Whether expats are planning to travel, take up a short-term job offer or make a more permanent move to the UK, they’ll likely need to apply for a visa and obtain the necessary paperwork. The process and availability of certain types of visas vary according to nationality.

The implications of Brexit on visas and work permits have been confusing for many European Union (EU) citizens looking to move to the UK. Recently, a points-based immigration system has been introduced, and EU and non-EU nationals are treated equally. Irish nationals are still able to freely visit, live and work in the UK. EU, EEA and Swiss citizens can enter the UK and stay for up to six months without a visa. That said, for longer durations or stays for other reasons (such as to work or study), both European and non-European expats will need a visa. There are several work visas to choose from, and expats should take the time to investigate exactly which type applies to their circumstances.

Fortunately, the official GOV.UK website provides up-to-date information on visas and immigration. Additionally, all prospective expats are encouraged to contact their local embassy or consulate for the latest requirements.

To get a general idea of the regulations and requirements, we've put together a summary of some of the most commonly used visas for the UK.

Standard visitor visas for the United Kingdom

The standard visitor visa allows for tourism, medical purposes, short courses of study, certain business activities and academic research, and is valid for six months.

Foreigners visiting the UK on holiday may need a standard visitor visa depending on their nationality. Irish citizens can continue to enter and live in the UK, EU, EEA and Swiss citizens can travel to the UK for holidays or short trips without needing a visa. In other cases, find out if you need to apply for a visa to enter the UK. You can cross the UK border using a valid passport which should be valid for the whole time you are in the UK. EU, EEA and Swiss citizens can continue to use the automatic ePassport gates to pass through the border on arrival.

You cannot use an EU, EEA or Swiss national ID card to enter the UK unless you:

  • have settled or pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, or Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man’s settlement schemes
  • have an EU Settlement Scheme family permit, or the equivalent from Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man
  • have a frontier worker permit
  • are an S2 Healthcare Visitor
  • are a Swiss national and have a Service Provider from Switzerland visa

In these cases, you can continue to use your national ID card to enter the UK until at least 31 December 2025.

That said, non-European nationals must apply for a standard visitor visa.

To get a standard visitor visa for the UK, applicants must show that they intend to leave the UK at the end of their visit. This may be in the form of proof of onward travel or a return ticket. Applicants will generally need proof of sufficient funds to support their travels without working, and may be asked for proof of planned accommodation.

Foreign nationals who enter the UK on a visitor visa aren't able to take up any paid or unpaid employment and they cannot obtain public funds, nor can they get married or enter into a civil partnership.

Student visas for the United Kingdom

Expats who want to take short-term courses may be able to apply for a standard visitor visa. Longer-term courses will require a student visa.

Expats aged 16 and over who have been accepted into an academic programme by a licensed student sponsor can apply for a student visa. Applicants will also need enough money to support themselves and be fluent in English. Parental consent is required from applicants under 18.

The validity of student visas depends on the course. Degree-level courses typically allow for five years in the UK; below that, validity is up to two years.

Expats on student visas may be able to work, depending on what they are studying and whether the work would take place during or outside of semester time. 

Family visas for the United Kingdom

Family visas allow expats to move to the UK to live with a family member for more than six months. Family members can include a spouse or partner, child, parent or relative. Note that the fees for a family visa vary based on how and where an applicant applies. Generally, costs are lower when applying from within the UK.

Applying for a visa for the United Kingdom

Before moving to the UK, expats will need to determine the appropriate visa for their situation and undergo the relevant application process.

It is best to apply for a UK visa well before the intended date of travel, as it's difficult to predict processing times and whether delays might arise along the way. The visa application process is also likely to be different in each expat's home country, so applicants need to research the appropriate process for their country of origin. 

Those applying for certain visas for the UK will also need to provide biometric information (fingerprints and facial image). This will be collected at the visa application centre. 

Applicants may have additional requirements depending on their nationality and the type of visa for which they are applying. For example, work visa applications may also require proof of tuberculosis screening and proof of their knowledge of English. 

Permanent residence in the United Kingdom 

Expats who want to remain in the United Kingdom for the long term may be eligible to apply for permanent residence. Those who have lived legally in the UK for a certain length of time – usually five years – can apply, depending on the category of visa they currently possess.

Being a permanent resident means an individual has indefinite leave to remain (ILR) in the UK and is free from immigration control. These expats also have the freedom to live and work in the UK without restrictions. Those with indefinite leave to remain have a visa status known as ‘settled status’, which is a step towards naturalisation as a British citizen. 

There are a number of ways an expat can qualify for ILR. Generally, the applicant must have lived in the UK continuously for five years, but spouses of British citizens can apply for ILR after three years. Those who apply for ILR status cannot have been outside the UK for longer than six months at any time during the relevant period. 

It is also beneficial for applicants to demonstrate that they have strong ties to the UK and consider it home – for example, owning property or business in the country.

Permanent residents who only spend short periods of time in the UK may risk losing their ILR status. In cases such as this, expats should consider applying for British citizenship as soon as they can, which is usually a year after being granted ILR status.

EU Settlement Scheme

In the wake of Brexit, EU, EEA and Swiss expats living in or moving to the UK must check whether or not they need a visa or work permit. The GOV.UK website has a ‘Brexit checker’ where expats can get immigration information personalised to their needs.

The EU Settlement Scheme allows EU, EEA and Swiss nationals and their family to continue living in the UK and receive the same rights as they had pre-Brexit. Generally, this scheme applies to those who were already living in the UK by 31 December 2020. As such, these citizens must check the latest regulations for the EU Settlement Scheme and whether they are eligible to apply.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

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