What sort of permission do I need to come to the UK?
The type of permission ('entry clearance' or 'visa') that you need to come to the UK depends on:
- your nationality;
- why you are coming to the UK; and
- whether you are visiting or want to settle here.
If you already have permission to stay for a limited time, you have a right to travel from and to the UK as long as you go back to your home country or apply to the Home Office again, before that permission ends. If you have permission to stay permanently, you can travel to and from the UK; and if you leave, you will keep your permanent residence status as long as you come back to the UK within two years.
If you are a citizen of a European Economic Area country, you are free to come to and leave the UK whenever you want (see 'What if I am a citizen of a European country?').
Otherwise, whether you need permission (in the form of a visa) depends on whether you are a 'visa national' or not. You are a 'visa national' if you have a passport from one of the countries on a list that is in the immigration rules. If you are from one of these countries, you will need a visa the first time you travel here, whatever your reason for coming to the UK, and for however long you want to stay. To find out which countries are visa national countries, contact UK Visas (see 'Further help').
If you are not a 'visa national', you don't need a visa for a short visit, but you will usually need to get permission before you travel to the UK for other reasons (for example, to settle here, or for business).
Many visitors to the UK are not 'visa nationals', including people from:
- the USA;
- Japan; and
- many Commonwealth countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
If you are a citizen of one of these countries, you do not need to get permission to come for a short visit, but you will need permission if you are coming to stay for more than six months, whatever the reason for your stay.
To find out whether you need a visa for a visit to the UK, contact any British embassy or other consular post, or check the UK Visas website (see 'Further help').
If you arrive with entry clearance the immigration officer will check only that this is genuine, and that your circumstances have not changed so that it no longer applies. However, whether you have clearance or not, an immigration officer has the power to detain (hold) you while they are looking into your entry clearance, or if you are refused permission to enter the UK.
How do I apply for permission to come to the UK?
You normally apply for a visa or other permission at the nearest British embassy or other consular post in the country you are living in though not all of these handle visa applications in, though not all of these handle visa applications directly. In some countries you will need to apply at the office of a company that has a special arrangement with the British authorities (see the UK Visas website for details). You can download the application forms through this website. You must pay a fee when you apply, and in some countries, you must provide your fingerprints as well.
You may be interviewed when you apply. An interview is much more likely if you are applying to come to live here or to set up a business. Interviews are also more common for citizens from certain countries.
Your application may be sent to the UK for a decision, especially if you are applying for business reasons. If it is approved, the immigration officer will put a sticker in your passport which sets out the conditions on which you are allowed to enter and the dates of your stay. You will usually need to travel to the UK within six months of getting permission, but visas for 'settlement' (to live here) are valid for up to 12 months.
Airlines and ferry companies that bring passengers to the UK make their own checks to see whether you have the right papers to be allowed into the UK. They can be fined for bringing you here if you do not have the right papers, so you will not be able to get on a flight or ferry to the UK unless you have a vaild passport (with a valid visa if you need one).
Categories of entry
The immigration rules describe the many ways in which you can be allowed to enter the UK. The most common categories are:
- au pairs;
- for work or business;
- members of the family of a person in one of those categories;
- groups coming to live with that person while he or she stays here; and
- members of the family of a British citizen or other person resident here, who can apply to stay permanently (see 'What if I want members of my family to settle here with me?')
Business people whose business involves negotiating agreements, going to meetings or going on training courses while they are in the UK are allowed in as visitors, if they plan to stay for six months or less. If you are not sure whether you can enter as a business visitor or need a work permit, get specialist advice.
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