The United Kingdom (UK) hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, drawn by its rich array of attractions, from Stonehenge to the British Museum. Whether for tourism, business, short courses, or family visits, the demand for UK visitor visas continues to rise. In the year ending March 2023 alone, there were 2,012,116 visa applications—an increase from the previous year. This guide covers everything you need to know about obtaining a UK visitor visa, from eligibility to the application process and potential complications.
Who Requires a Visitor Visa?
If you are a citizen of a country listed on the Visa National List, you will need a visitor visa to enter the UK for permitted activities. Some exceptions apply, so always check the list for updates before applying or traveling.
Citizens not on this list can theoretically enter without a visa, but entry is at the discretion of an Immigration Officer at the border and can be refused for valid reasons. Seek legal advice if you have a complex immigration and criminal history that might affect your entry.
Purpose of Visit and Types of Visitor Visas:
To help determine the right visitor visa for your purpose, consult the exhaustive list of activities outlined in Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities. The four main types of visitor visas are:
- Marriage / Civil Partnership Visitor Visa: For those coming to the UK for marriage or civil partnership.
- Permitted Paid Engagement Visitor Visa: Designed for experts in their fields with specific paid engagements lasting one month or less.
- Transit Visitor Visa: For those transiting through the UK for 48 hours or less on their way to another country outside of the Common Travel Area.
- Standard Visitor Visa: Covers all other reasons for visiting the UK, including tourism and visiting family and friends. This is the focus of this article.
Requirements for a Visitor Visa:
To be considered a 'genuine visitor' you must meet the following criteria:
- Intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit.
- Not plan to make the UK your main home or stay for prolonged periods.
- Seek entry for a purpose allowed under the visitor route i.e. those listed in Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities.
- Not engage in prohibited activities, such as working or taking paid employment (Work is viewed as distinctly different from business activities by the Home Office).
- Have sufficient funds to cover expenses related to your visit without working or claiming benefits. This encompasses the cost of the return or onward journey, any expenses for dependents, and any planned activities in the UK such as private medical treatment.
In addition to being a 'genuine visitor,' you must also meet Part 9: Grounds for Refusal under the Immigration Rules, meaning no recent, serious criminal convictions or adverse immigration and criminal history.
How and When to Apply:
The application process involves completing an online form, submitting supporting documents, paying the relevant fee, and attending an appointment at a Visa Application Centre. Remember that your passport will be retained during processing, so plan accordingly. Apply 4-6 weeks before your intended travel date, with the earliest application window being 3 months in advance.
If the application is granted, it will be endorsed with an entry clearance vignette i.e. the visa which you will need to show at the border when entering the UK
Timeframes and Fees:
The Home Office processing time is currently approx. 15 working days for a standard visitor visa application, although it can take longer. There may be a priority service available for you depending on which centre you are attending for your appointment as well as other special services. The Home Office fees for a standard visitor visa application range from £115 to £963 depending on the length of the visa.
How long can you stay in the UK on a standard visitor visa?
A standard visitor visa can be issued for 6 months, 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years. However, regardless of the visa's validity, you must not stay in the UK for more than 6 months at a time, unless otherwise specified.
In reality, the Home Office expects you not to stay in the UK for a full 6 months unless you have a specific reason for doing so.
1. Top tips for a successful visitor visa application:
- Explain and evidence all your ties to your home country as the Home Office needs to be satisfied that you will return home at the end of your visit. Ties to your home country could include dependents and close family members, a job, regular pension payments or owning a property.
- Explain and evidence how you will financially support and maintain yourself during your journey to and stay in the UK. For example, if there's a third party sponsoring you, you need evidence that he/she has sufficient funds to do so by providing details of his/hers income or savings and housing.
- Explain and evidence your reasons for visiting the UK.
- Seek legal advice if you have a complex immigration and criminal history.
2. Do you need an immigration solicitor to make an application for a visitor visa?
While applying for a visitor visa can seem straightforward, overlooking crucial details can lead to a refusal. Visa refusals are not only a problem in the short term but may also be a problem in the long term as they will likely impact your immigration history and make it more difficult to secure future visas. Engaging an immigration solicitor can significantly increase your chances of success. The grant rate for visitor visas has decreased, making professional guidance invaluable.
3. What to do if your application is refused:
If your application is refused, you have two options:
I) Submit a fresh application – It is straightforward to apply again and may be worth doing if you have new information or evidence or if you did not previously submit a valid application. However, if there is no change in circumstances this may not be worth doing. It is also important to note that previous immigration refusals are likely to impact your chances of success.
II) Lodge a Judicial Review application – This option should be pursued after receiving legal advice as it can be complex. If you believe the Home Office’s decision to be unlawful or unfair you can apply to the court for this decision to be reviewed by a judge. The first step in doing so is to adhere to the Judicial Review Pre-Action Protocol and send the Home Office a letter before action. Cases are often resolved at the pre-action stage meaning there is no longer any need to go to court.
4. Can you extend your visitor visa or switch to another type of visa from within the UK?
Generally, you are allowed to stay a maximum of 6 months during each visit to the UK and are not permitted to extend your visitor visa. However, in some very specific circumstances such as if you are due to marry or are receiving urgent medical treatment you may be able to apply to extend your visitor visa from within the UK.
You are also not normally able to switch to another type of visa from within the UK. A visitor visa is designed for temporary visits rather than long-term stays. However, if you are in fear of your life if you return to your country of origin, you should seek legal advice on the options available to you.
5. What happens if you overstay beyond the expiry of your visa?
Overstaying the expiry of your visitor visa is a breach of UK immigration law and can have serious consequences. You will become an overstayer and this can lead to any of the following things happening.
- You may be detained and subsequently administratively removed from the UK;
- You may face a re-entry ban preventing you from returning to the UK for a specific period of time;
- It may have an adverse impact on your ability to obtain future UK visas as future applications may be refused or subjected to increased scrutiny; and
- It may have an adverse impact on your general immigration history affecting your ability to obtain visas for and travel to, other countries.
If you find yourself in a situation where you've overstayed your visa, it's crucial to seek legal advice from an immigration solicitor. Understanding the process and seeking professional guidance can greatly improve your chances of a successful visitor visa application.