UK immigration routes for non-EEA nationals
If you’re a national of a country outside the European Economic Area (EEA), you will ordinarily be subject to UK immigration control. This means you must have valid permission to enter and remain in Britain.
Which are the EEA countries?
Under current UK immigration rules nationals of the following countries are not subject to immigration control in the UK:
Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and the UK.
Although Switzerland is not part of either the EU or EEA, Swiss nationals have the same rights to live and work in the UK immigration rights as EEA nationals.
Examples of non-EEA nationalities who must apply for UK immigration status can be found in our glossary post here:
UK immigration routes
Under the current UK immigration system, there are a number of ways to apply for lawful immigration status. Your options will depend on your circumstances and whether you meet the requirements under the immigration rules.
In your application to the Home Office, you will need to show evidence that proves your eligibility of the particular route.
UK immigration routes for non-EEA nationals generally fall under the following categories:
Family in the UK
You may be able to apply to come to the UK if you have family here.
Different rules apply to different types of relationship.
For example, you may be eligible to come to the UK under a family visa if you are married to or in a civil partnership or long-term relationship with someone who has the right to live in the UK permanently.
If you are in a long-term relationship with someone who is in the UK with a valid visa, such as the Tier 2 work visa or Tier 4 study visa, you will need to apply as their dependant.
If, however, you are a family member of an EEA national with UK permanent residence, you as a non-EEA relative can apply for a UK residence card.
If your partner or spouse is in the UK as a refugee or with humanitarian protection, you will need to apply through the family reunion route.
In any application to the Home Office where you are relying on a relative to ‘sponsor’ you, you will have to prove that your relationship with the UK-based individual is genuine and that they have enough money to support you while you are in the UK.
Family applications are generally made from outside the UK. In-country applications can only be made if you aren’t applying as a fiancé, you aren’t in the UK on a visitor visa and you were given leave to remain in the UK for more than 6 months.
Work in the UK
If you intend to work in the UK, whether on a paid or voluntary basis, you will need to apply under the relevant UK visa or scheme.
The UK operates a points-based system which assesses applicants against set criteria for each category and awards points where requirements are satisfied.
The exceptional talent visa allows highly skilled workers in specific professions to come to the UK on more flexible terms.
The main route for non-EEA nationals to work in the UK is the Tier 2 (General) visa for skilled workers.
It requires the visa holder to be sponsored by a qualifying UK company and work in a role that is eligible under the route in respect of skill requirements and salary level. The route allows visa holders to bring their immediate family to the UK as dependants. The route is limited to a maximum stay of 6 years, but can lead to UK indefinite leave to remain if the visa holder can show they meet the criteria for UK settlement.
The Tier 2 Intracompany transfer (ICT) visa allows companies to transfer skilled non-EEA workers to UK-based operations to fill a post in the UK which cannot be filled by a locally recruited employee. Strict requirements apply and there is no option to switch visa category while in the UK or to apply for settlement from the ICT visa.
Tier 5 is for temporary workers only as part of approved government authorised exchange schemes in a number of specific categories including charity, religious workers and creative and sporting workers.
Importantly, the visa is not open to individuals who have already been to the UK under a Tier 5 Youth Mobility visa, or in the former ‘working holidaymaker’ category.
Other work & business routes
Outside of the points-based system, additional schemes and routes exist to address specific immigration needs.
For non-EEA investors and entrepreneurs looking to invest in or start up enterprises in the UK, two new routes were introduced in March 2019: the Start Up visa, aimed at individuals setting up their first business in the UK; and the Innovator visa, for more experienced business owners wanting to further invest in and direct their UK-based enterprises.
Specific schemes also exist such as the paid performance route for professionals such as entertainers, artists and athletes to come to the UK to do specific events and performances.
Study in the UK
To study in the UK, non-EEA nationals should apply for the Tier 4 visa for international students.
This covers study for both short and long term courses and degrees at UK-based education institutions, including private schools and universities.
Claim asylum in the UK
If you are granted asylum, you can remain in the UK with refugee status.
In your application, you will need to show that you meet the criteria for asylum. You must prove that you are eligible to be a refugee because it is unsafe to remain in your home country due to fear of persecution. This could be because of your sexuality, your race, your religion, your nationality or because of a political opinion you hold.
You will need to make your asylum application as soon as you arrive in the UK, or if your already live in the UK, apply as soon as you become aware that it would not be safe to return to your home country. Delaying your application can affect your prospects of being granted refugee status.
You will then have to attend a screening meeting and a further asylum interview.
UK immigration options
The UK immigration system is notoriously complex, and the options open to you to come to the UK may not always be obvious.
Once you have identified a route, evidencing eligibility will be critical. Home Office applications processes are rigid, slow and costly and stringent rules apply to the type of supporting documentation you will need to gather and provide to make your case.
Take professional advice on your options to ensure you are opting for the best route for your circumstances, and for guidance on building and submitting your application to the Home Office to avoid delays, issues or even refusal of your application.