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UK Visa Guide for Postgraduate Students

The United Kingdom is one of the world's most popular postgraduate study destinations, with more international students than any other country outside the USA.

In order to join them, you'll need a Student Route visa (previously known as a Tier 4 student visa). This page explains how the UK's points-based system works, with information on visa sponsorship, applications and fees. See our blog if you're looking for information about the UK's two-year post-study work visas.


Coronavirus information: The UK Government has made several changes to visa requirements in order to help international students during the coronavirus outbreak. You can now apply for a visa for a course that begins by distance learning and won't lose your sponsorship if you are forced to suspend your studies due to coronavirus.


On this page

Who needs a visa to study a Masters in the UK?

You'll usually need a visa for postgraduate study in the UK if you are an international student.

Your visa application will need to be sponsored by a university that has accepted you to study for a degree. In order to sponsor a visa your institution must be a licensed student sponsor. Your visa will typically allow for multiple entries into the country.

Some exceptions may apply to international students with refugee status the right of asylum or long-residence in the UK. For further information, see the resources produced by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).

Brexit

If you're an EU, EEA or Swiss national and you're beginning a course that starts after 1 January 2021, you'll need to apply for a student visa.

What was the Tier 4 student visa?

In October 2020, the UK Government replaced the previous Tier 4 (general) student visa with a new, points-based student visa route.

We’ve covered how these points work below, but in practice there isn’t a huge difference between the two schemes.

However, there are a few key changes to the Tier 4 visa that it’s worth being aware of:

  • If you’re applying from outside the UK, you can now begin your visa application six months before your Masters begins (previously it was three months)
  • There’s no limit to the time you can spend studying postgraduate qualifications in the UK on the new student visa (previously you could only spend five years studying on a Tier 4 visa)
  • EU, EEA and Swiss nationals have been added to the list of ‘low risk’ countries that don’t need to prove they meet the financial requirements
  • If you’ve already studied an English-language qualification in an eligible country, you may not need to prove your language proficiency

Am I eligible?

You will normally have no problem applying for a visa to study a Masters in the UK, provided the following are true:

  • You have been accepted to study a full-time or part-time postgraduate course (Ofqual level 7 or above) at a UK university with the right to act as a student visa sponsor
  • You have sufficient English language proficiency to complete your course
  • You have access to enough financial support to pay your Masters fees and cover living costs in the UK during your degree

Further information about these requirements is provided below.

Eligible courses

Visas for postgraduate study in the UK are slightly different to those for undergraduate courses. In most cases this means that they are actually more flexible.

You can apply for a student visa for any postgraduate Masters degree, regardless of whether it is full-time or part-time. However, there are some restrictions in place for part-time study visas – you aren’t allowed to work during your degree or to bring dependants (such as partners or children) with you to the UK.

Language requirements

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.

Your university must be satisfied that you are proficient in English in order to sponsor your visa. This may mean that they ask you to sit an English language test when you apply.

If you’ve studied a degree-level qualification in an English-language country, you won’t usually need to prove your proficiency with an English language test.

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

Financial requirements

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 (provided you are studying full-time), 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 exact amount depends on where you will live and study:

  • Students in London must have access to at least £1,265 per 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 month. This is a total of £9,135 over nine months.

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.

If you’re from an exempt country or you’re an overseas British national, you won’t have to provide proof that you meet these financial requirements.

Student route points

In October 2020, the UK Government replaced the previous Tier 4 (general) student visa scheme with a new, points-based Student Route.

To successfully meet the conditions of the points-based system, you’ll need to achieve 70 points:

  • A confirmation of acceptance for studies is worth 50 points
  • Showing that you meet the financial requirements is worth 10 points
  • Meeting the English language requirements is worth 10 points

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 studies (CAS).

Institutions with the power to sponsor visas in this way are known as licensed student sponsors. This status was introduced in October 2020. It replaces the previous system of Tier 4 Sponsor status.

The majority of public universities in the UK are licensed student sponsors, 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 licensed student sponsors on the UK government website.

What is confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS)?

Confirmation of acceptance for studies may be issued by a university or other institution with licensed student 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 student visa without CAS and you must have your CAS number 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 licensed student sponsor status change?

It is rare for an institution to lose their status as a student sponsor, but this has happened in the past. New institutions may also earn student sponsor status, subject to a probationary period.

What happens to me if my university loses its licensed student sponsor status?

The effect on your of your university losing its student sponsor status will depend on the way in which this occurs:

  • Your university loses its ability to issue new CAS – A university that loses student sponsor status may remain as a 'legacy sponsor'. This means it cannot issue new, CAS but any CAS numbers 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 student 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 student sponsor status revoked – A university that has its student sponsor status fully revoked can no longer sponsor international students. Any CAS it has issued will also become invalid. This means you cannot apply for a student 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 number will be refused. If you are already studying in the UK on a student 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 student visa. You can do this by transferring to another institution.

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

How do I apply?

There are two stages to a UK student visa application: applying for confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) and applying for your student visa.

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

Applying for CAS

Before you can apply for a student 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.

Once your university is satisfied with your application it will issue you with a unique CAS number.

Applying for a student visa

Once you have your CAS you can apply for your visa online.

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

  • A valid passport with sufficient space for your visa
  • Evidence of your maintenance funds

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.

Visiting a visa application centre

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 (VAC) in your home country. Your fingerprints and photograph will be used to create a biometric residence permit when you arrive in the UK.

Applicants from certain countries may also be able to use an app known as ‘UK Immigration: ID Check’ to verify their identity without visiting a visa application centre.

How much does a student visa cost?

If you're applying from outside the UK, the fee for a UK student visa is £348. This is non-refundable.

If you’re applying from inside the UK (either to extend an existing student visa or to switch from a different kind of visa), the fee is £475.

Other costs can include:

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

Paying your immigration healthcare surcharge

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 £470 per year. You can check the specific amount you'll need to pay online.

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

How long will my application take?

If you're applying from outside the UK, you can apply for a visa six 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.

If you’re applying from inside the UK, you can apply three months before your course begins. You’ll usually receive a decision within eight weeks.

What other conditions are there?

Successfully completing your visa application will allow you to enter the UK and prepare to begin your Masters degree, subject to a few conditions.

Arriving in the UK

You can arrive in the UK up to one month before your Masters begins.

Initially your visa will be issued as a short-term entry permit (known as a vignette). This will allow you to enter the UK for up to 90 days whilst you collect your longer-term biometric residence permit.

Collecting your biometric residence permit

Your biometric residence permit (BRP) functions as your immigration document for the remainder of your degree. As the name suggests, it contains your biometric details (the fingerprints and photograph that were taken at your visa application centre) as well as the terms and conditions for your visa.

You should normally collect your BRP from your university and do so either within 10 days of arriving in the UK, or before your short-term entry permit expires (whichever is later).

Working during your Masters

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.
  • You must be studying full-time. Student visas are available for part-time Masters degrees, but they do not allow you to work in the UK.

Bringing family members

If you are studying full-time, your dependants may travel with you and live in the UK during your degree. This permission includes your partner and children (under the age of 18).

You must be able to demonstrate additional maintenance funds for each dependant and pay a further healthcare surcharge for them.

Additional information on these requirements is available from the UK Government website.

Visa duration

A student 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 from summer 2021 onwards, international postgraduates are able to remain in the country and look for work for up to two years after completing their course. This is part of a new Graduate Route.

Can I apply to study another course after my Masters?

Yes, but you will need to extend your student visa or apply for a new visa (with new CAS from your new institution).

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.

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.

What is the Graduate Route?

The UK has announced a new Graduate Route offering two-year post-study work visas for all international students who graduate from summer 2021 onwards. There is no restriction on the kind of work you can do or how long you have to find a job within the two-year period.

The Graduate Route isn't affected by the coronavirus outbreak: you'll be able to benefit from this option if you begin a Masters in 2020-21!

You can get the latest updates on these plans in our newsletter.

Search for a UK Masters degree

The first step to gaining a visa for study in the UK is to find a suitable Masters degree. Why not take a look at those listed here on FindAMasters?

Last updated - 05/11/20

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