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UK Visa Guide for Postgraduate Students

The United Kingdom is one of the world's most popular postgraduate study destinations. In fact, with over 400,000 international students the UK is second only to the USA for study abroad. But how easy is it to study a Masters degree in the UK? And what kind of visa will you need?

This page provides a full overview of the current UK student visa system, with answers to common questions. For more information on other aspects of postgraduate study in the UK, see our guides.

The UK student visa system

The UK uses a points-based system for international student visas. This means that you will need to satisfy a series of criteria in order to earn enough 'points' for a study visa.

In practice the system is not complicated. Provided you have been accepted at a recognised university, have appropriate qualifications and are able to support yourself financially, your application should be successful

The visa you will need to apply for is called a Tier 4 student visa. This will allow you to live and study in the UK for the duration of your Masters degree. You will also be able to remain in the UK for up to four months after graduation.

UK visas - recent changes

You may be aware of some changes to the UK student visa system over the past few years. None of these prevent international students from studying in the UK.

  • In 2011 the UK Government introduced the current Tier 4 student visa system. This requires applicants to be sponsored by a recognised university (or other higher education institution).
  • In 2015 the government updated its sponsorship requirements. This replaced Highly Trusted Sponsor Status (HTS) with Tier 4 Sponsor status.
  • In 2016 a pilot scheme was launched to simplify visa applications at some universities.

The effects of these changes are covered in the advice below.

Who needs a visa to study in the United Kingdom?

Students from the EU (European Union) and EEA (European Economic Area) are able to study in Britain without a Visa. Switzerland is not part of the EEA but typically adheres to the same immigration rules as those countries that are.

Other international students must apply for a Visa with sponsorship from the institution they are intending to study at. In order to sponsor a visa your institution must have Tier 4 Sponsor status. Your Visa will typically allow for multiple entries into the country.

Does 'Brexit' affect UK student visas?

Not immediately. The decision to leave the EU was taken by UK voters in a referendum on the 23rd of June 2016. However, the process for leaving the EU will take at least two years and has not yet been triggered. In the meantime, EU students will continue to be able to study in the UK without a visa.

You can read more about the effects of Brexit on postgraduate students on our blog.

Which universities can sponsor student visas?

In order to apply for a visa to study a Masters in the UK you must be 'sponsored' by a recognised higher education provider. Sponsorship means the institution has accepted you as a student and can confirm that you will be studying a genuine postgraduate course with them in a way that satisfies UK immigration requirements. Universities confirm their sponsorship by issuing students with Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS).

Institutions with the power to sponsor visas in this way are said to hold Tier 4 Sponsor status. This status was introduced in April 2015. It replaces the previous system of Highly Trusted Sponsor status (HTS).

The majority of public universities in the UK have Tier 4 Sponsor status, as do some private providers. Your institution should be able to confirm whether it is able to sponsor your visa. You can also view a complete register of Tier 4 Sponsors on the UK government website.

What is Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS)?

Confirmation of Acceptance for Study may be issued by a university or other institution with Tier 4 Sponsor status. As the name suggests, this confirms that you've been accepted to study at the university as a genuine international student.

You cannot apply for a Tier 4 student visa without CAS and you must have your CAS before you apply for a visa. Once issued, CAS is valid for six months.

This means that you must apply for a Masters in the UK before applying for a UK visa and that you cannot wait more than six months between these applications.

Can Tier 4 Sponsor status change?

Tier 4 Sponsor status is issued for 12 months at a time. It is then renewed based on a compliance check. This confirms that the university has been recruiting international students correctly and has not invalidated any immigration and border control requirements.

If a university is found to have broken the terms of its Tier 4 Sponsor status it may be revoked. This will prevent the institution from sponsoring any more students.

It is rare for an institution to lose Tier 4 Sponsor status, but this has happened in the past.

New institutions may also earn Tier 4 Sponsor status, subject to a probationary period.

What happens to me if my university loses its Tier 4 Sponsor status?

The effect on your of your university losing its Tier 4 Sponsor status will depend on the way in which this occurs:

  • Your university loses its ability to issue new CAS - A university that loses Tier 4 Sponsor status may remain as a 'legacy sponsor'. This means it cannot issue new Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) but any CAS it has issued remain valid. If you are already studying at a legacy sponsor you may continue to do so for the duration of your current course and visa. If you are yet to begin a Tier 4 visa application you may continue to do so with your current CAS. Note that legacy sponsors will not normally be able to issue you a new CAS or extend your visa.
  • Your university has its Tier 4 Sponsor status revoked - A university that has its Tier 4 Sponsor status fully revoked can no longer sponsor international students. Any Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) it has issued will also become invalid. This means you cannot apply for a Tier 4 visa with a CAS issued by this institution, but you can be issued with CAS for study at another institution. Any pending applications with your current CAS will be refused. If you are already studying in the UK on a Tier 4 visa sponsored by a revoked institution you will only be able to remain in the UK for up to 60 days unless you earn a new Tier 4 visa. You can do this by transferring to another institution.

Remember that, in practice, it is uncommon for an established university to lose its Tier 4 Sponsor status. Further advice for any students who do end up in this situation is available on the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) website.

What is Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status?

Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status was the previous form of sponsorship certification granted to universities before April 2015. It allowed universities to grant CAS for Tier 4 visas. HTS has now been replaced by Tier 4 Sponsor status. The two terms are functionally the same, but you should be wary of any institution that only refers to Highly Trusted Sponsor status and does not appear to possess Tier 4 Sponsor status.

How do I apply for a visa for my UK Masters degree?

There are two stages to a UK student visa application: applying for Confirmation of Acceptance for Study (CAS) and applying for your Tier 4 visa.

These stages are separate and must be completed in order (you cannot apply for a Tier 4 visa without valid CAS).

Applying for CAS

Before you can apply for a Tier 4 visa for postgraduate study you must be accepted onto an eligible Masters course and issued with CAS by your university.

In order to do this you must find a Masters in the UK and apply as normal. Once you have been given an unconditional offer to study at your university you can request a CAS statement from them.

To do this you will need to submit official confirmation of your academic qualifications, including transcripts of course content and degree results. This information will be used by your university to validate your CAS.

Universities may ask you for a deposit as part of their CAS process. This will usually be a proportion of your postgraduate fees. Requiring a fee deposit helps universities ensure that your application is genuine and that you intend to study with them.

Applying for a Tier 4 visa

Once you have CAS you can apply for your visa online using the official Visa4UK service.

In addition to your CAS you must provide the following materials:

  • A valid passport with a single blank page
  • Evidence of maintenance funds (see below)

Documents should be supplied by post and will normally be returned within 14 days. Note that you do not have to send any documents that you have already used for your CAS application. Once your university has issued you with CAS it verifies that this evidence has been seen and is correct.

In addition to your online application you will need to submit fingerprints and a photograph. This should be done at an official visa application centre in your home country. Your fingerprints and photograph will be used to create a biometric residence permit when you arrive in the UK.

How much does a Tier 4 visa cost?

The fee for a UK student visa is £328. This is non-refundable.

Other costs can include:

  • A fee deposit (if required by your university when issuing CAS)
  • An immigration healthcare surcharge (see below)

You will also need to demonstrate that you have proof of maintenance funds for your course, but you won't need to 'pay' this money during your application.

How long will my application take?

You can apply for a visa three months before your Masters begins. Most visa applications will take three weeks to process, but you should try to leave longer in case there are any additional requirements with your application.

More information on UK student visa processing times is available online.

What if English isn't my first language?

You will need to be able to have sufficient English language skills in order to study a Masters in the UK. This means you must be able to speak, understand, read and write English without difficulty.

You won't be asked to provide a language test score as part of your Tier 4 visa application. However, your university must be satisfied that you are proficient in English in order to issue you with CAS. This may mean that they ask you to sit an English language test when you apply.

Note that UK border control may stop and investigate anyone arriving on a student visa who does not appear able to communicate in English.

What kind of funding will I need?

In order to study in the UK you must show that you can independently support yourself during your Masters. You cannot rely on public funds and benefits to support you and must prove instead that you have sufficient money or funding of your own. You can work part-time as an international postgraduate, but you cannot rely on these earnings for support.

You must have sufficient maintenance funding to cover your course fees, plus a living allowance for at least the first nine months of your course.

The amount of money you must have access to for living costs depends on where you will live and study:

  • Students in London must have access to at least £1,265 per calendar month. This is a total of £11,385 over nine months.
  • Students elsewhere in the UK must have access to at least £1,015 per calendar month. This is a total of £9,135 over nine months.

Proof of maintenance funds

Acceptable money for proof of maintenance funds can take various forms. You may:

  • Hold the money as cash in a personal current or savings account.
  • Have a parent or guardian who holds the money in their personal current or savings account and will give you permission to use it.
  • Be in receipt of an academic or government loan or of academic or government sponsorship.

In each case you will need to provide suitable evidence that this money exists and that you have access to it.

Can I bring any dependents with me?

In many cases you will be allowed to bring children with you when you come to the UK to study. However, you must be able to prove that you can provide for them and demonstrate that you have funds additional to those you need to secure your own Visa. (£5,400 in London and £4,050 elsewhere)

Can I work whilst in the UK?

Yes, you can work whilst studying a Masters in the UK. However, you cannot rely on this income to support yourself in place of other maintenance funds. Working in the UK on a student visa is also subject to some restrictions:

  • You may work up to 20 hours per week part-time during term time.
  • You may work full-time during academic holidays.
  • You may not work in some occupations, including professional sports and entertainment.

If your spouse travels to the UK with you they may also work. See our guide to working as a student in the UK for more information.

Will I need health insurance?

International students can access the UK's National Health Service (NHS). However, you must pay an immigration healthcare surcharge in order to do so.

The cost of this for a student is normally £150 per year. You can check the specific amount you'll need to pay online.

You should pay this surcharge online as part of your Tier 4 visa application.

How long will I be allowed to stay in the UK?

A Tier 4 visa will be valid for the duration of your Masters degree and for a further four months after you complete your course. You can use this extra time to look for work or apply for further study. However, you will normally need a new visa to carry out either of these activities.

Note that postgraduates from some universities are able to remain in the country for six months, rather than four months, after completing their course. This is part of a new pilot scheme.

Can I apply to study another course after my Masters?

Yes, but you will need to extend your Tier 4 visa or apply for a new visa (with new CAS from your new institution). Note that applying for further study is subject to some conditions:

  • Your course must demonstrate academic progression. This means it should not simply be another Masters in the same subject area. More advanced courses, such as a PhD, will demonstrate academic progression after a Masters.
  • The total amount of time you can spend in the UK on a Tier 4 visa is capped. The cap for this is normally 5 years, but can be extended in some cases - particularly if you continue to a postgraduate research course, such as a PhD.

In practice, this means that progressing to a PhD in the UK after a Masters is usually possible as an international student. Studying other courses may be subject to restrictions.

Last updated - 05/08/2016

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