Monday, 7 April 2014

How to Survive your Student Visa Application: A Guide

I've been getting emails lately from students curious about the student visa process for the UK. 
The visa process can be IS ALWAYS a hassle, no matter the country. I would know--I've done two in the past four years. It's confusing, expensive, and stressful. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll spend your days frantically refreshing your inbox and stalking the UPS guy. So I thought I'd share my experience in applying for a Tier 4 visa to study in the United Kingdom. Please remember that I'm not a lawyer or an immigration specialist and this is intended to help, not to cover every single subject. That being said, if you have any questions or need clarifications, feel free to drop me an email and I'll do what I can to answer your questions! We immigrants have to stick together, right?

getting my French student visa in 2010...please pretend you didn't notice the hair.

My situation was a bit unique because I am 1. a total weirdo and 2. a person who loves filling out forms. I know, they're completely the same thing. In the fall of my senior year of college, after a summer of taking the GRE and a full course load, I applied to the MSc in Museum Studies program at the University of Glasgow. It was October. There were no application fees, and I was desperate to have a plan. I'd also discussed my potential grad school choices with a trusted professor, who recommended Glasgow Uni for this degree. Great, right? Much to my surprise, I received an email less than a week after I'd applied offering me a conditional spot in the program. I couldn't believe it. The conditions of my acceptance were that they needed my final transcript and an academic reference, but I didn't accept my acceptance (weird) for a couple of months. Once I'd decided on Glasgow Uni and once my parents had agreed, I accepted my offer. 

Because I'd applied so early in the year, there was a long waiting period in terms of applying for my visa. You can't apply for your visa until three months before you're due to travel to the UK. After graduation, I had my transcript and references sent. Unfortunately for me, the school lost my references and refused to give me my CAS number (more about this in a bit) until another letter was sent. I was not happy, but another letter was sent, allowing me to apply for my visa.

Glasgow University, spring 2013

In order to apply for a Tier 4 visa, you need:
-an unconditional offer of a place on a course
-to be able to speak, read, write and understand English
-to have enough money to support yourself
-to be from a country that's not in the European Economic Area/Switzerland

This all sounds pretty easy. Don't let it fool you. Let's break this down, step by step.

The Unconditional Offer
Once your university has accepted you and you have provided all of the necessary documents (rec letters, transcripts, etc.), they will change your status from conditional to unconditional. Before you go any further, you might want to double-check that this school is registered to sponsor students. Your offer needs to be from a school on this list in order to count. After the university has given you an unconditional offer, they will send you a very important number referred to as a CAS or Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies. The Tier 4 visa works on a point system, with 40 points required in order for you to qualify. The CAS is 30 of those points. You can think of it as your golden ticket to studying in the UK because you cannot get into Willy Wonka's magical factory without it. I received my CAS in an email, which I printed three times and put in a special folder. I didn't want to take any chances.

English Skills
If you're from a country that is English-speaking, like the United States, you don't need to worry about this. Otherwise, you'll need an English language test or proof that you've already done a degree in English that's equivalent to a UK Bachelor's degree.

Glasgow University, fall 2012

This is where you mention any scholarships, loans, or family funds that will get you through the year. The school should give you an estimate of how much the current cost of living is for your city (or at least mine did). If they don't, use the internet. Depending on which country you're from, you may or may not need to prove personal funds with bank statements. It may not seem fair, but certain countries are more "trusted" than others*. America is one of the trusted ones, and I did not send any bank information with my student visa application. This was a bit of a risk, but the timing conspired against me having the documents I would have included here. The bank statements need to be so many days in advance/have proved the funds were in the account for a certain length of time. I got my CAS on August 3rd and left on the 30th, so it just wasn't possible for me. If you've got the time and the fore-knowledge, I'd recommend including whatever you can. It can only support your application.

This is on the list only because people from those countries don't need a visa to study in the UK.
I know. We're all jealous of them, too.

There are a few other pieces that need to be included with your envelope of goodies.
You'll need to have your biometric details taken before you send your application off, which is actually not nearly as scary as it sounds. I'm pretty sure they just took my fingerprints. They should give you a paper that proves you've had this done, and that'll go in your packet of documents. You will also need to include your actual passport and two passport photos with your name/application number on the back. Yes, you read that right. Your passport will need to be sent off in the mail because they will paste the visa onto a blank page of your passport. You'll need to be sure you paid the return postage for them to mail it back, which you should see as an option when you pay for your visa application.

If you stuck with me through this whole post, I feel like I owe you some cookies or something. I hope it's helpful. Oh, and one last tip--try not to wait until the last minute. My passport with my shiny new visa got returned to me just in time, but not everyone I know was so fortunate. With a good deal of patience, a bit of luck, and some solid planning and organizing, you'll get through it and be off to your adventure abroad.

Leaving for Glasgow, August 2012


* From the policy guidance document: 
11. If you qualify for our differentiation arrangements because you are considered to be 
“low risk” you will normally be required to provide fewer evidential documents. If you 
are exempted from having to provide a document - or a group of documents - under our 
differentiation arrangements, this will be specifically stated in this guidance. Not withstanding 
the differentiation arrangements, the Home Office reserves the right to request the full range 
of documents from you in all cases. 


  1. Gianni Washington8 April 2014 at 16:17

    I can't get my CAS until my financial aid biz is all finished, and it won't be until my school updates its Cost of Attendance forms... which won't happen until "closer to June." It'll be a while yet before I can even send in my visa application. ;_; I feel like I can't even be excited about leaving until I know for sure that I'll be allowed to leave hahaha It is definitely encouraging that you and others have successfully made it through the process without chunks of your brain disintegrating.

    Question: Is it necessary that the passport photos match the photo in your actual passport?

    Thanks for such a helpful post!

  2. Ugh I know the feeling!! The waiting is the hardest part. But June is still plenty of time, don't worry. Mine didn't even get sent in until August something.

    And no, your photos don't need to be the same. As long as you're still you! The photo in my passport is from 2009--I'd be in big trouble if I had to recreate it. ;)
    Let me know if you have any more questions!

  3. Gianni Washington9 April 2014 at 05:15

    It seems like such a silly question now I've asked it, but I had a mini panic attack when I read the words "your actual passport and two passport photos," and nightmarish visions of gigantic, faceless authority figures tearing up my application because of mismatched photos leapt to mind...

  4. Hahaha I'm so glad I'm not the only one! I was so crazy nervous when I submitted mine. I was positive that I was going to offend them somehow and get rejected and never get to go. Clearly, that's not how it went, haha! I had a million and one questions, but I just had to go with my gut instinct because I didn't know anyone who'd had to do either of those visa applications! At least this one's in English, right? :)


Thanks for taking the time to comment! It's well and truly appreciated. :)

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All materials on this blog belong to me, unless stated otherwise. I try to give credit where it is due, but the internet is a vast wasteland of images separated from their creators. If you own something I post that is not attributed to you, please contact me and I will fix it stat. STAT. Like a doctor running down the hallways of the hospital to restart someone's heart. Exactly like that.