The UK Settlement Visa Application Process

I have relocated to the UK under a “family of a settled person” visa (my partner is a British Citizen). The process was… interesting. There are many forum and blog posts about it but ultimately I’d say that (outside of the UK government’s excellent website) there’s a dearth of high quality information, so I thought I’d try to summarise the process from my side.

What follows is as terse a summary of events as I could make of a process that took a significant amount of time and effort, spread out over several months. Hopefully it makes sense!

I did look at the Tech Nation Visa Scheme, which I like to think I would have made it in under. I ended up opting to go the “family” route just because I thought it seemed a little easier when I started.

I’d definitely recommend checking out this route if you’re an Australian technology worker/entrepreneur type looking to move/flip up to the UK. I strongly recommend getting in touch with the awesome UK Trade & Investment team, who are very active in Australia helping Aussie companies figure out how best to enter the UK market. They know literally everything you could want to know and are extremely willing to help you figure out your best options.

(Fun side fact: I was approached by UKTI to see if we’d be interested in doing Mammoth stuff in the UK after I participated on a NICTA panel – at Parliament House in Canberra. I thought this was hilariously cheeky – recruiting Australian tech companies at an event literally right under the nose of our government in our nation’s capital.)

My original plan was to arrive in the UK and then apply through the “remain in UK with family” route. However, caught up in the logistics of the actual move from the USA, I didn’t pay enough attention to the documentation – you’re not able to apply this way if you’re in the UK as a visitor, which I was. To clarify, this means that if you’re an Australian and are in the UK through the typical means – i.e., you just rock up and show them your passport and they let you in – this option is not available.

Fortunately, I was heading back to Australia for a friend’s wedding three weeks after arriving in the UK anyway, so applying via the other route – Apply to join family living permanently in the UK – was much less of a problem than it otherwise might have been.

The lawyers

After figuring out which route looked likely, I got in touch with a couple of lawyers to get some advice and pricing estimates.

Some more background here – I’d spent the last two years in the US on an E3 visa. I had a lawyer help me out with this process, thinking that it would be too fraught with danger to try to do it myself. But the actual process seemed to be the lawyer just asks you the exact same questions that are on the various government forms, fills them out on your behalf, and then submits them. Obviously they answer questions and make you feel more comfortable along the way, but they sure charge a premium to help you out.

I got feedback from a two main immigration specialist firms, one in Australia and one in the UK. The Australian mob wanted $400 for an hour-long introductory phone call in which they’d offer some initial advice. From there you could proceed yourself armed with that knowledge or you could pay them to do it. The estimate from that point was $3,500-$4,500 (with the initial $400 just being folded into that).

The UK firm wanted £250 for the initial consultation (around AUD$500 at the time) and had a fixed price of £2,500 (~AUD$5,000) for the application itself.

Now, this class of visa cost £960 to apply for (although as I look now only a few weeks after my application, I can see it has already gone up to £1,195!). Not noted obviously on the first part of the application is the fact that it can take up to 60 days for the application to be processed as well – a long time to be stuck in limbo! But they do apparently process applications faster than this; according to their site 100% of applications in Brisbane are processed within 15 days.

You can, however, pay an extra fee to have it processed in 10 business days. The fee was (I think) £360, but it has also gone up in the weeks since I applied to £450. I ended up going down this route to accelerate the process.

So you can see that – before we’ve even talked to a lawyer – you’re on the hook for something like three thousand Australian dollars. Yikes. The lawyer fees will more than double this cost. How badly do you want to go to the UK, anyway?

Do you need a lawyer?

This is a hard question to answer. Immigration lawyers will tell you that of course you need a lawyer because O M G the process is far too complicated and risky for mere mortals to attempt. The first email I got from a lawyer included this scary text:

Unfortunately, the Rules for these applications were overhauled significantly in July 2012 and the process has become a lot more complicated. There is a high refusal rate and in most instances this is due to people who do qualify providing the incorrect or insufficient supporting documentation.

I suspect there are several circumstances in which having a lawyer would be way more helpful. Some possible random thoughts that might affect your ability to get the specific ‘family’ visa I applied for (bearing in mind I’m not a lawyer and am just spitballing here):

  1. If you have been previously married
  2. If you have any criminal history
  3. If you have dependents (whether or not they’re coming with you)
  4. If you have poor records about your relationship
  5. If neither of you have jobs
  6. If you don’t have unlimited spare time to go through the application requirements in great detail

Of these I would say the last one is the most important. If you have plenty of time (and attention span) then it will be significantly easier to understand the requirements and do the application process properly. If you’re time-poor or simply cannot be bothered then I am pretty confident having a lawyer do it for you is the right choice.

Basically what you need to do is go through the whole application process and see if you can easily and confidently answer all of the criteria – of which there are many. Speaking from personal experience, each time you read the application documents, you will find something new you need to do – some new document you need to provide, some new requirement you missed. The application documents are very well written but very complicated.

In the end, after much (agonising) deliberation, I opted to go solo on this one. This was stressful but I thought I could bang it out myself.

The application process

The application process goes something like this (note: again, bear in mind this is for an Australian person, in Australia, going down the join family in UK route – any other circumstances will probably have a different process):

  1. Run through the initial application forms online.
  2. Prepare all the supporting documentation for your application. This includes things like evidence of your relationship, bank statements to prove you have enough money to survive, employment records, etc.
  3. Book an appointment to finalise your application. This is done at VFS Global, a separate company that handles all this stuff on behalf of the UK government in Australia.
    1. This is the point at which you need to pay for things. Up until this point you’ve not made any financial commitments. Payment must be done online (Visa and Mastercard only, I believe).
    2. When you’re booking your appointment you can decide at this point if you want to pay extra for the fast processing or extra to have your documents couriered to you.
  4. Attend the appointment. This appointment is not an interview. VFS Global simply handle your documents; they have little to do with the actual application. They will review your documentation and make sure everything is roughly correct, and then they stuff it in a courier bag and send it off to the British Embassy in Manila (yeh, in the Philippines). At the appointment, you will:
    1. Hand over your passport and all your documentation.
    2. Have your biometrics taken – you will be photographed and fingerprinted.
    3. Be given a receipt for all your documentation which you need to bring back.
  5. Wait for a decision.
  6. If you’re approved, you need to travel to the UK within 30 days of the approval. Be ready to book! Maybe book a ticket that can be cancelled, or get a ticket held, to help minimise the cost of a late-stage booking.
  7. Enter the UK and show your visa and the application letter.
  8. Once you arrive in the UK, you need to pick up your biometric card (you nominate where as part of the online application process).
  9. You’re in the UK! Drink tea and be merry.

The Decision

The decision-making process is, of course, stressful, and made even more stressful by the way they handle it, which deserves a section all on its own.

In my case, on the seventh business day after submitting my application I received an email:

A decision has been made on your application and your documents are being returned to the Visa Application Centre (VAC).  You will be contacted again by the VAC once these documents have been received and they are ready for you to collect. If you have chosen to have your documents couriered to you, these will be despatched by the VAC once they have been received.

That’s all it says. No indication of success or failure. I immediately started Googling and found a bunch of people saying that they received this and then a few days later received their visa or were rejected. So as far as I can tell, the purpose of this email is to sell blood pressure medicine or something.

On the second business day after this, I received another email simply saying my documents were ready to pick up. Still no indication about success/failure.

I jumped in the car, drove straight to the VFS Global office, presented my receipt (after panicking for a second thinking I’d lost it), and then watched as the guy wandered in the back room to pick up my documentation. He returned after a few minutes and said it was coming right up. My blood pressure ratcheted up several more notches as the minutes ticked by.

Eventually some other bloke came out with a courier bag. Silently he walked up next to me at the counter, reaching over for some scissors. He cut the bag open slowly and carefully – again, not saying anything. My vision was going black around the edges, possibly out of simple concern that this behaviour was indicative of bad news, but I think it was more that it was taking all my willpower not to knock this guy down, rip the bag from his hands and simply tear it open with my teeth.

He reached into the bag and silently pulled out my passport and started leafing through it. Flashes of my previous trips flicked in front of my eyes and then finally I saw something new – my UK visa had been approved.

It wasn’t actually clear to me that this guy actually knew my status until he saw the visa in there himself. At this point he reached into the bag, oblivious to the waves of relief washing off me, and pulled out a letter with some more information on it, mentioning that I need to bring this letter with me to the UK to present to the border people and that I also need it to pick up my biometric pass (a separate identity card that you get once you’re in the UK).

Random advice, thoughts, and things I did

  1. Read the shit out of everything. Seriously cannot stress this enough. Before you even start doing anything, read these things from front to back (at a minimum) and take notes of what stuff is relevant to you:
    1. The “Apply to join family living permanently in the UK” sitelet. This outlines the basics at a high level – eligibility, the process, documents you need to provide, etc.
    2. Appendix 2, the financial requirements. This is a separate part of the application that you’ll need to do and is very important.
    3. Guide to supporting documents, which is an overview of the various documentation you’ll need to provide.
    4. Appendix FM-SE. This is a long and complicated document that includes some specific details about the evidence you need to provide. If you’re lucky, big chunks of it will not apply (e.g., Evidence of English Language Requirements) so you can skip them. But read it carefully and take notes about the things that relate to you.
    5. The VFS Global FAQ. This part of the process is almost entirely separate from everything else and has its own useful information.
  2. While the documentation provided by the UK government is truly excellent (seriously their websites are beautifully designed and organised), there are some notable gaps. Most significantly is around the supporting documents. It is very hard to get a feel for how much documentation you need to provide. I ended up providing a stack of documentation that was probably about 20cm thick, which seemed ridiculously over the top, but it really wasn’t clear how much would be enough.
  3. The documentation I provided was grouped into four main categories, all in their own separate folders. Each folder was supplied with an index document which outlined everything that was in it in a format that [I thought was] clear and readable for anyone reviewing. Folders were:
    1. General: this included my passport, my old passport, the printed copy of my online application, my completed Appendix 2 – Financial requirement form, and the appointment confirmation and receipt for my additional priority payment.
    2. Finances and employment: this included:
      1. 6 months of bank statements showing my savings met the requirements I needed. The statements were official bank statements (copies are riskier) and I had them stamped by the bank.
      2. A letter from the bank (stamped, on official letterhead)
      3. A “declaration of the source of my savings”
      4. One year’s worth of payslips (copies) showing my salary.
      5. Two letters from my previous employer on company letterhead, one to confirm that I was an employee there and one that’s where the money came from and one to confirm the payslips were authentic.
      6. A copy of the company’s registration certificate.
    3. Accommodation details: this is to show you have somewhere to go when you arrive and won’t end up homeless. We’d already sorted a place to live so this was actually pretty easy, but I can imagine it being more complicated if you don’t have a place to live before you go. I included. :
      1. Copy of the lease (I was not on the lease; they wouldn’t put me on there without a visa).
      2. Letter from the landlord confirming it was OK for me to live there.
      3. Some utility bills to prove it was a real place (electricity and Internet).
      4. Email from leasing agent confirming we’re OK to move in.
    4. Information about sponsor: this is the tricky one. This is where you need to prove you’re in a real relationship. Now, the process for an unmarried partner (which I did) seems basically the same as if you’re married, except you don’t have to provide marriage certificates. But this included a huge stack of information:
      1. A letter from my sponsor (i.e., my partner) with a brief overview of our relationship and a request to please let me in to the country so we could be together!
      2. A copy of my partner’s contract from her new UK employer, showing she was gainfully employed.
      3. A copy of my partner’s passport (just the first few pages).
      4. A stack of random emails between us showing some evidence of our relationship.
      5. A stack of random emails between us and family and friends.
      6. Copy of my will, naming my partner as a beneficiary.
      7. Our Skype history, showing calls and messaging history (going back to 2009).
      8. Some ancient MSN messages (going back to 2009).
      9. Several wedding invitations addressed to both of us together.
      10. A printed photobook that was a birthday present.
      11. Another huge sub-folder of evidence of us living together, including our previous lease from the place in the USA, a letter from our previous landlord, tax statements, and various bills and receipts addressed to us at the same US address, and bank statements for the both of us going back two years.
      12. Another sub-folder of photos (about 50) of the two of us together going back several years.
  4. After going to these vast efforts to get all this documentation together, I was pretty unimpressed when I got into the VFS Global appointment and was given a two page documentation checklist that is not made available to you before your appointment. I recall this document being on UK government letterhead so I do think it is part of the official application process, but I am completely at a loss to why it is not made available before you submit, as there were a few things that were somewhat at odds with what I’d done.Sadly I didn’t think to take a photo to help other poor suckers out with it and I can’t find a copy online (here’s one for India that is similar but not the same). There are no major differences, but here are some things you should know about this checklist:
    1. It breaks up the documentation into a slightly different groups than is documented in the “Guide to supporting documents“, which is the authoritative guide to what you need to supply. It wasn’t a huge deal for me as all my stuff was fairly well grouped, I just needed to change the order a little bit.
    2. It asks you to list all the documentation you provided and lists some example of things you might have – some of which I’d never seen mentioned before. So I panicked a bit. However, I think it’s just a loose guide of things you might have depending on your specific circumstances, so it’s probably not worth worry about too much. Just make sure you know what you have.
    3. For each thing you provide, you’re asked to mention if you’re supplying copies or originals. At this point you’re told they won’t send copies back to you. As far as I can find, this is not mentioned anywhere else. This is just kind of irritating as – like everyone, I’m sure – I had a mix of copies and originals and they were more or less indistinguishable. I have no problems with them wanting to destroy copies but I wish it was clear that’s what they wanted to do up front so I would have had time to label them clearly.In the end I just said almost everything was an original (except for some really obvious copies, on which I scrawled ‘COPY’), and they seemed to happily send it all back.

Conclusion

This was one of the most stressful things I have ever done! Part of it was my fault – not reading the some of the documentation or requirements carefully enough at the start sent me down some false paths, including the thought that I could apply while I was in the UK.

However, overall the process was fairly well defined. As I’ve noted several times already the gov.uk website puts many others to shame with its sheer brilliance; it has a design simplicity that I love and all the information is generally made very available and easy to find.

I’m relieved that the process worked out for me. It was staggeringly expensive and a huge headache, but I got here in the end. After going through the process of getting a US and UK visa I have developed all sorts of interesting thoughts about how immigration processes should work back in Australia and if time permits I’d love to do some more research into it (e.g., is this super-intense process actually useful in keeping out bad eggs? If not what is the lowest bar you can raise to just encourage immigration from those we want in the country while excluding those we don’t?).

I hope this was vaguely useful to others that are going through (or considering) the same process. Happy to answer questions in comments or expand on details if required.

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