Applying for a UK visa can feel like a daunting process, especially if you are unsure which type of visa you will need to apply for and how to go about making a UK visa application.
The following guide on how to apply for a UK visa looks first at the main UK visa options. We also explain the UK visa application process, from the steps involved, to the potential costs and typical processing times.
Do you need to make a UK visa application?
Depending on your UK immigration status, you may not need to make a UK visa application to come to Britain.
If you have British citizenship or Irish citizenship, or if you have UK settled status such as under the EU settlement scheme or Indefinite Leave to Remain, you will not need to apply for permission to enter the UK.
UK visa options
The UK offers a broad range of visas that allow foreign nationals and non-residents permission to come to Britain for specific purposes – whether to visit, transit through, work, study or join loved ones.
Taking advice on your specific circumstances will help you to understand which route is best for your needs and to ensure you are meeting the specific application requirements of that visa.
Some of the more commonly-used visa routes for the UK include:
UK visit visas & visa nationals
If you are a citizen of a country that does not qualify for visa-free travel to the UK, known as a visa national, you will need to obtain a visit visa to obtain entry clearance prior to arriving at a UK port-of-entry. A visit visa is the permission given by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the division of the Home Office responsible for the UK’s visa system, to be able to visit the UK for a short period of time. This could be for the purposes of tourism and leisure, or for business purposes, such as attending meetings or conferences.
The standard visa will allow visitors to come to the UK for up to 6 months. In contrast, the long-term visa is for those looking to visit the UK on a regular basis, allowing multiple entries over a validity period of 2, 5 or 10 years, limited to a maximum of 6 months per stay. However, visit visas can only be used to undertake activities permitted under the visitor rules, which exclude paid employment or anything more than a short course of study.
To be eligible for a visit visa you must be able to support yourself and any dependants during your trip, and pay for your return or onward journey. You must also intend to leave the UK at the end of your stay, where a visa must not be used to live in the UK for extended periods through either frequent or successive visits, or to make the UK your main home.
UK visit visas & non-visa nationals
The rules for non-visa nationals – ie those visiting the UK or transiting through the UK and who do not currently require a visa for short stays – are changing. From November 2023, the UK is phasing in a new system known as Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) for certain travellers, including non-visa nationals and Creative Worker visa holders, to secure approval in advance of visiting the UK by completing an online form and paying the application fee. The first phase of the ETA roll out begins 15 November 2023 when nationals of Qatar will be required to apply for an ETA.
From 15 February 2024, the ETA scheme will apply to nationals of Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.
More countries are expected to be added to the scheme at a later date.
UK transit visa
You may need a UK transit visa if you are travelling through a UK airport on your way to another destination within 24 or 48 hours.
A UK transit visa is required if you are on journey to another country, have sufficient funds, and intend to continue travelling; and have proof that you can enter that country; and can demonstrate that your visit to the UK is solely for transit purposes.
You will not need a transit visa to pass through the UK for onward travel if you have valid status under the EU Settlement Scheme, or a valid UK visitor visa, or a valid Marriage Visitor visa, or a valid Home Office travel document.
UK work visas
When applying for a UK work visa, you will need to apply for the right type of visa based on your circumstances, meeting a number of various different route-specific requirements. The main immigration routes when it comes to working in the UK include:
The Skilled Worker visa: This is a sponsored work visa requiring the offer of a job within an eligible skilled occupation from a UK licensed sponsor that meets the applicable salary threshold. You must also meet an English language and financial requirement. If your application for a Skilled Worker visa is successful, you will be permitted to stay in the UK for up to 5 years. You can also extend your stay once you are in the UK as many times as you like, provided you continue to meet the relevant requirements, with the possibility of applying to permanently settle after meeting a 5-year continuous residence requirement.
Health & Care Worker visa: This is a sponsored work visa for those in specific healthcare roles. The benefits of the Health and Care Worker visa include fast-tracked entry to the UK, together with reduced visa fees and exemption from the Immigration Health Surcharge.
The visa is for workers with an authorised employer/sponsor to work under the skilled worker route in one of the occupations specified within a prescribed list of eligible roles. The list of eligible roles is subject to change and you should ensure that your job qualifies when making your application. Currently, eligible roles include, among others, qualified doctors, nurses, health professionals and care workers. The visa can last up to 5 years before the holder has to apply for an extension.
Global Business Mobility visas: The UK’s GBM route comprises five visa categories which deal with specific types of worker and work types for overseas employers. While the GBM rules can may appear complex, such as the employer sponsorship requirements, with professional advice, these routes can form a valuable part of an organisation’s global mobility programme and development of UK-based operations through critical-talent mobility.
The five different types of visa are:
- Senior or Specialist Worker route – replacing the ICT route for senior managers and specialist employees being assigned to a UK business that’s linked to their employer overseas and who wish to undertake a temporary assignment in the UK. If the application is approved, permission will be granted for 5 years after the start date of the job specified in the Certificate of Sponsorship; 14 days after the end date of this job; or the date on which the applicant will have had cumulative permission on the Global Business Mobility and Intra-Company routes totaling 5 years in any 6-year period, or 9 years in any 10-year period if applying as a high earner — whichever is the shortest.
- Graduate Trainee route – overseas nationals transferring to a linked UK business of their overseas employer as part of a graduate training programme for a managerial or specialist role. If successful, permission will be granted for 1 year following the start date of the job specified in the Certificate of Sponsorship; 14 days following the end date of this job; or the date on which the applicant will have had cumulative permission on the Global Business Mobility and Intra-Company routes totaling 5 years in any 6-year period — whichever is the shortest.
- UK Expansion Worker route – overseas nationals being assigned to the UK to set up a UK branch or subsidiary of an overseas business that has not yet started trading in the UK, where the individual must be currently working as either a senior manager or specialist employee. If successful, permission will be granted for 1 year following the start date of the job specified in the Certificate of Sponsorship; 14 days following the end date of this job; the date the applicant will have had continuous permission as a UK Expansion Worker totaling 2 years; or the date the applicant will have had cumulative permission on the Global Business Mobility routes totaling 5 years in any 6-year period — whichever is the shortest.
- Service Supplier route – overseas nationals being assigned to the UK to provide a contractual service for a UK company under a qualifying international trade agreement, as either an employee of an overseas company or a self-employed professional based overseas. If successful, permission will be granted for 14 days following the end date of the job specified in the Certificate of Sponsorship; the date at which the applicant will have had cumulative permission on the Global Business Mobility and Intra-Company routes totaling 5 years in any 6-year period; or the maximum single assignment period for the applicant in question, which will be either 6 or 12 months — whichever is the shortest.
- Secondment Worker route – overseas nationals being seconded to the UK by their overseas employer to work for a UK sponsor as part of a high-value contract or investment. If successful, permission will be granted for 1 year following the start date of the job specified in the Certificate of Sponsorship; 14 days following the end date of this job; the date the applicant will have had continuous permission as a Secondment Worker totaling 2 years; or the date the applicant will have had cumulative permission on the Global Business Mobility and Intra-Company routes totaling 5 years in any 6-year period — whichever is the shortest.
The Graduate visa: This is an unsponsored immigration route that will allow recent overseas graduates, having successfully completed a UK course of study at bachelor’s degree level or above, to undertake work in the UK for either 2 or 3 years. This will provide the flexibility to work at any skill or salary level. Equally, if you secure a suitably skilled and well-salaried job role prior to expiry of this visa, you can apply to switch to the Skilled Worker visa, providing you with a potential path to settlement in the UK.
The Scale-up visa: This is a partly sponsored route, allowing you to come to the UK to do an eligible job for a fast-growing UK business, provided that role meets the minimum salary requirement. You must also meet an English language and financial requirement. Your prospective employer must be an eligible scale-up business and licensed to sponsor this category of worker, although your sponsorship will only last for 6 months. The Scale-up visa will run for a period of 2 years, enabling you to switch to an unsponsored role for someone else, although you must continue to meet the minimum earnings requirement. You can also apply to extend this visa as many times as you like by 3 years and, after continuously living in the UK after 5 years, you can apply to settle on a permanent basis.
Temporary Worker visas: A further option for workers is to apply for a temporary worker visa. These are routes designed for specific types of jobs:
- Creative Workers: overseas nationals who have been offered short-term work within the creative sector in the UK for up to 12 months, who can make a unique contribution to UK culture as either an entertainer or artist, or other type of Creative Worker.
- Charity Workers: overseas nationals who want to undertake voluntary work for a recognised charitable organisation in the UK for a period of up to 12 months.
- Government Authorised Exchange Workers: overseas nationals who want to come to the UK to take part in an approved internship, training, work experience or research programme for a period of up to 2 years.
- International Agreement Workers: overseas nationals who want to provide a service in the UK covered under international law, such as employees of international organisations or private servants in diplomatic households, in most cases, for a period up to 2 years.
- Religious Workers: overseas nationals who want to support the activities of a UK religious institution by undertaking religious work, such as working in a religious order or doing non-pastoral work, for a period of up to 2 years.
- Seasonal Workers: overseas nationals who want to come to the UK to do seasonal horticulture work with an approved scheme operator for a period of up to 6 months.
Temporary worker routes also require sponsorship by an approved employer/sponsor.
UK family visas
If you want to start a whole new life with a loved one who is already living in the UK, you will need to apply for a category of family visa.
There are various different types of family visa, including for the spouse or partner of someone settled in the UK, for children joining a parent living in the UK or for parents of children living in the UK, as well as for adult dependant relatives in need of long-term care.
When applying for any one of these types of visa, whether you are eligible is primarily about whether your UK sponsor falls into one of the accepted categories. For example, the Partner visa is for the spouse or partner of either a British citizen or someone settled in the UK, or someone with refugee status or humanitarian protection. You must also meet the requisite relationship requirement, such as being married to or in a relationship akin to a marriage with your UK sponsor. However, even if you do not meet the requirements for any one of the family visas, you may still be granted a visa on the basis of your right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Taking professional advice on your circumstances will help you determine the most appropriate route.
If you are applying for a family visa from outside the UK, you will be granted a visa for 2 years 9 months as either a partner or parent, or 2 years and 6 months from inside the UK. After this you will need to apply to extend your stay. You may also be able to apply to settle in the UK on a permanent basis after meeting a 5-year continuous residence requirement. In other cases, the length of your visa will depend on the status of your family member.
If your spouse, partner or parent is in the UK temporarily on either a work or study visa, you can instead apply as their dependant. For example, if you are the husband or wife of someone applying or already in the UK on the Skilled Worker route, you can apply to join or accompany your spouse under the same immigration route. This does not mean that you will also need a qualifying job meeting the minimum skill and salary requirements on this route, but you will need to satisfy other criteria, including a relationship requirement. The length of your dependant visa will typically match that of the primary visa-holder.
UK study visas
The short-term study visa is specifically for those studying English language courses for between 6 months and up to 11 months.
To be able to undertake a longer course of study you will need to apply for a sponsored Student visa. You can apply for a Student visa if you are aged 16 or over, have been offered a place on a course by a UK licensed sponsor, and can support yourself and pay for that course. In addition to the financial requirement, you must also meet an English language requirement.
The length of time that you will be permitted to stay in the UK on a Student visa will all depend on the length of your course. For example, if you are aged 18+ and your intended course of study is at degree level, you can typically stay in the UK for up to 5 years, but if your course is below degree level, you can usually only stay for up to 2 years.
UK visa application process
You can apply and pay for most visas online. When making an online UK visa application, you will need to visit the GOV.UK website and select the correct visa type. You will then need to complete your application and pay the fee. You will also need to prove your identity, provide documents to show your eligibility and enrol your biometric information. The way in which you do this will depend on your nationality and passport type.
You may have to attend an appointment at an overseas visa application centre (VAC) if you are applying from outside the UK, or at a UK Visa and Citizenship Application Services (UKVCAS) centre if you are applying from in the UK. In some cases, you may be able to use the ‘UK Immigration: ID Check’ smartphone app, where you will find out if you need to attend an appointment or use the smartphone app when you start your visa application. You will be advised when making your application how you will need to verify your identity.
If you need to attend a VAC or UKVCAS service point, as these are run by third party providers, you will get a link to their website where you can schedule an appointment to provide your biometrics, ie; your fingerprints and photograph. You can also use this appointment to provide your evidence in support of your visa application, unless you have already uploaded this online. For example, if you are applying for a Skilled Worker visa, in addition to having a valid CoS number as proof of a genuine job offer with a licensed UK sponsor, you may also need to provide evidence of your ability to speak English. If, on the other hand, you are applying for a Partner visa, amongst other things, you may need to provide your marriage certificate or proof of your relationship with your UK sponsor.
UK visa application interview
During your visa interview, the officer will be looking to determine that you are genuine applicant and that you meet the general requirements under the UK Immigration Rules and under the visa category you are applying under.
As general advice, you should be honest and open, and give as full answers as you can while staying relevant to the question you’ve been asked.
The questions you could be asked during your visa interview will depend on the type of visa you are applying for, as well as your individual circumstances, such as your travel history and any previous UK immigration applications.
For example, if you’re applying for a visit visa, questions could include:
- Why do you want to visit the UK? Explain the reason for your trip.
- How long will you be in the United Kingdom? Advise of the length of your stay based on your travel plans. If you are travelling to numerous locations in the UK, outline your itinerary and travel plans.
- Who is funding your visit and travel expenses? If you are covering the travel expenses, you may be asked additional financial questions. If someone else is paying your bills, you must mention it.
- Have you ever visited the United Kingdom before? Answer yes or no based on your circumstances. If you have already visited the United Kingdom, include the year of your visit as well as basic information such as the purpose of your visit, length of stay, and so on.
- Do you intend to work in the United Kingdom? Because you are seeking for a visitor’s visa, you should answer ‘no’ and emphasise your intention to return to your home country following your trip.
- Do you have any relatives or friends in the United Kingdom? Answer yes or no. Mention your relationship with any family you have in the UK.
- What are your plans while in the UK? Outline your plans and itinerary.
- Will you be travelling alone, in a group, or with your family? Explain who else, if anyone, will be travelling with you.
- Where will you be staying in the United Kingdom? Provide details of your accommodation while in the UK. This could be a residential address if staying with people you know, or hotel accommodation.
The officer may ask you additional questions to determine whether you have sufficient finances to cover your travel expenses.
UK visa application costs
When it comes to the costs of a UK visa application, there is a fee for each visa. This fee will depend on which visa you apply for, ranging from just £100 for a Standard Visitor visa to £3,250 for an Adult Dependant visa. The fees will also vary depending on whether you are either applying from overseas, to extend your stay in the UK or to switch to another visa.
If you have dependants who would like to come to the UK with you, each individual will need to apply and pay separately, where the fees are the same for each person. You may also each be liable to pay the healthcare surcharge. This surcharge is to grant you access to the UK’s National Health Service and is currently set at £624 per year of stay. This must be paid upfront, although for students and children the charge is reduced to £470 per year.
UK visa application processing times
UKVI processing times vary, depending on a number of factors. The length of time it takes to obtain a visa will depend on the visa type and whether you are applying from overseas or within the UK. For example, a family visa application made overseas can take up to 6 months, compared with 8 weeks from within the UK. In contrast, a work visa will take 3 weeks when applying from overseas and 3 weeks from the UK.
In some cases, you may be able to pay for a faster decision on your UK visa application depending on the type of visa sought, how you apply and where you apply from. However, this does not necessarily guarantee a faster decision on your visa if your application is not straightforward, nor any guarantee that your application is more likely to be successful.
It is always best to seek expert advice before making a UK visa application, not only to ensure that you select the right visa type, but that you meet the relevant requirements and provide the right documentation, so as to maximise the prospects of a successful outcome.
The rules relating to UK visa applications can be extremely complex and subject to constant change. Moreover, where you are planning on working, studying or setting up a new family life in the UK, the consequences of having your application rejected can be significant.
An expert in immigration law can advise you on which UK visa application you will need to make, how to submit your application, what documentation is needed in support and, where relevant, help you prepare for any interview.
DavidsonMorris’ team of immigration legal advisers can support with advice on your immigration options and guidance with your application to the Home Office. For advice on making a UK visa application, contact us.
UK visa application FAQs
How to apply online for UK visa?
When applying online for a UK visa, you will need to visit the GOV.UK website and select the correct visa. You will need to complete your application, pay the fee, provide evidence in support and enrol your biometric information.
How much is UK visa fee?
The fee for a UK visa can vary depending on the visa sought and length of stay, from £100 for a visit visa for up to 6 months to £3,250 to live in the UK as a dependant relative.
How long does it take to get a UK visa?
The processing times for UK visas vary depending on the visa type and where the application is made, for example, a family visa application made overseas can take up to 6 months compared with 8 weeks from within the UK.
What are the requirements for UK visa application?
The requirements for UK visa applications vary, although how you apply not only depends on your visa type but whether you are overseas, or instead inside the UK and extending your current visa or switching from a different visa.
Last updated: 2 February 2023