UK visas are assessed and issued by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) around the world.
Wherever you make your UK visa application, it will eventually find its way to one of UKVI’s regional processing hubs where a caseworker will assess your application, perform a number of background checks and then hopefully, issue you with a UK visa.
In this blog post we’ll go through the 9-step visa application process and where you can get assistance if needed. You can also keep in touch with us by joining our mailing list to receive the latest updates.
DISCLAIMER: we won’t be providing anything that could be considered ‘advice’ in this post, we’re just sticking to the process!
STEP 1: Getting started
Once you’ve confirmed you do need a UK visa, take a look at the guidance documents online for your purpose of travel to find out how to apply and what supporting documents you need to provide.
A UK Visitor visa is right for you if you’re coming to the UK temporarily as a tourist, to visit someone, for business, for private medical treatment and for a number of other reasons. The supporting document requirements do differ for these purposes, so make sure to check out the details.
Of the 24% who apply for a UK visa to come as something other than visitor, there are a number of specific visa types for different purposes of travel. If you know what type of visa you need, that’s great, just follow the guidance document online, however if you’re unsure, you can get help.
STEP 2: Getting help with your UK visa application
Many countries have immigration advisors, specialised professionals who can help you through the UK visa application process.
For a fee, immigration advisers typically:
- Confirm you’re applying in the right visa category
- Tell you what supporting documents you need (and what they need to contain)
- Check your supporting documents to make sure they meet the requirements
- Fill out your visa application form
- Schedule an appointment at a visa application centre for you (see below)
- Respond to any clarifications from UKVI and provide you with status updates when available
- Retrieve your passport at the end of the application process and return it to you
A good immigration advisor makes sure your UK visa application is correct and all the supporting documents meet UKVI’s requirements. They can also fully answer your questions and advise on the different application options you may have. They’re well worth their fee if you absolutely need to make the correct UK visa application or are unsure of how to apply.
Some countries, like the UK, regulate the immigration advice industry so you know you’re getting help from a qualified professional. This isn’t the case in most countries however, so you’ll need to do your own diligence before appointing an immigration advisor.
You can use a service like Help with my visa! to find a vetted immigration advisor and checkout their customer ratings before you commit.
Immigration advisers may be based in your country of application but many UK-based immigration advisers also offer remote services to people based overseas. This lets you choose an immigration adviser that makes you most comfortable, whether they’re based down the road from you or in the UK.
STEP 3: Preparing your supporting documents
Supporting documents, or ‘supporting evidence’ as it’s also sometimes called, is everything you prepare to support your UK visa application. It includes your passport, the UK visa application form and everything else you need to submit according to the UKVI guidance documents.
You should prepare these documents well in advance as you may need information from them to complete your UK visa application form.
Some supporting documents, like a tuberculosis test result or an English language competency qualification, can take weeks or even months to get so you should start preparing your application well in advance and be absolutely clear on what you need to apply.
We’ll come on to what to do with your supporting documents after we’ve introduced ‘visa application centres’.
STEP 4: Making your UK visa application
Virtually all UK visa applications now start with you making an online application.
UK visa application forms do differ depending upon your visa type, but now that you’ve confirmed what type of visa you’re applying for it’s a case of clicking through the instructions to reach the application portal.
After clicking the ‘Apply now’ button you’ll shortly be asked to set up an account and confirm your email address.
Keep this information safe as you’ll need it later on!
As UK visa application forms have now been digitised, filling out a UK visa application form is more a case of answering a bunch of questions rather than completing fields in a ‘form’. Subsequent questions may differ depending upon answers you gave in previous questions, so take care to answer each question carefully before moving on.
We won’t lie, this process may take you a while, particularly if you have an extensive travel history (you’ll be asked for the dates of everywhere you’ve travelled to in the last 10 years). You can easily spend 2-3 hours completing a UK visa application form, even if you have everything prepared.
At the end of the application form you’ll be given the chance to review and amend the information you’ve provided.
This is the last chance you have to change something before it’s locked!
So do take your time, even go and sleep on it and come back fresh the next day (using those account credentials you noted down for safe keeping) before confirming.
Paying your UK visa application (and other) fees
As part of the online application process you’ll be asked to pay your visa fees, as well as make payments for other mandatory and non-mandatory services.
The visa fees are calculated by UKVI and are charged per applicant. Unless you fall into one of only a handful of very specific application routes, you’ll need to pay the UK visa fee.
Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS)
If you’re applying for a UK visa for more than six months duration, you’ll also have to pay a mandatory Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fee. This fee goes towards your covering the cost of your access to free public healthcare in the UK on the National Health Service (NHS). The fee calculation is rather complicated but after entering a few details the website will tell you how much you need to pay.
Priority and Super Priority Visas
Other optional services you can buy at this stage include paying for a Priority Visa or Super Priority Visa service.
These are both fast-track services that give you a decision on your visa quicker than usual.
For example, for Visitor visas, a Priority Visa service brings the turnaround time down from c.3 weeks to 5 working days, while a Super Priority Visa service gets you a decision the next working day.
You should check your eligibility (and the pricing!) on the UKVI website before you set your heart on using one of these services as they aren’t available everywhere or for every visa application route. Service standards (i.e. turnaround times) do also differ depending upon visa type, so it’s worth doing your homework in advance to know how long your application will take.
These aren’t the only potential fees you’ll pay when making your UK visa application, so don’t put that credit card away just yet!
STEP 5: Booking an appointment at a visa application centre
A ‘visa application centre’ is a service run by a commercial partner on an exclusive basis within a certain geography that provides visa application services on behalf of a government.
These services typically include collecting biometric data, handling supporting documents, shipping passports and application materials between the visa application centre and government caseworkers and returning everything to the visa applicant at the end of the process.
UKVI uses two commercial partners to run its visa application centres outside the UK:
- VFS Global, who operates in Asia, Australasia, the Americas, the Indian Subcontinent and parts of the Middle East; and
- TLScontact, who runs centres in Africa, Central Asia, Europe, Russia and parts of the Middle East. If you apply for a UK visa anywhere in the world you’re virtually guaranteed to have to use a visa application centre run by one of these two commercial partners.
After you’ve completed your online UK visa application you’ll be asked to book an appointment at a visa application centre to continue the application process. This may mean creating another, separate account with the commercial partner running UK visa application centres in your part of the world.
You can apply at any UK visa application centre you like, as long as you have permission to stay in the country you’re applying from.
Types of visa application centre
There are three main types of visa application centre: standard visa application centres, biometric enrolment locations and on-demand mobile application services.
Standard visa application centres
More than two-thirds of UK visa application centres are permanent offices that open at least five-days per week, every week.
Visa application centres are typically based in capital and other major cities and have three or more service desks, meaning they can welcome multiple applicants at the same time. This means at busy times they can get rather full, but you’re usually in and out of the centre within 45 minutes most of the time.
Visa application centres all offer a standard service to customers, but some also offer a ‘premium lounge’ for an extra fee. The premium lounge is similar to a business lounge at an airport, with more comfortable seating, less people, free beverages and reading material on offer. The service is identical to the rest of the visa application centre, just the surroundings are more pleasant.
Biometric enrolment locations
Biometric enrolment locations, also known as biometric clinics, are smaller, usually one-service desk operations that may open as infrequently as once per month or up to three times per week. They’re typically used in locations where UK visa application demand is low or to supplement larger standard visa application centres within a country and give more accessibility to citizens.
Due to their infrequent opening, biometric enrolment locations are usually located in flexible office spaces or parts of larger offices.
The big difference between using a standard visa application centre and a biometric enrolment location is you don’t get a choice in how your passport and any supporting documents are returned to you – they’ll be sent back to you directly by courier. There’s no passport pickup option.
On-demand mobile application services
Some countries offer on-demand mobile application services where the commercial partner takes a biometric enrolment location to you. This service is aimed at high-net-worth individuals or organisations that have many people applying for a UK visa at the same time and don’t want so many people out of the office all at once.
To use an on-demand mobile application service you need to book an appointment on the commercial partner website and pay the fee (which can run into the thousands of pounds). The commercial partner will then bring all the equipment they need to your home, office or other location, and run a visa application service just for you and your fellow UK visa applicants.
Visa application centre fees
There are fees for using some visa application centres, while others are free to use.
Make sure you checkout the UKVI commercial partner’s website in your area to confirm if there’s a charge or not.
Only the commercial partner will charge you for an appointment – no other organisation or intermediary should charge you for this. You usually make the appointment fee payment on the commercial partner’s website (although there are exceptions – see below) when you book.
Ongoing process changes
UKVI is currently changing the way UK visa applicants provide their supporting documents. Commercial partners are now offering document upload options when you book your appointment, so you’re able to scan, upload and submit your supporting documents online before you attend your appointment at the visa application centre. If you choose not to do this, or your chosen visa application centre doesn’t yet offer document upload services, you’ll need to submit your supporting documents at the visa application centre.
STEP 6: Attending the visa application centre appointment
It’s mandatory for every UK visa applicant to attend a visa application centre appointment.
You should aim to be early for your appointment at the visa application centre to avoid any issues. While you may not be let in until a few minutes before your appointment, you do risk being turned away if you’re late.
At the visa application centre you’ll go through five, sometimes six steps:
- Reception: upon arrival you’ll go through a security screening process and have your appointment confirmed
- Waiting Area: you’ll be asked to wait until a service counter is free, so keep an eye on the queuing system
- Service Counter: you’ll be called to a service counter where a member of staff will briefly look through your UK visa application and check your supporting documents. If needed, supporting documents may also be scanned and uploaded at the service counter
- Biometric enrolment: you’ll have your biometric data enrolled (passport biographical details page scanned, 10 fingerprints enrolled, digital photograph taken and a digital signature collected)
- Next Steps: you’ll be given information on how and when to follow-up and what the next steps are (if any)
A handful of countries don’t accept online payments so if any payments are outstanding, the sixth step you’ll go through at the visa application centre is making a cash or card payment for any applicable fees.
Two activities that UK visa applicants typically ask about in the visa application centre are if their supporting documents are okay and what happens to the biometric data they’ve enrolled.
Here’s a high-level overview on those activities.
The major thing to point out about supporting documents is that the commercial partner can’t provide any advice on whether the documents you provide are ‘good enough’ – that’s your responsibility (and why using an immigration adviser to help you prepare can be invaluable).
What the commercial partner does do is make sure that all supporting documents you provide are in English (or Welsh) and are legible. They’ll then tick-off on a high-level checklist where documents have been provided in a particular category.
For example, if you provide bank statements they’ll put a tick in the box against you providing ‘proof of financial means’ but they won’t check if your finances are sufficient.
If you’ve previously uploaded your supporting documents on the commercial partner’s website, these checks will be performed on your uploaded documents.
If you didn’t upload your documents, the commercial partner will scan and upload the documents for you at the visa application centre. There may be a charge for this service so do check in advance if a payment is needed.
In locations that don’t yet offer document upload services, the commercial partner will check your hardcopy documents and then securely bundle them up for transport to UKVI.
Whatever the document upload process, you still need to submit your passport as part of your supporting documents. The commercial partner will send this securely to UKVI – and ensure its return to either the visa application centre for pickup or courier back to you at your specified address.
Biometric data enrolment
Many governments are now collecting visa applicant biometric data as part of the visa application process to improve identity management and better protect their borders.
The UK has collected the biometric data of everyone applying for a UK visa for more than 15 years so if you’ve ever used a UK visa application centre before, you’ll be familiar with the drill.
The UK collects four pieces of biometric data:
- Passport biographical details page: the biographical details page of your passport will be scanned and the security features checked
- Digital photograph: a live digital photograph of you will be taken – this photograph will appear on your visa vignette when it’s issued and will also go on your biometric residence permit (BRP, see below) if you’re issued with one
- 10-fingerprint enrolment: all 10 of your fingerprints will be enrolled using a digital enrolment scanner (so no messy ink!) and will be used to identify you when you arrive at the UK border, as well as being used for background checks performed by the UKVI caseworker when assessing your UK visa application (see below)
- Digital signature: your digital signature is another piece of data used to confirm your identity and also printed on your BRP if you’re issued with one
At the visa application centre, all UK visa applicants will have their passport biographical details page scanned and a digital photograph taken. You may not need to provide your fingerprints or digital signature if you’re under a certain age, or due to other circumstances, but by and large most adults will provide all four pieces of biometric data.
STEP 7: UKVI decides
After you’ve attended your visa application centre appointment, the commercial partner will securely send your biometric data and supporting documents (whether digitally or physically) to the regional UKVI processing hub. Here, a UKVI caseworker will assess your application.
Each UK visa application is assessed on its own merits using information drawn from a number of different sources. Your UK visa application form, supporting documents and biometric data all contribute to the caseworker’s decision, but they’ll also use other decision-making tools and background checks to come to a final decision.
This is a big reason why the commercial partner running the visa application centre can’t pass comment on your application – they don’t see a lot of what goes on behind the scenes.
When a decision’s been made, you’ll receive an email from UKVI or the commercial partner confirming your passport is on its way back to you, but this communication won’t contain the decision. You’ll have to wait until you get your passport back for that.
If you applied at a standard visa application centre, your passport will be securely sent back there for you to collect, unless you paid extra for a courier service to have your passport sent directly back to your home or office. If you applied using any other type of visa application centre, your passport will be sent by courier to you.
If you’ve been granted a visa, congratulations! You’ll have a UK visa vignette stamped in your passport, so check it over to make sure everything is correct and immediately report any issues to UKVI.
If your UK visa application was refused, you’ll get a letter explaining why, and what options (if any) you have to appeal. The UK is better than most governments when it comes to providing feedback on refusals, so if you were refused due to something you can fix (such as missing an important document you actually have) then you know when you re-apply you’ve got a better chance of success next time around.
STEP 8: Arriving in the UK
When you arrive in the UK, you’ll have your passport, visa and biometric data checked at immigration control. The immigration officer may also ask you for other documents, so make sure you pack important information in your carry-on and have it to hand when approaching the passport control desk.
You’ll also be asked a series of questions about your visit to the UK. It’s typically best to keep your answers short, only answer what’s being asked and clarify if you’re unsure or need to check one of your documents.
The immigration control process is nothing to be afraid of, and is usually a formality.
Collecting your biometric residence permit (BRP)
If you’ve applied for a long-term UK visa (more than six months) you’ll be issued with a biometric residence permit. When your passport was returned from UKVI there will have been an information slip inside that tells you where you can collect your BRP upon arrival in the UK, usually the closest Crown Post Office to where you’ll be staying.
You must collect your BRP within 10 days of arrival in the UK, or before your visa vignette expires, whichever is sooner. There are big fines for not doing this and you’ll need your BRP to go about your business in the UK, such as registering on an educational course or starting a new job.
STEP 9: Welcome to the UK!
So that’s the process you need to go through when applying for a UK visa from outside the UK. It might seem like a lot of effort but if you’re well-prepared at the start then the rest of the process is very straightforward.
If you’re planning to stay in the UK long-term, look out for our future post on how to renew, extend or switch a UK visa from inside the UK.
You can keep in touch with us by joining our mailing list. We’ll send you 2-4 emails per month on visa and travel-related updates, including changes to UK immigration rules and services.