 months at a time. In some cases, depending on the reason for their visit, a visa may only be granted for the time required for their specified purpose. However, with the grant of a new visa, or with a multiple entry visa valid over several years, there is no limit as to how long someone can spend in the UK during the course of any 12-month period, such as ‘6 months in 12’. This means that, at least in theory, an overseas national can leave the UK following a full 6-month visit, re-apply for a visa from overseas and subsequently return to the UK, even if this is just a few short weeks later.
Multiple entry rules for UK visitors
For regular visitors to the UK, it is possible to apply for a multiple-entry visa over 2, 5 or 10 years, where there is again no specified time limit over which a long-term visa-holder can spend in the UK in any given period — provided each visit does not exceed the maximum period for that stay, typically 6 months. As such, even though a multiple-entry visa will not allow an overseas national to come to the UK for more than 6 months at any one time, it will enable the visa-holder to enjoy multiple UK trips over prolonged periods. In this way, the visa-holder will not be required to re-apply for a visa every time they decide to visit the UK, but can use the same visa a number of times over its’ specified period of validity.
Equally, a standard visitor visa, provided that this is not endorsed as ‘single’ or ‘dual-entry’, can be used multiple times. This means that the visa-holder can depart and re-enter the UK as many times as they want within the visa’s validity period, up to a maximum of 6 months.
If a visitor holds a multiple-entry visa and they want to stay for longer than their visa expiry date, it is also possible for them to apply to extend their permission for up to the maximum 6 months permitted for standard visitors. For example, if a visitor arrives in the January and their long-term visitor visa is due to expire in the March, provided they continue to meet the visitor rules, they can extend for up to 6 months as a standard visitor, until the June.
An in-country application can also be made to extend a standard visa, so as to complete the full 6 months in the UK as a visitor where a shorter period has initially been granted, although an application must be made before the original permission expires.
What are the risks for visitors of multiple prolonged stays?
Under the visitor rules, provided each stay in the UK does not exceed the permitted length of stay endorsed on the visa, this does not, of itself, prevent a visitor from using their visa for multiple stays in quick succession. However, this is where the rules become tricky.
To be eligible for a visa, visitors must meet a genuine visitor requirement. Under this requirement, amongst other things, they must not use their visa to live in the UK for extended periods through frequent and successive visits, or make the UK their main home. As such, where a long-term visitor visa is used for multiple prolonged stays over a short timeframe, this may raise suspicions that the visa-holder’s intentions are not genuine.
In those cases where an individuals’ recent travel history reveals back-to-back visits, each one up to the maximum 6-month time limit, this is likely to be construed by immigration officials as a breach of the rules. This means that, on arrival in the UK, a visa-holder may be refused entry. They also run the risk of having their visitor visa curtailed, presenting potentially insurmountable difficulties when re-applying for entry clearance at a later date.
Equally, for those citizens of countries that qualify for visa-free travel to the UK, known as non-visa nationals, in circumstances where their travel history reveals excessive visits within a short space of time, they may also find themselves being refused entry on arrival. Having been refused entry, these individuals would be well-advised to apply for a visa in advance before seeking to re-enter the UK although, as with non-visa nationals subject to immigration control, any adverse immigration history may still work against them.
Ironically, therefore, the mythical 180-day rule can still be applied in practice. This is because visiting the UK for more than 180 days in a 12-month period could lead to a finding by both immigration officials at a UK port of entry, and Home Office caseworkers tasked with making a visa decision, that an individual is a non-genuine visitor.
Importantly, in the official Home Office ‘Visit guidance’ on how to assess if an applicant is making the UK their main home, caseworkers are advised to check a visitor’s travel history, including how long they are spending in the UK and how frequently they are returning. Specifically, caseworkers are advised to look at the number of visits made over the course of the past 12 months, including the length of stay on each occasion, the time elapsed since the last visit and if this amounts to them spending more time in the UK than in their home country. So whilst the ‘UK visitor visa 180 days rule’ is not in any way codified, adherents to this myth do tend to have less trouble being granted entry to the UK as visitors.
What are the immigration options for longer term stays?
Notwithstanding the potential risks for regular visitors to the UK around long-term visitor visas, provided this type of visa is not used excessively, they can still be an ideal way to visit the UK a number of times over several years. Importantly, if a person holds a multiple-entry visa, it is likely that their reasons for visiting the UK will differ over time and should not, of itself, cast any doubt on their genuineness and credibility. This is permissible, provided the via-holder continues to intend to undertake one or more of the permitted visitor activities.
However, for overseas nationals who would like a more reliable option for longer term stays, the type of visa potentially available will very much depend on the reason for them coming to the UK. Under the UK’s Immigration Rules, there are various long-term visa options for those looking to come to the UK to work, to study or to join immediate relatives.
There are various different work visas under the rules, each with their own route-specific requirements, such as having the offer of a job that meets the minimum skill and salary requirements from a UK-licensed sponsor for the skilled worker visa. There are also certain unsponsored longer term work routes, including the global talent visa and the graduate visa, plus the scale up visa, sponsored only for the first 6 months of work in the UK.
The conditions of stay and length of time granted under a work visa can vary, depending on the chosen route, although many work visas will provide the successful visa-holder with a path to settlement. This means that, provided the visa-holder meets a continuous residence requirement, they can eventually apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK.
Even though a foreign visitor can study for up to 6 months in the UK under a long-term visitor visa, provided certain eligibility requirements are met, for overseas nationals looking to undertake a lengthy course of study in the UK, they will need a student visa.
An applicant can apply for a student visa to undertake a course of study in the UK if they have been offered a place on a course by a UK-licensed sponsor and have enough money to support themselves. The student visa-holder will then be permitted to stay in the UK for the full duration of their course. On successful completion of their studies, the visa-holder will also have the option of applying for an unsponsored graduate visa to look for work.
There are various long-term family visas available to allow an overseas national to live with their immediate family in the UK, including a spouse visa, a visa for parents of children living in the UK and a visa for adult dependent relatives. These visas are specifically aimed at overseas nationals coming to live with someone already settled in the UK. As such, the successful visa-holder, provided they continue to meet the eligibility requirements, will eventually be able to apply for ILR to be able to settle in the UK themselves.
It is also possible for immediate relatives of overseas nationals to apply for a visa as the dependant of someone currently in the UK with permission as either a migrant worker or student. This may represent a more suitable long-term alternative to a visitor visa, allowing overseas couples and their children to live together in the UK until the permission of the primary visa-holder comes to an end and they are required to return to their home country.
Importantly, however, before deciding on the right visa, it is always best to seek expert immigration advice, exploring all available options to help decide which one works best.
180 day rule FAQs
Is the UK 180 day rule per visit or per year?
The 180-day rule for UK visitors applies per visit, not per year. Under the visitor rules, an overseas national can cumulatively stay for more than 180 days in any 12-month period over the course of two or more separate trips.
Can I leave the UK after 6 months and come back?
It is possible to stay in the UK for up to 6 months under a long-term visitor visa, and then depart and return shortly after, provided the visa is not being used to live in the UK for extended periods.
How many times can you visit UK in a year?
Under a multiple-entry visa, you can visit the UK several times over a 12-month period, limited to 6 months each stay, where the rule that a person cannot stay more than 180 days in any given year is a myth.
Can I leave and reenter UK on visitor visa?
You can leave and re-enter the UK under a multiple-entry visitor visa, although you must not use your visa to live in the UK for extended periods through frequent and successive visits, or to make the UK your main home.
Last updated: 11 January 2023