Let’s cut to the chase: I’m an American citizen who lived in England for eight years before moving to Australia. Over the years, I’ve been asked about how to be “an expat in London too.” Well, I have jumped through many a metaphorical hoop and spent many an hour researching.

In this post, I’m going to:

  • Describe my journey
  • Give a brief overview of the different types of visas
  • Dispel some myths that I’m pretty sure, collectively as a society, we internalised via rom-coms
  • Offer questions to ask yourself if you’re considering taking the leap
  • Display the power of creative thinking in action
  • Round up the post with some of my favourite aspects of London life

Disclaimer: I am not qualified in any way to give legal or immigration advice. This article is based on my personal journey and is for information and narrative purposes only. Brace yourself for some gifs and general merriment, and please do not make any life-altering decisions based on my jolly rambling. 🍻

My Journey

Mandatory Robin Hood pose outside the castle. Robin Hood wouldn’t be crouched down so low if he was wearing skinny jeans.

I first visited the UK in 2010 for a semester abroad at the University of Nottingham. One of the reasons I chose my US college was because of its strong study abroad program: pay your normal tuition fees and they’d handle rest. ✈ Winning.

Without going into too much detail, I made lifelong friends and came to adore this absurdly tiny island across the sea obsessed with the price of tea (to paraphrase Hamilton). A huge bonus was that my lack of a car didn’t impact my enjoyment of the country, where this was an issue back in the US. Fuelled by the freshly ground coffee that my mother posted after I bemoaned the grey rubbish served in the student dining hall (it was magnificently dreadful), and armed with my trusty rucksack and walking shoes, nothing could stop me.

When I returned to the US after my semester overseas, I had a new goal: graduate college and make my way back over to England, where I would write, dress like a trendy European, walk on cobblestone streets, and regularly travel by train.

The question was how.

Types of Visas in the UK

A visa is formal travel authorisation required for entry into a foreign country. Broadly, there are four different categories in the UK, defined by the applicant’s main reason for being here, and there are several types of visa within each category depending on the length of stay and other factors:

  • Visit
  • Study
  • Work
  • Family
  • Special that doesn’t fit above (like investors, entrepreneurs, ancestry, exceptional global talent, etc.).

For the three main categories that people tend to use for longer stays (study, work, family), a sponsor is required.

A sponsor is the key to gaining entry (and staying in) the UK. In the case of a work visa, this would be the employer. For students, it’s their school. And a spouse, partner, or other family member would be the sponsor for a family visa. Basically, an eligible person or organisation (business or school) already established in the UK needs to extend a friendly hand to make it possible.

I certainly haven’t had a linear journey. Over a decade, I was in and out of the UK on a variety of different visas:

Ladies and gentlemen, this guy. The government declared this guy was a suitable sponsor.
  • Study abroad/short term student visa
  • Visitor visa
  • Tier 2 work visa
  • Tier 4 student visa
  • Tier 2 work visa
  • Family (partner) visa

This last one meant my partner was my sponsor and I had to keep tabs on him to make sure the power doesn’t go to his head. If I’d stayed on this visa for the qualifying period of time, I could apply for permanent residency (called “indefinite leave to remain”).

Dispelling myths

#1 — Falling in love = problem solved

I’m sorry to ruin your romantic daydreams…but falling in love isn’t a golden ticket into living in a country with no strings attached. And upon saying “I do,” you do not automatically acquire your spouse’s nationality or “become British.”

I’m not sure where this myth has come from, but perhaps it stems from the fact that only roughly one-third of Americans have a valid passport and forty percent say they’ve never left the country. There are many reasons to dive into here (income inequality, cost and time it takes to travel overseas, sheer size of the US means you can visit the tropics, mountains, and desert without needing a passport, etc.) but perhaps not enough Americans know people who have spent substantial time overseas or fallen in love with a foreigner.

The Eve of submitting the Partner Visa – see that stack of paperwork? See my face? Good thing he’s worth it.

In the UK, the Family Visa allows a qualifying citizen or permanent resident to sponsor their partner. But there are a whole host of caveats, such as unmarried partners must prove they’ve been living together for at least two years through official means (such as tenancy agreements, utility bills, and a bank account in joint names).

This is a huge hurdle for a lot of young couples. My now-husband and I were caught by this: we’d been co-habiting for several months at the end of my MA, but this wasn’t long enough for him to be eligible to sponsor me. Our relationship was growing, we both had an inkling that we’d found The One, but neither of us fancied rushing into marriage, particularly a multi-jurisdictional marriage that would involve several different countries. We’re pragmatic romantics – hence the work visa.

Even if you are married, there are other hurdles: minimum salary requirement for the sponsoring partner, character assessments, teeth-grinding visa fees and surcharges looming into the thousands, and the stack of paperwork to prove the relationship is genuine. That buys you less than three years…and then you have to do it all over again to renew. And all over again plus some extra hassle for indefinite leave to remain.

Excluding the study abroad/visitor visas, I racked up nearly 7 years of living in the UK…at the time I left for Australia, I was still 3+ years away from permanent residency and 4+ years of any hope of dual citizenship.

International star-crossed love has a lot of perks, but easy residency sadly isn’t one of them.

#2 – I’ll head over & find a job

Steady, now. Put down the passport and step away from the suitcase.

A few years ago, my father sent me an email asking for some wisdom to pass along to a friend. His friend’s daughter had decided to try living in England. She needed tips on job hunting after she arrived. Her plan was to hop on a plane with a little lump of savings and figure it out when she got here.

Don’t get stuck at the border looking like this. Make sure you have a visa so you can have the joy of looking like this on the Underground instead.

I gently replied that unless she had a UK or European passport, she should hold off on booking that plane ticket. Rocking up to the border with no plan, no job lined up, no sponsorship, and no correct visa is a recipe for disaster: immigration would turn her around and put her back on a plane to the US. A condition of entering on a visitor/tourist visa is that you aren’t eligible to seek work, and you need to demonstrate you already have the means ($$) of getting back home.

I sent some links about different visa pathways and options but never heard back. It’s awful crushing someone’s dream, but much worse to have that dream crushed 5,000 miles away from home by a stone-faced immigration agent who is frankly quite unimpressed with your lack of planning and greasy jet-lag hair.

#3 – My work will transfer me

Similarly, several years ago a friend of a friend reached out to ask about my experience of life in London. She worked for a chain in the US and seemed confident it would be easy to get a transfer because her company also had locations in the UK.

We had a back-and-forth chat and, again, she hadn’t done much research. To start, I couldn’t see her company on the register of companies in the UK that held a current sponsorship license. This information is publicly available.

She also hadn’t spoken to her company or known anyone who had successfully transferred, nor was she aware that she’d need a visa to live and work in the UK. Again, hated to crush the dream, but a lot of people seem to think it’s as simple as having an idea and the money for the plane ticket. Reality is complicated.

#4 – If I graduate from a UK university, I can stay

Halloween 2018: Student Debt & Writer’s Block. Beaten out of first place by the Addams Family, but we still won a six-pack of beer.

The short answer: maybe.

The regulations are kinder to international students than when I was studying. When I was completing my MA, there was a short grace period to find a job, secure sponsorship, and transition to a work visa. I think it was something like two or three months, which had me in a panic and eyeing up potential employers over a year in advance. That’s changed to a scheme where a student can apply to stay for at least two years post-graduation – giving the option for travel, casual employment, and finding more permanent work to stay longer.

Also note that your term-time working hours may be restricted to ensure you’re focusing on your studies. I was limited to 20 hours/week, which was infuriating because the temp agency I worked through assigned day-long shifts that lasted 7 hours — meaning I couldn’t work 3 days which would bump me over by 1 hour. This made me much more dependant on my student loans than I wanted.

Some questions to ask yourself

First, addressing the elephant in the room: COVID-19. We’re going to gently side-step the pandemic and focus on the heart of the matter: the desire to head overseas – if not permanently, for more than a quick visit.

Why do I want to go overseas?

Do you just want an adventure? If so, would saving up and travelling be a better option?

Moving abroad doesn’t solve problems. If anything, it amplifies them. Have a hard look at the reasons you want to move. If they’re internal conundrums, they’re just going to follow you. If your heart is set on going to a new country, fix these first, and your time overseas will be much more rewarding and enriching.

Also beware of romanticising foreign locations — don’t get me wrong, London is fantastic, but there are grumpy people, litter on the streets, buffoon politicians, bills that need to be paid, and everything else that comes with day-to-day life. That doesn’t go away in a different country.

What stage of life am I at, and what’s most sensible/feasible?

If you’re a young person fresh out of school/uni and have limited working experience, temporary or seasonal work might be your best bet. You may be able to secure a short learning course (versus a formal university degree), which cost less. If you get along with children, you could look for work as a nanny or au pair (just make sure you do your due diligence and go through a reputable organisation — while I have several friends who had wonderful au pair experiences in Europe, I’ve also heard horror stories!).

If you’re a working professional, you may be able to source a work visa, particularly if your field is listed in a shortage occupation list. This means the requirements may be relaxed slightly to make it easier. If you have dependant family members, you can apply to bring them too – but this incurs extra fees.

If you’re somewhere in the middle, maybe you’d be interested in studying to change careers or further your existing career. Completing a degree abroad adds an extra layer of challenge and adventure. If you love your new home, you may be able to apply to stay – and if not, you can return with a new degree, a boost in employability, and some great stories to tell.

It’s worth noting that US federal student loans are available for most reputable universities overseas. Master’s degrees typically take one year here in the UK, and a bachelor’s degree is three, both shorter than the US standard.

Am I up for the challenge?

Be honest with yourself.

I’m not going to pretend that moving to England from the US was an unfathomable cultural shift – it’s a Western, English-speaking country. But the devil (and beauty), for me, is in the detail: when you’re stressed, busy, or unwell, those little details matter.

Like the first time I came down ill and stood in the aisle of Boots (pharmacy chain that perplexingly also sells fresh packaged sandwiches), staring at the sea of unfamiliar brands in the Cold & Flu section. The lime green box labelled “Night Nurse” was especially disconcerting.

As a couple, we’re close. Literally. Here we are in our “one butt kitchen”. Ah, London life.

Or that your washing machine will be located in your kitchen and you will not have a dryer. Nothing says domestic bliss like dropping your partner’s knickers on the floor while she drops pasta on your head and then she smacks you in the shoulder with her bum as you both bend over at once. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience.

Or the fact that everything is officially in metric, except miles per hour, pints of beer (which are bigger than US pints), daily life where things are still referred to in inches and feet, and people weigh themselves in stones. Don’t get me started on that last one.

Or the fact that zucchini is called courgette, pants = underwear, fries are chips and chips are crisps, and the first time a schoolchild asked me for a rubber, I was speechless until I realised they were asking for an eraser.

Or the fact that, as a US citizen, you are legally required to file a tax return every single year. Even if you haven’t lived in the US for years and have no US-based income. There are taxation agreements in place to prevent paying in two different countries, but it’s still a reporting pain. The US is one of the only countries in the world that imposes taxation and reporting requirements on non-resident citizens. There are other reporting and compliance requirements, for example the FBAR, and noncompliant or “delinquent taxpayers” can suffer harsh penalties.

Or the circular headache that comes when you need to open a bank account, but the bank requires formal proof of address such as a utility bill. But you can’t set up your utility bill without a bank account for the direct debit. You see where this is going.

And, it should go without saying, you’ll need to be diligent to make sure you learn and follow local laws and courtesies. Especially if it’s in relation to what you can/can’t do according to your visa rules (like the cap on your working hours if you’re on a student visa). This is not where a Pirates of the Caribbean approach will work.

Creativity in the face of stringent rules

Let’s change tack and talk about creativity. And I don’t mean arts/crafts/jazz hands — I’m talking about dynamic, flexible thinking and problem solving.

Psst: creative disguised as a proper grown-up with a real career. Don’t let them know!

Like my career path. I’m a weirdo: I have both a BA and MA in Creative Writing, I’m nuts about anything involving the arts, and one of my favourite jobs was working as a camp counsellor for two summers in the mountains in Arizona where I taught art outdoors to a heap of feral children. But my full-time day job in London for 5 years was in finance.

How did this happen? I knew I wanted to write and live in England in general, later in London. That was the goal. It happened, but not because everything went according to plan.

I graduated with my BA, did some research, and reality hit me that this England journey was a long game. I’d have to be patient. I went back home, obtained my substitute teaching license, and lived with my parents to save up. I spent the better part of two years explaining that I didn’t need a husband to befuddled Mormon children who apparently never had a single female teacher before me.

I tried being an English teacher in the UK. I got a work visa as a paid trainee teacher learning on the job while also studying a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education). Great on paper, but a disaster in practice and I quit.

Aside from trying to organise my visa in these conditions, I also had a fraudulent charge on my debit card during the week I was staying in this tent with 8 preteen girls. My bank conceded that I probably wasn’t buying knockoff Disney merch while I was stuck in the woods.

I knew I wanted this particular MA for years. In the two-month grace period between quitting teaching and my visa expiring, I applied and interviewed to four MA programmes in London. The dream programme accepted me before I’d left the UK. But I still had to fly home to apply for and re-enter the UK on the student visa.

I spent the summer working as a camp counsellor, organised my student loans over dodgy wifi in the counsellor’s log cabin, and flew back to England that autumn.

While studying the MA, I signed up with a temp agency and worked anywhere they sent me. Those temp jobs led to a connection who offered me a part-time admin role in finance. When my student visa was running out, that same employer agreed to sponsor me. My now-husband and I knew that he’d be able to sponsor me if we continued living together for another year and a half. Even though I since switched to a family visa, I still worked for that same employer until I left for Australia.

What I’m trying to illustrate is the power of researching with an open mind, and when a door opens, taking a very good look even if it’s not the opportunity you expected or wanted.

Take your time. Make notes. Brainstorm. Jot down questions. Look on the country’s immigration website and browse the different options – something might jump out at you. The internet is your friend and there is a wealth of blog posts and articles from people who have seen and done it before. Stay open-minded and realise the answer might come in a roundabout way. Part of the fun of life is seeing which paths open up that you didn’t expect.

In closing

Rather than be discouraging, this post was simply meant to boost a little reality into the image of double-decker red buses, castles, rolling green hills, and quintessential British pubs.

I’ll close with a few aspects of London life that I couldn’t get enough of:

  • The British sense of humour. I love it. It suits my personality perfectly: dry, a little bit of sarcasm, self-deprecating, and a lot of puns and wordplay.
  • Public transport. The London Underground is spectacular and the cleanest subway system I’ve encountered.
  • Public parks. London is one of the greenest cities. You’re never far from a patch of grass to refresh and watch birds.
  • The sheer variety of things to do. On any given evening or weekend, we had hundreds, if not thousands, of options within an hour’s walk or public transport journey. Museums, theatres, cultural heritage sites, outdoor spaces, sports, and restaurants in every imaginable type of cuisine from around the globe. And then there’s the wacky stuff like paddling down the Thames in a cow-printed kayak.

I hope this whirlwind visa overview was informative and a little bit entertaining. If you enjoyed reading, or if there’s a special topic you’d like me to explore, I’d love to hear from you – pop a note in the comments or contact me using my webform.

One thought on “Deep Dive: The Visa Conundrum (UK)

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