It’s Easier to Settle in the UK Than You Think: 3 Visas to Try

United Kingdom Visas
The Union Jack combines the crosses seen in Scotland’s, England’s, and Northern Ireland’s flags.|©CHUNYIP WONG/iSTOCK

When people ask me one country they should try to visit in their lifetimes, I always say the U.K.

I admit to some bias, but the fact remains that to understand where the United States comes from, you need to spend some time wandering around the imposing structures and great institutions built during the height of the British Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But the U.K., or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is four diverse nations: Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Each possesses its own culture, united under the British Crown. Regional cultures—including languages and accents—vary widely over remarkably short distances.

Even within England proper, the difference between North and South is like night and day. And given the way the country has absorbed the dozens of cuisines from its former colonies, the food is anything but bland… as a plate of vindaloo curry will quickly teach you.

When people ask me for one place to visit… I say the UK.

The U.K. is one of the few countries that allows nationals of some countries to stay for up to six months on a normal visitor’s permit. (Most limit you to 90 days.) That includes Americans and Canadians. A visitor’s permit allows you to do just about anything… except run a business or take up employment.

But now that the U.K. has left the European Union, you’ll need one of its visas to spend an extended period there. So let’s look at what’s available, including some lesser-known varieties.

According to the Home Office (based in London), there are more than 30 different visa types on offer. Many of these are designed for specific groups, like citizens of Commonwealth countries and refugees from certain countries.

For anyone who doesn’t fit into one of these special categories, there are three main routes to extended residency in the U.K..

Work Visas

One of the reasons the U.K. decided to leave the European Union was popular discontent over the number of workers coming in from the rest of the EU. Under successive Tory governments, the Ministry of Home Affairs has become stricter in granting permission to foreigners to work in the Kingdom. But it’s certainly possible… often easier than within the EU.

The simplest approach is if your employer sends you to work in the U.K. There are six different visa categories under the "Global Business Mobility" rubric that allow employees of foreign companies to work in the U.K. as long as their employer proves the need. These visas aren’t limited to high-level employees. Mid- and even low-level workers with specialist roles in a company are also eligible.

There’s also a special visa category for what are known as "Scale-Up Workers." These are people who have skills that can allow a U.K. business to grow exponentially, particularly in technology and finance. If you can get a job with such a company, you can get a first visa for two years, which is extendable for as long as the company needs you.

Another work-related visa category is for "Global Talent." This is reserved for people who have the potential for exceptional accomplishments in academia, research, arts and culture, or digital technology. To qualify, you must apply for an endorsement from the ministry of Home Affairs that certifies that you have such potential.

The visa lets you stay for five years but can be extended for another five. After either three or five years, depending on your field, you can apply for indefinite leave to remain in the U.K.. After 10 years, you can apply for citizenship.

A third category of work visa is granted to those doing temporary work under various categories. For example, creative, religious, or charity workers can apply for the Temporary Work Visa for between 12 and 48 months. All require a certificate of sponsorship from a British institution certifying your status.

Finally, the Innovator-Founder Visa allows you to settle permanently in the U.K. if you plan to set up an innovative business that doesn’t already exist there. Your business or business idea must be endorsed by an approved body.

The visa allows you to stay for up to three years and can be extended indefinitely. After the first three years, you can apply for permanent settlement in the U.K.. As with other visa categories, you can bring a spouse and dependents as well.

Home Affairs is well aware that people who work in the country for extended periods are legally eligible to apply for a permanent settlement or citizenship after the requisite number of years. To prevent that, the total time allowed on a work visa is just less than that needed to qualify for citizenship. Nevertheless, many people manage to find another visa category to get them the additional year necessary to become a British citizen.

Ancestry Visas

You could qualify for a five-year study visa at the University of Oxford.
You could qualify for a five-year study visa at the University of Oxford.|©PEREJANTHAN THAVASEELAN/iSTOCK

The second approach is via ancestry. This is mainly of interest to Canadians and West Indians, since eligibility is limited to applicants who are either citizens of Commonwealth countries or fall into one of the three categories of British overseas nationality. The latter includes residents of British Overseas Territories (e.g., Bermuda) as well as certain Hong Kongers.

To qualify, you must prove that one of your grandparents was born in the U.K., the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, or in the territory that became the Republic of Ireland before 1922. You must have enough money to live without help from public welfare and plan to work in the U.K. if you’re not retiring.

If approved, you can bring your spouse and any dependents with you. The visa is valid for five years and can be renewed for another five. After five years, you can apply for permanent settlement in the U.K, and after ten, become a citizen.

Study Visas

The third category of visas that can get you into the U.K. for an extended period involves studying in the country. To qualify, you must be accepted for a course of study at a licensed student sponsor, which includes most universities, colleges, and specialist training institutes.

You’ll need to have enough money to support yourself and pay for your course. The visa allows you to stay for up to five years if you’re studying for a recognized university degree, and up to two years for everything else. You can extend the visa if you decide to continue your studies. Alternatively, you can apply for a graduate visa that allows you to stay for another two years if you are pursuing a postgraduate degree.

Depending on the length and nature of your studies, you may be able to bring your spouse and dependents. You may also be allowed to do certain types of work depending on what you’re studying and whether you’ll be working and studying at the same time. You can’t start your own business, however, or claim any public benefits.

There’s also the High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa, which we mentioned in our August issue. Recent graduates from this list of universities—updated annually—may apply to stay in the U.K. for up to three years.

Retirement Visas

I mentioned earlier that, under the Conservative Party, the U.K. has become much stricter about immigration. This is especially the case under the government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. His Home Affairs minister, Suella Braverman, is an immigration hawk—despite the fact that both she and the Prime Minister are the children of immigrants.

Under Braverman, the Ministry of Home Affairs withdrew the retirement or independent means visa in November 2022. It is now no longer possible to settle in the country on funds from abroad, as is the case, for example, in Portugal or Greece. (Existing visa holders who continue to qualify can renew indefinitely.)

This means that in order to retire in the U.K., you must qualify under one of the categories listed above. For most people, that means proving an ancestral family tie to a U.K. citizen or investing in a new business.

Of course, there are no age limitations for a student visa, other than being age 17 or older. That means a student visa may be a route to an extended stay in the U.K. even if you are retired. It’s only been nine months since the government withdrew the retirement visa, however… so the jury’s still out.

Is the UK Right for You?

Retiring as an expat is more challenging in the U.K. now than in the past. But as they say… where there’s a will, there is a way.

Recent polling shows that a majority of Brits regret Brexit and would be open to rejoining the EU. That’s highly unlikely in the short term, but the Labour Party’s platform includes much more openness to immigration. So it’s possible that a retirement visa may be resurrected in the near future.

As it stands, the U.K.’s visas are optimal for slow travelers who want to settle somewhere for a few months at a time… or those who want an English-speaking base for their European travels. My colleague Kristin is spending six months in northern England under the tourist visa. On the next page, she tells you what she thinks…