“What UK visa do I need?”

It’s a question we get asked many times per week.

And do you know what?

The answer isn’t always simple.

In fact, if you’re asking “what UK visa do I need?” the reason is because it can be extremely complicated to find the right UK visa type.

And you may have more than one option.

Ian Robinson, a partner at global immigration law firm Fragomen explains exactly this kind of situation in an interview for the Help with my visa! Podcast, where he shows how the UK Skilled Worker visa may not be the ‘best’ option for you if you want to come and work in the UK.

So understanding the different types of UK visa is critical to making sure you apply for the right one.

And this is especially true if you’re looking to do something else down the line, like extend your UK visa or apply for settlement.

So based on our experience of running UK visa application services in more than 80 countries – including in the UK – here are the 4 steps we recommend you take to making the right choice when answering the question “what UK visa do I need?”

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STEP 1: Define your purpose

what uk visa do i need

Are you sure you actually need a visa at all?

It’s super important before you do anything else to define your purpose – why do you think you might need a visa?

It’s not as silly as it seems, visa rules change daily so even if you’ve not needed a visa for a particular purpose in the past that doesn’t mean things are the same today.

So first define your purpose.

You might need to make a visa application because you’re:

  • Extending a UK visa that’s about to expire
  • Travelling to the UK for business
  • Planning to study abroad in the UK
  • Going on a family holiday to the UK
  • Leaving your usual place of residence to go to the UK for another reason

Once you’re clear on your purpose, you can start to think about it more deeply.

STEP 2: check the official UK visa guidance

The best place to check your UK visa requirements is the official UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI) website. There’s an interactive visa checking tool that will ask you a few questions and will then tell you whether you need a UK visa or not.

The UKVI website breaks down types of UK visa types into seven categories:

  1. EU, EEA and Commonwealth citizens
  2. Visiting the UK
  3. Studying in the UK
  4. Working in the UK
  5. Family in the UK
  6. Living permanently in the UK
  7. Seeking protection or claiming asylum

We’ll go through each of these categories below, but you an see how these tie into the thinking you’ve already done in Step 1. You’ll have already defined your purpose, so now it should be easier for you to choose the correct visa category.

It’s critical you read the full eligibility criteria published by UKVI to make sure you qualify for a given visa type. The criteria are too detailed to replicate here but we have linked back to where you can find the full list of eligibility criteria so do click the links to check out the detail.

EU, EEA and Commonwealth citizens

eu eea national

This category of UK visa types is nationality-based and is further split into information for European Union (EU) and European Economic Area (EEA) citizens and Commonwealth citizens.

If you’re an EU or EEA citizen already resident in the UK and intend to stay there, you can apply for either Settled Status or Pre-settled Status through the EU Settlement Scheme. The EU Settlement Scheme is open until 30 June 2021 for those meeting the qualification criteria.

EU and EEA citizens arriving in the UK outside of the EU Settlement Scheme qualification period will have to follow the new Points-based System, which came into effect on 1 January 2021.

Commonwealth citizens have two main visa types they are eligible to apply for – as well as being able to apply for many other types of UK visa. The UK Ancestry visa is for people who can prove one of their grandparents was born in the UK and who also meet the other eligibility criteria.

Right of Abode is a type of UK visa that leads to settlement, and is available to Commonwealth citizens who meet the eligibility criteria on the basis of their parents or marriage. Commonwealth citizens who were part of the Windrush Generation have a different way of making a Right of Abode application and need to follow the guidance published specifically for their situation.

A new category of nationality-based visa was introduced on 31 January 2021 for Hong Kong British National (Overseas) travel document holders. If you qualify, this scheme may be open to you and your immediate family to live, work and study in the UK. The Hong Kong BN(O) visa also leads to permanent residence and if desired, British citizenship.

Visiting the UK

visiting the uk visitor visa

The UK introduced the Standard Visitor Visa to replace similar, more niche visas. Pretty much anyone coming to the UK to visit for tourism, for business, attending a short course of study, taking part in sports or creative events and receiving private medical treatment will apply for a UK Standard Visitor Visa.

The UK Standard Visitor Visa usually permits a maximum stay in the country of six months, although some variations do permit the holder to stay for almost one year (e.g. for private medical treatment). The UK Standard Visitor Visa can be valid for 2, 5 or 10 years, with the cost of the visa going up the longer the duration.

While the UK Standard Visitor Visa did replace a number of other visitor visa types, there are still some variations:

So while most visitors to the UK will apply for the UK Standard Visitor Visa, you can see that there are certain situations where a different type of UK Visitor visa is necessary.

Studying in the UK

studying in the uk study visa

There are only three types of UK study visa and they are usually straightforward to understand as they depend upon your age and/ or the length of your studies.

The UK Student Visa is for anyone over 16 years of age who wants to study in the UK. The only variation to this is if your study course is classified as ‘short-term’, where instead you’ll need to apply for a UK Short-term Study Visa.

The UK Child Student Visa is for people aged 4-17 who want to study at an independent school in the UK.

It’s important to check the eligibility criteria for all of these visas if you intend to study in the UK as the type of visa that suits your situation may differ depending upon your age and the course length.

Working in the UK

working in the uk work visa

Visas to work in the UK start to get pretty complicated as they can open up a number of different application route options.

UKVI has categorised work visas in three different ways:

  • Short-term work visas are usually issued for up to 1 year but some visa types are valid for only 6 months while others can be valid for up to 24 months
  • Long-term work visas are usually issued for 30 months and providing the holder still meets the eligibility criteria, can be extended for longer. Some long-term work visa routes lead to settlement and British citizenship, but some don’t
  • Investor, Business Development and Talent visas are for people with specialist skills, have an endorsed business idea they want to invest in or who want to make a significant investment in the UK

Big changes to the eligibility criteria for skilled workers came into force under the new Points-based System from 1 January 2021, so do make sure you check out what you need to do to qualify.

You should also check to see if you’re eligible to come to the UK to work without needing a UK work visa first – here are 9 ways you could potentially do this.

Short-term work visas

short-term work visa uk tier 5 visa

Short-term work visas are known as Tier 5 Temporary Worker visas, of which there are seven different types:

Short-term work visas do vary in duration, but are typically 12 or 24 months long (except for the UK Tier 5 Seasonal Worker Visa, which is only 6 months).

A new type of ‘short-term work visa’ is being introduced from Summer 2021 for graduates from UK universities. The Post-study Work visa – formally known as the Graduate Immigration Visa will allow graduates from UK universities to stay in the UK for up to two years after they finish their course. During this time they are free to live and work in the UK. Holders of the Post-study Work visa can switch to another type of UK work visa – such as the Skilled Worker visa – but the period of time spent on the Post-study Work visa doesn’t count towards settlement.

Long-term work visas

long-term work visa uk work visa

Long-term work visas are known as Tier 2 visas, of which there are five categories:

Tier 2 visas are typically issued for 30 months and can usually be extended as long as the holder still meets the qualification criteria. 

However, if you intend to settle in the UK after your qualifying period you should make sure you fully understand which Tier 2 visas offer routes to settlement, as not all do. You can find this information on the official UKVI website by clicking one of the links above.

Investor, business development and talent visas

investor, business development and talent visas

The third category of UK work visas is another long-term work category covering investor, business development and talent visas. 

Many of these visas are classified as Tier 1 visas, but newer, more specific visas are now being introduced. Here’s what investor, business development and talent visas cover:

  • UK Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa is no longer available for people to apply for new but can still be extended if you’re already on this route. People who would’ve previously applied for a UK Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa are advised by UKVI to look at the Innovator or Start-up visas instead (see below)
  • UK Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa is no longer available and cannot be extended. If you’re on this visa route UKVI advises that your switch to a Tier 1 Entrepreneur Visa or a Start-up visa
  • UK Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa is no longer available and UKVI advises people on this route to switch to a Global Talent visa instead (see below)
  • UK Tier 1 Investor Visa is for people who want to invest £2m or more in the UK
  • UK Innovator Visa is for people who want to set up a business in the UK, have had their business or business idea endorsed by an approved body and will invest at least £50,000
  • UK Global Talent Visa is for people who are a leader or potential leader in the fields of academia or research; arts and culture; or digital technology
  • UK Start-up Visa is for people who want to set up a business in the UK and have had their business idea endorsed by an authorised body that is either a UK higher education institution or a business organisation with a history of supporting UK entrepreneurs

Family in the UK

UK visas based on family in the UK can be extremely complex and are typically where people seek professional help to make sure their visa application is properly prepared. 

You can apply for a UK family visa on the basis of five different relationships:

  • spouse or partner
  • fiancé, fiancée or proposed civil partner
  • child
  • parent
  • relative who’ll provide long-term care for you

Family members of EU or EEA nationals also have a separate route where they can apply for an EU/ EEA Family Permit.

As you can see from the official guidance published by UKVI, there are many variations and conditions for being able to apply for a UK visa on the basis of family. 

There are also visa routes that may be open to you on the basis of your Private Life, as well as different visa routes if your partner dies or you separate or divorce. With so many options, it’s best to make absolutely certain you qualify for the family visa you want to apply for before making major preparations.

Living Permanently in the UK

living permanently in the uk settlement visa

After a certain period of time, usually five years, certain visa routes will open up the opportunity for you to apply for a UK settlement visa, also known as indefinite leave to remain. British citizenship may also be something you have the option to apply for if you so wish.

UKVI has an interactive UK settlement visa assessment tool on its website that asks you a series of questions and then determines if you’re eligible to settle. You can follow the guidelines given after using this tool to find out exactly how you can proceed.

If you’re thinking of switching visa routes on your way to ultimately applying for a UK settlement visa, we’d strongly recommend you seek professional advice as switching between different types of visa may reset the clock on how long you need to be in the UK to qualify for settlement. 

For example, if you switch from a Tier 2 Minister of Religion visa to a Spouse visa you should check if the time you’ve spent in the UK on your Tier 2 visa still counts towards your settlement qualification period, as switching to a Spouse visa may reset the clock.

If you’re eligible to apply for the EU Settlement Scheme, you should use that application route to apply for Pre-settled and Settled Status.

Seeking Protection or Claiming Asylum

Seeking Protection or Claiming Asylum

The UK also offers routes for vulnerable people to seek protection and claim asylum. The application options are complex, but there are several hundred organisations throughout the UK – such as Citizens Advice Bureau and various charities – who can help with making such applications for free.

If you find yourself in this situation, the best place to start is to find an immigration adviser qualified to Level 3 who takes on non-fee charging work. You can filter and find a list on the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) website.


dependent visa

If you plan to bring dependents with you to the UK – such as your spouse, children under 18 years old or anyone else classified as being ‘financially dependent’ upon you – you should check that the visa type you’re applying for permits this.

For example, most Tier 2 visas allow you to bring dependents with you to the UK, however many Tier 4 and Tier 5 visas do not.

You can use the links above to check out the official guidance from UKVI, or appoint a professional immigration advisor to assist you if you’re still unsure.

STEP 3: Read the eligibility criteria carefully

uk visa eligibility criteria

Each UK visa type has its eligibility criteria and requirements clearly stated on the UKVI website. When you click on any of the visa links in Step 2 it’ll take you to a page that explains what you need to do to meet those eligibility criteria, including links to further information on subjects like authorised bodies.

The eligibility criteria is there to tell you the minimum criteria you need to meet to have a chance at making a successful UK visa application. It’s highly unlikely that your UK visa application will succeed if you don’t meet those criteria, or you cannot clearly demonstrate that you do.

You’ll also need to review the UK visa requirements on the same UKVI page so you understand exactly what you need to prepare to make your UK visa application.

If you find yourself looking at the ‘right’ type of UK visa, but you don’t meet the eligibility criteria, then you’ll need to make sure you can meet those criteria before you apply.

No-one said applying for a UK visa is easy, and if you want to come to the UK simply to work in a different country without meeting the eligibility criteria then you really need to go back to Step 1 and redefine your purpose. Applying for a UK visa without meeting the required eligibility criteria is a fast way to waste a lot of your time and money if you can’t demonstrate that you qualify for it.

STEP 4: Get professional assistance

uk business visa professional help

Maybe you’re at this stage and you’re pretty sure you can meet the UK visa eligibility requirements, or perhaps you have several visa routes open to you and you don’t know which is best. This is where getting professional assistance can save you a huge amount of time, money and heartache.

Immigration advisers are qualified professionals who can listen to your situation and tell you exactly what you should do based on what you want to achieve.

So if you’re unsure how you can meet the UK visa eligibility criteria, they can talk you through the process and understand what documentation you could provide to show UKVI that you qualify.

They can also give you an honest run-down of exactly what each visa route means for you, such as which routes will open up opportunities to settle, which visas can be extended and whether you need to leave the UK to do any of this.

Sofia made excellent use of a visa consultation service bought through Help with my visa! when she applied for Indefinite Leave to Remain. Even though she’d previously prepared all her family’s UK visa applications herself, the peace of mind she got from a short consultation was invaluable, especially as she was also in the process of finalising an offer for her Dream Job in the UK. You can hear all about her journey on the Help with my visa! Podcast.

We have a number of registered professional immigration advisors on Help with my visa! who offer visa consultations that are perfect if you find yourself at this point but still have questions. At the end of a visa consultation – which can last between 15 minutes and 1 hour – you’ll know precisely what type of UK visa you need to apply for, as well as how to start preparing your application.

And if you decide you want the immigration advisor to help you further, they can tell you exactly what your supporting documents need to show, fill out your visa application form for you and complete all the other paperwork needed to make your UK visa application. You get to relax and be guided through the entire process, safe in the knowledge that you’ve answered that question “what UK visa do I need?” and have a professional preparing it on your behalf.

Click the button below to find an immigration advisor and book a visa consultation with them now. 

It’ll be the best use of time in your entire UK visa application process.

Want to find out more about how to make a UK visa application?

Check out these related posts for more expert guidance on how to make a successful UK visa application.

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