How to apply for a Tier 4 student visa (US citizens)

I’ll keep the intro short on this one. Suffice it to say that it took me a little over 2 months after realizing, “Hey, I should get going on this immigration stuff” and actually receiving my visa. Along the way, I ran into a lot of information that was helpful, and a lot of information that was out of date, contradictory, or otherwise useless. So, here’s my breakdown of steps to getting a visa for long-term study in the UK. (This is all based on the assumption that you are a US citizen and applying from within the US.)

The most important website is this one from the UK government, describing the procedures you’ll need to go through and providing official information and guidance. I also found the UK Council on Student Affairs  (UKCISA) website very helpful.

What is a Tier 4 (General) student visa?

A Tier 4 student visa allows you to live in the UK for the purposes of study longer than 6 months (if your stay is less than 6 months, you can generally just use a tourist visa). It is a multiple-entry visa, so you can leave the UK and re-enter with no additional cost or paperwork. If your course is longer than 1 year (plus about 3 months), you will need to apply to extend your visa during your time in the UK.

Am I eligible?

If you’re reading this, you probably are. Basically, you need to have an unconditional offer of a place on a course from a registered sponsor, enough money to pay for your course and support yourself, and knowledge of English.

For example: in order to get an unconditional offer from Cambridge, I had to upload a bunch of forms for them, including my final undergrad transcript, a scan of my passport ID page, and a Financial Undertaking form. This last one told them how I intended to pay for my course (part-scholarship, part self-/parent-funded). Having sent all this in, they gave me an unconditional offer. If you’re a national of a country where English is the primary language, like the US, you don’t need any documentation of English fluency.

What do I need to do before I apply?

First of all, you need to get an unconditional offer. This may sound weird to US students, but when you first get accepted to a UK university, you generally get a conditional offer of admission. In order to get an unconditional offer, you have to prove that you’ve completed your previous degree (whether high school or undergrad or whatever) in sufficiently good standing, that you have enough money to support yourself and pay for your course, and that you have a good chance of passing immigration requirements if you’re an international student. For me, this meant showing that I have a valid US passport and getting and uploading an ATAS certificate.

Wait, ATAS?

If you’re doing an advanced degree that involves scientific or medical equipment (like, say, an MPhil by research in Physics), you’ll almost certainly need to get an Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS) certificate. Your institution will tell you if you need to apply for an ATAS certificate or not.

This was the step that took the longest for me; the processing time was about 25 days after I applied. It’s not difficult or complicated, but you will need to provide a lot of standard personal info, information about how you will be funding your studies, a JACS code (this designates what you’re studying; should be provided by your institution, or you can look it up), a short research proposal if you’re doing a research degree (this will be provided by your institution, and you must use the exact text they provide you), and 2 references who have known you for at least 3 years, one of whom must be an academic in your country of origin.

More information about applying for an ATAS certificate can be found here, and the application website is here (use Internet Explorer).

OK, what else do I need to apply for a Tier 4 visa?

The really key thing you need from your institution is a Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies, or CAS. This is a reference number that your institution sends both to you and the UK immigration that tells them, “This person wants to study at our institution, and everything seems to be in order.” You’ll need it for your visa application.

Apart from that, you’ll need to provide a passport that is valid for the duration of your studies, 2 professionally printed, UK-passport-sized photographs of yourself with your name written on the reverse (see here and the note below for photo requirements), proof of parent/guardian consent if you’re under 18, and maybe proof that you can support yourself and pay for your course.

  • Note on photos: my visa application was delayed when I first applied because the photographs I supplied were “too grainy.” I had printed them on the reasonably high-quality photo paper on my dad’s work printer. I would say that, unless you are really confident that you can produce professional-quality photos at home, get them professionally done at a place that does US passport photos. I did my replacement set at Walgreen’s, and they even had software to ensure that they got photos with the correct dimensions for a UK visa.

Low-risk students

You may have noticed that there was a “maybe” before that last set of documents. That’s because, if you are a US national applying from within the US to study at a Highly Trusted Sponsor institution (which includes most major universities in the UK, e.g. Cambridge), you are considered a low-risk student. As such, you are not required to submit supporting documentation for your financial situation; in fact, the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) recommends that you don’t send this in. However, if the immigration officer decides they want to, they can ask for documentation, so you should have it accessible just in case.

I spent a lot of time freaking out about my financial documents, and they were never even asked for! Still, better safe than sorry.

So what financial documentation do I need?

This is spelled out in gory detail in the relevant sections of the guidance. There are so many specific situations that I don’t want to cover them all here. In addition to the guidance, the UKCISA website has a useful guide to what documents you need.

How do I apply?

First of all, fill in the online application, which you can get to from here. You’ll need all those documents I mentioned earlier, your CAS number, and any previous passports you may have.

Next, you’ll be prompted to set up an appointment at the nearest visa application center, where they will scan your fingerprints and send them off to the British Consulate General in New York. There’s a form with a barcode on the front that you’ll need to bring along to get stamped at the appointment.

Finally, go to your favorite postal/package carrier and get a return shipping label and envelope. Send these off with your complete visa application (printed from online), your 2 photos, your current and any relevant previous passports, and any other documents that you think you need to send in. As a general rule, if they don’t ask for it or if it doesn’t substantially clarify something that looks weird in your application, don’t send it! They’ll ask if they need it.

What if I need to provide additional documents?

If you need to send something else in, you will be notified via email and given 3 business days to get it to them. This is not a lot of time, so be ready with any additional documents you think you may need and send them by a fast postal service with a tracking number.

In my case: my pictures were too grainy and I was given 3 days to get new ones in. I got the email at 8 am on Monday, and I immediately went to the drugstore, got new pictures taken, and cut them down to size. I sent the new pictures by 2-day Priority Mail, and everything was fine (they arrived Wednesday evening).

How long does it take?

It depends on the time of year, but my “send us new photos” email from the visa service said that most applications were processed within 12 days.

General advice:

Get started on your application as soon as you can. You can apply for an ATAS certificate up to 6 months before the start of your course. You can apply for a visa up to 3 months before the start of your course. The sooner you apply, the sooner you can be sure you won’t have to change your plane ticket, and the cheaper it will correspondingly be.

Well, I hope that helps somebody.

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