Let’s be honest, it’s probably a lot cheaper and a lot less of a hassle to find a PhD program in the country you live in. You potentially have to spend money visiting the school, and then there are also the flight, overweight baggage fees, and international student tuition costs to consider. Even before all of that, there are essential forms you need to fill out to obtain your student visa. But don’t despair! It’s a daunting process, but it can be broken down into manageable steps. This post will hopefully shed some light into this complicated process.
For US students (or non UK/EU students) planning on studying in the UK, you have to spend money even before you start thinking about how to pay for your tuition and fees. After you are accepted into your degree program (congratulations!!!), you should receive an acceptance letter from them, along with other information that you need to apply for a visa. Depending on whether you are “studying for a postgraduate qualification in certain sensitive subjects”, your UK university should automatically send you information needed to apply for an ATAS (Academic Technology Approval Scheme) clearance certificate. This ATAS certificate is required for applying for your visa.
If you don’t already have one, you have to apply for a passport, or make sure your current passport’s expiration date is at least a couple of years past your estimated date of degree completion just to be sure. My passport expired a couple of years into my PhD degree program, so I had to renew my passport before I could even apply for a Tier 4 General UK student visa. Next, you have to apply for your student visa online and pay £310, or about $442 for your Tier 4 General UK student visa. Before it can be approved, you have to book an appointment to visit the British Consulate so they can capture your biometrics (basically your fingerprints), after which you get your biometrics appointment confirmation form stamped, which should be included with your visa application as a supporting document. Remember, it’s important to mail your complete visa application to the British Consulate within 2 weeks of getting your biometrics form stamped!
Hopefully you don’t go through what I had to go through, which was that I paid for my student visa online and booked an appointment to visit the nearest British Consulate (as I was living in Boston, it was fairly easy to get to the Boston location using the T). Then to my surprise, my university sent me an updated ATAS form indicating my degree had been changed. Initially I was accepted as an MPhil student that would be upgraded to a PhD student after the Probation Review at the end of the first year. However, their regulations changed and I was sent a new form that stated that I was a PhD student. This actually was really great news, but I wished they sent me this form just a few weeks earlier before I applied for everything! Due to this updated form, I looked up the procedure for applying for a new visa with new ATAS information, and I had to contact UK Visas and Immigration to inquire about getting a refund for the visa I already paid for. Luckily, because I canceled my biometrics appointment at the British Consulate, I was able to get a refund for the first visa, even though I had to pay for another visa before getting the refund as I had to meet the deadline to get my student visa before I could travel to the UK as a student and begin my degree. Once I paid for another visa, I had to go through the process of booking another biometrics appointment as soon as possible.
Then I had to make sure I had all the required student visa forms, including proof that I had enough money to pay for at least one year’s tuition and living costs. They required either your latest bank statement or a signed letter by your parents or guardians stating that they will assist you in funding your degree and living costs. Once I made copies of every form I was sending (an essential tip!), I mailed my visa application with tracking and requested a signature on delivery, hoping they would approve it as soon as possible. You should receive an email from UK Visas and Immigration stating that they received your application within a couple of days, along with the following application completion timeframes:
“UKBA customer service standards for all applications are: to complete 90% of visa applications (except settlement categories) in no more than three weeks, 98%in six weeks and 100% in 12 weeks”.
I was a bit worried that my passport with my Tier 4 General UK student visa wouldn’t arrive in time for my booked flight to the UK, but I received an email a week after I mailed my visa application stating that my visa had been issued! It luckily arrived with a couple of weeks to spare. I have a friend who had gone through the process of applying for a PhD in the UK a year ahead of me, and hearing about her experience and how long it took for her to get a visa helped me immensely. All in all, it took about 2 weeks for my visa to be approved from the time I mailed it to the UK Border Agency in New York to the time it was sent back to me. Including the time it took to renew my passport, apply for the ATAS, book the biometrics appointment, apply for the Tier 4 General UK student visa, and then do the visa process a second time, it took around 3 months.
I hope this information helps you with your application process, and good luck!!