UK Immigration: How to Move to Britain


If you’re looking to come to the UK, either to live, work, study, or settle on a permanent basis, it is important to understand how the UK immigration system works. This will allow you to make an informed choice about which type of visa to apply for based on what your chosen immigration route will offer and how much this will cost.

The following UK immigration guide provides an overview of the UK’s immigration rules and routes, from how this system is structured and the different types of immigration categories, to the potential costs involved in moving to the UK.


How is UK immigration structured?

In the UK, the immigration system is divided into a number of different immigration routes, depending on the basis on which an overseas national is looking to come to the UK and their personal circumstances. There are employment-based and family-based visas, many of which will allow an overseas national to apply to permanently settle in the UK. There are also different visas to be able to come to the UK to undertake a course of studies, or ways in which an individual can seek asylum in the UK as a refugee.


What are the different UK immigration routes available?

Below we set out the different types of immigration routes available to overseas nationals, including work visas, family visas, study visas and settlement visas. We also look briefly at the rules for those with status under the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS), together with the rules for asylum seekers who do not meet the criteria for any other immigration route.


UK business & work visas

The most popular type of work visa is the Skilled Worker visa, where an overseas national can come to the UK to work in a sponsored job role for a period of up to 5 years. This visa can also be renewed an unlimited number of times, provided the visa-holder continues to meet the relevant route-specific requirements. To be eligible under the Skilled Worker immigration route, an individual must have the offer from a UK licensed sponsor of a genuine job role that meets certain minimum skill and salary requirements.

There are also other employment-based immigration routes that do not require the offer of a job, including the Global Talent visa and the High Potential Individual (HPI) visa. The HPI visa will allow an overseas national with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree from an eligible university in the last 5 years to come to the UK for either 2 or 3 years, depending on the level of their qualification. In contrast, the Global Talent visa, for leaders or potential leaders in academia or research, arts and culture, or digital technology, is for overseas nationals to come to the UK for up to 5 years at a time. The Global Talent visa can be renewed any number of times, and although the HPI visa cannot be extended, visa-holders may be eligible to switch into another immigration route from within the UK.

For overseas nationals looking to set up a business in the UK, provided this is something different from anything else on the market, and an endorsing body is satisfied that the business idea is viable and there are legitimate funds to make this a success, entrepreneurs can apply for the innovator founder visa. This will typically be granted for up to 3 years but can be extended, provided the visa-holder continues to meet the relevant requirements.

There are a number of other work visas, such as the sponsored temporary work visas across various different industry sectors, as well as the five sponsored global business mobility (GBM) visas to work for an overseas employer in the UK. However, as with the HPI visa, permission under these immigration routes cannot usually be renewed, although a visa-holder may be eligible to apply to switch into a more long-term visa category from the UK.


UK study visas

There are different types of study-based visas, depending on the age of the overseas student looking to study in the UK and the length of their course. The most popular route is the Student visa route, aimed at over 16’s who have the offer of a place from a UK licensed sponsor to undertake, for example, an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in the UK.

A Student visa will only last for as long as the course, although a visa-holder may be able to extend their stay if needed to complete their course or to progress on to an academically higher course, for example, from an undergraduate to a postgraduate degree. A successful graduate may also be eligible to apply for a Graduate visa. This will allow an overseas national to stay in the UK for at least 2 years after completion of their UK course, during which time they can look for work and will not need a sponsor to do so. Prior to expiry of their Graduate visa, the visa-holder can then switch into a more long-term immigration route, provided they meet the route-specific requirements for a different route.


UK family visas

There are two main types of family visas, including those for overseas nationals who are closely related to either a British or Irish citizen or someone otherwise settled in the UK, and those for dependants looking to accompany or follow to join the principal applicant or primary visa-holder under one of the employment or study-based routes.

Under a dependent visa, the partner or child of a worker or student can come to the UK, provided they meet the relevant relationship requirement. In these circumstances, the dependant will be granted permission to live in the UK in line with the validity of the visa held by the worker or student. This means that if the main visa-holder applies to extend their stay, their dependants will also need to apply to be able to stay longer in the UK.

In contrast, a partner or parent visa for example, will be granted for a period of 2 years and 9 months if applying from overseas, and 2 years and 6 months if applying from inside the UK. This can also be extended shortly prior to expiry of this validity period.


UK indefinite leave 

A Settlement visa refers to the grant of indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK under any one of a number of immigration routes, provided the applicant satisfies a continuous lawful residence requirement under that route. For example, under the Skilled Worker route, the visa-holder would potentially be eligible for ILR having lived in the UK on this route for a period of 5 years. Equally, for most partners and parents on a family visa, they too would potentially qualify for ILR after a period of 5 years. In contrast, anyone on the Innovator Founder or Global Talent routes may be eligible to settle after just 3 years in the UK.

In most cases, in addition to the continuous residence requirement, the applicant would also need to prove their knowledge of the English language and life in the UK. This is to ensure that permanent residents can communicate sufficiently to be able to integrate well with their local community, and that they have adequate knowledge of British customs and traditions, and of the British laws and political system.


EU settled status 

The EUSS scheme was introduced after Brexit to enable EEA and Swiss citizens who were already living in the UK to retain their lawful status im the UK by applying for either settled or pre-settled status. The deadline for applying was 30 June 2021, although there are limited circumstances in which overseas nationals can still apply. Those with pre-settled status under the EUSS can also apply for settled status after they have lived lawfully in the UK for a period of 5 years. The grant of settled status is similar to the grant of ILR under any other immigration route, allowing an overseas national to live in the UK without any restrictions.


Seeking asylum in the UK

For those overseas nationals who have fled their country and are unable to return because they fear prosecution, the UK immigration system is currently set up to provide refuge for these people. However, these individuals must apply for asylum to stay in the UK as a refugee, satisfying the Home Office that they are unable to live safely in any part of their own country because they fear persecution due to, for example, their religion or race.

It may also be possible for an overseas national to join a partner or parent in the UK who already has leave to remain as a refugee or humanitarian protection under the family route.

A person with refugee status may be eligible to apply to settle in the UK after 5 years.


Who can apply under the different UK immigration routes?

When it comes to the different UK immigration routes, each category is aimed at specific groups of overseas nationals, with various route-specific requirements. In many cases, for example, when it comes the various employment-based visas, the overseas national must be over 18 and meet a number of other eligibility criteria, providing detailed documentary evidence in support of their application. In the context of the various family-based visas, as well as dependant visas for the partner or dependent child of a foreign worker or student, there will be a strict relationship requirement, together with other eligibility criteria.

Taking advice will help ensure you have considered all relevant immigration options and that you apply for a suitable route. This way, any immigration application will stand the best possible chance of being approved. The immigration options will be used on factors such nationality, what you are coming to the UK to do, for example, to work or study, or to live with immediate family, and the proposed length of stay.


Can you apply to come to the UK?

There are a number of immigration routes that will eventually enable an overseas national to settle in the UK. However, in most cases, the applicant will first need to successfully apply for limited leave to remain in the UK before being eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain, commonly referred to as either ILR or settlement.

For an applicant looking to live in the UK on a permanent basis, if they are granted leave for a period less than the qualifying period required for ILR, they will first need to apply for an extension of stay on their chosen immigration route. Having met the qualifying continuous lawful residence requirement, they can then apply to settle in the UK. For example, an applicant for a Skilled Worker visa may initially be granted entry clearance for a period of 3 years, but would need to have lived in the UK for a continuous period of 5 years before being eligible to apply for indefinite leave. This means that they would need to apply for an extension under the Skilled Worker route before being able to apply to settle.

Importantly, when applying for an extension of stay, an application must be submitted to the Home Office prior to expiry of the existing visa. In this way, the visa-holder will be permitted to stay in the UK pending the outcome of their application. This also means that they will not break their lawful continuous residence for the purposes of applying for ILR.


How much do UK immigration applications cost?

The most up-to-date Home Office visa fees are valid from 13 April 2023. Different visa categories incur different application fees, and there may also be a difference in cost depending when applying from overseas or applying from inside the UK. For example, the cost of applying for a Student visa from outside the UK for both the main applicant and dependants is £363 each. In contrast, the cost of applying for a settlement visa as an adult dependant relative is £3,250.

In addition to the application fee, an applicant looking to live in the UK for more than 6 months will usually be required to pay a healthcare surcharge. This is an annual cost of £624 per year to enable overseas nationals to access the UK’s National Health Service, although the surcharge is reduced to £470 for students and those under 18. The application fee and annual surcharge will also be in addition to meeting any financial requirement.

The financial requirement is applicable on a number of different immigration routes, where both the main applicant and any dependants applying with them would each need to show access to a minimum sum of savings as evidence that they will be able to support themselves on arrival in the UK. For the main applicant, this will be £1,270, reduced to £285 for a partner, £315 for the first child and £200 for any additional children. This requirement will only need to be met when applying for entry clearance or where the applicant has been living in the UK for a period of less than 12 months.

Finally, when thinking about emigrating to the UK, more than one visa application will often be needed, so these additional costs will need to be factored in, not to mention the cost to apply for settlement. For example, to apply for settlement as a Skilled Worker, the cost will be £2,404 for the main visa-holder and each dependant applying. There will also be a fee to take any English language and Life in the UK test, where applicable.


UK immigration FAQs

How can I emigrate to the UK?

To emigrate to the UK, you will need to lawfully live in the UK on an immigration route providing a path to settlement. For example, after 5 years on a Skilled Worker visa, you can apply to settle.

What is UK immigration status?

UK immigration status refers to the permission you will need to be able to come to the UK or stay in the UK. This is referred to as either entry clearance, limited leave to remain or indefinite leave to remain.

Last updated: 21 June 2023

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

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