How to Get a Student Visa to Study in the UK

student visa
advice for students
Heriot-Watt University UK
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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on August 11, 2023

Learn how to become eligible for a university education in the United Kingdom.

Heriot-Watt University UK

A hand holds a British passport for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom (UK) is a popular choice for international study, and with top-ranked universities, wide-ranging career opportunities, and respected degrees, it’s easy to see why. But before you commit to a university in London, Edinburgh, or Cambridge, you must understand your UK student visa requirements. Here’s what you need to know about the student visa process in the UK and how to best prepare for your UK educational journey.

What You Need to Know About Your UK Student Visa

Of the 5.6 million international students across the globe in 2020, 10% were studying in the United Kingdom. The UK is the second-most popular international destination for students and ranked second-best for education. Policies in England, Scotland, and Wales encourage international students to come to study, with higher education experts recommending students start the visa process six months before they start courses.

According to UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI), there are four major requirements to studying in the UK if you are 16 or older:

  1. A licensed student sponsor has accepted your application to study

  2. You can support yourself and pay for your course

  3. You can speak, read, write, and understand English

  4. If you’re 16 or 17, you have your parents’ consent

Each year, hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world are granted permission to take courses in the UK. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in the 2020-2021 school year, first-year international students in the UK came from the following countries and regions:

  • China: 99,965

  • India: 87,045

  • Other Asia (not China or India): 66,950

  • Total EU: 31,400

  • Nigeria: 32,945

  • North America: 20,065

  • Middle East: 16,905

  • Africa (non-Nigerian): 12,735

You can arrive in the UK up to a month before your program starts, as long as your program lasts six months or more, but you can only come to the UK after the start date listed on your visa.

How to Obtain a UK Student Visa

UKVI breaks the United Kingdom student visa process into six manageable steps:

  1. Confirm you are eligible to study in the UK: Are you applying for the correct visa?

  2. Prepare the needed evidence: Compile the financial, health, and educational documents to process your visa application.

  3. Apply (from within or outside the UK): Fill out and pay for your visa application and conduct your credibility interview.

  4. Check what you can bring into the UK: In other words, pack responsibly.

  5. Check what you need to show at the UK border: Make sure all border security-required documents are easily accessible in your carry-on.

  6. Prep for after you arrive in the UK: Learn about your visa restrictions, the requirements for extending your visa, and for which work opportunities you qualify.

Understanding the requirements of each step before you start applying for a UK student visa will not only take the pressure off the application process, but also increase your chances of success.

Am I Eligible for a UK Student Visa?

Before applying for your UK student visa, you must apply to and be accepted by an eligible university, called a licensed student sponsor. The proof of your offered role at a licensed student sponsor is called a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS). Other eligibility requirements include:

  • Being 16 years of age or older

  • Having the financial means to pay for your international education

  • Speaking English proficiently

The documentation you submit or present during the interview stage of your visa application process will determine your eligibility. The next step is to make sure you have and can access the paperwork you need.

Do I Have the Necessary Evidence?

You may need four types of documentation to prepare for your visa application.

1. Eligibility

At the most fundamental level, you need to have a passport, as well as your CAS letter. Depending on your circumstances, you may also have to show additional documentation to get your UK student visa.

2. English Proficiency

You must also be able to prove you can read, write, speak, and understand the English language either by a test — such as a Secure English Language Test (SELT) from an approved provider — or by attending a UK school before you were 18 and meeting specific grade requirements, depending on the location and level of your study as well as your country of origin.

If you are from the following countries, you may not need to show proof of English language proficiency:

  • Antigua and Barbuda

  • Australia

  • The Bahamas

  • Barbados

  • Belize

  • The British overseas territories

  • Canada

  • Dominica

  • Grenada

  • Guyana

  • Ireland

  • Jamaica

  • Malta

  • New Zealand

  • St. Kitts and Nevis

  • St. Lucia

  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Trinidad and Tobago

  • UK

  • USA

3. Tuberculosis (TB) Tests

If you plan to stay for more than six months, you are required to have the appropriate TB tests. The test consists of a chest x-ray and potentially a lung sputum sample if the x-ray is unclear. If your tests are clear, you will receive a six-month certificate of eligibility to include with your UK student visa application.

You may not need a TB examination if you aren’t from or haven’t lived in certain areas or countries. It’s a good idea to review the following lists to see which requirements you need to fulfill:

4. Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)

Lastly, you may be required to apply for an Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS), depending on your area of study (for instance, if you are coming to the United Kingdom to study courses related to military technology and weaponry). The certificate applies primarily to those studying for advanced degrees, but may also apply to certain undergraduate subjects.

If you think your area of study may be subject to the ATAS requirement, confirm you need an ATAS certificate and then learn how to apply.

How to Apply for Your UK Student Visa

After you confirm your eligibility and prepare your documents, it’s time to begin your student route UK visa application. The best place to apply is online from your country of origin. Remember, you can’t apply more than six months before your program start date. In addition, to complete the process, you will have to prove your identity in one of the following ways:

  • Provide your fingerprints and a photograph (biometric information) at a visa application center

  • Create or sign into your UKVI account and use the ‘UK Immigration: ID Check’ app to scan your identity document

The application fee is currently £363, but subject to change. It takes approximately three weeks to receive a decision regarding your application, but you may be able to pay a fee to reduce your wait time. There is also a health care surcharge as part of the application process — see how much you’ll have to pay before you apply.

The fee to extend if you’re already in the UK on a student visa (or a Tier 4 [General] visa) is £490, as is the fee to switch to a student visa from a different visa if you are already in the UK. In either case, the average wait time is approximately eight weeks.

You can stay in the United Kingdom as a student for up to five years if you are 18 or older and your course is at degree level.

The Credibility Interview

As part of the UK student route visa process, you may have an interview with the UKVI to determine that you are who you say you are and that you meet the basic requirements for eligibility discussed above. The credibility interview is conducted via video and in English.

During your UK student visa interview, prepare to discuss:

  • Your area of study

  • Why you chose your university

  • Why you want to come to the UK

  • How you made your decision

  • Where you plan to live

  • How you will finance your studies

If this sounds stressful — don’t worry! All you have to do is answer honestly, but it does help to think about the following questions before your interview – or practice a mock interview with your education counselor – so that you are confident when the day comes.

What to Pack and What to Expect after you Arrive in the UK

You have completed your visa process and booked transportation to the United Kingdom. However, before you start packing, make sure you know the following:

  • What is — and what is not — OK to bring into the UK

  • What to pack in your carry-on so you can get through border control

What You Can Bring into the UK on a Student Visa

If you are a regular traveler, you will recognize that most restricted items for UK travel are similar to international travel guidelines in many other countries. Remember, you can pack only the travel limits for items such as liquids, medical supplies, or cosmetics, even if you are moving to the UK for a long time. Familiarize yourself with what you can pack in your hand luggage first, then consider which goods are allowed in the UK and, if applicable, which plants and animals.

Since the pandemic, cash use has diminished in the UK; most people pay with card transactions. That said, you should still have some pounds sterling for emergencies.

What You Should Pack for Border Control

Everyone entering the United Kingdom must present a passport or identity card, and, depending on where you are from, you may have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test as well. When presenting your proof of identity to border control, act maturely, remove face coverings or sunglasses, and stick together if you are with your family.

If you are from an eligible country, you may want to become a registered traveler, which allows you to use ePassport and UK passport lanes for expedited transit through border crossing. And, as always, when traveling, be sure you know your rights as an international citizen in an unfamiliar airport.

Now That You Have Arrived in the UK, What Can You Expect?

As an international student on a student visa, your primary reason for being in the UK is to study. That said, you also have access — and are encouraged — to participate in several career-based and socially enriching experiences while in the UK. Start by applying for your biometric residency permit (BRP) to help you show you are a student and have a right to study. BRPs are available to students who did not use the UK Immigration: ID Check app when applying to stay in the UK. If you use the app, you can verify your information online.

Working While on Student Visa in the UK

You can work up to 20 hours a week while enrolled in a full-time program at your university and full time during vacations. Students can only work temporarily in the UK, and there are specific rules about which types of jobs are available. For instance, you cannot:

  • Be self-employed

  • Engage in business activity or take an executive role at a business

  • Fill a permanent full-time role

After Graduation

Program graduates can work in the UK on a student visa for up to four months. If you want to continue your stay in the UK, you have two choices:

  1. Apply for permission as a Skilled Worker: You must have a job offer that meets salary, occupation type, and other requirements

  2. Apply for a Graduate route visa: A Graduate visa lasts two years, unless you have a doctoral qualification, which is for three years.

Make Your UK Student Visa Process Successful

There are several reasons student route visas are denied to international students, but most have to do with funding and paperwork. Having insufficient funding or incorrect banking information are two common causes. Another common reason for student visa denial is missing academic documents listed as required on your CAS.

Shorelight advisors have helped thousands of international students, from school selection and application assistance to academic, social, and career prep support long after they arrive on campus. Our team has the experience to guide you through the visa application process so you can feel confident and ready to study in the UK.

Reach out to a Shorelight advisor today >