A guide for visiting the UK

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In 2017, over 11 million visitors from outside the European Union flew, drove and sailed into the UK. Heathrow airport alone has an average of 75 million travellers arriving each year, which is an average of 143 arrivals - the equivalent of the average capacity for a commercial aeroplane – landing every single minute.

There were a staggering 135 million arrivals into the UK including returning UK residents. Since the current UK total population stands at around 66 million, the UK potentially has as many visitors as it has citizens arriving each year.

There are dozens of reasons for visiting the UK, London is second on the list of most visited cities in the world, and previously the Home Office subdivided the visit visa for each reason. However, now most visits fall within a single ‘umbrella’ visa called a ‘Standard Visit' visa. The ‘Standard Visit’ visa applies to almost all reasons for visiting the UK and is accompanied by a long list of dos and don'ts that apply to all visitors.

Do I need a visa to visit the UK?

Most countries (111 in total) are listed as 'Visa Nationals' by the Home Office. Being from a 'Visa National' country means that you will need to apply for a visa before travelling to the UK. If you are not a 'Visa National', then you are permitted to board a plane to the UK by virtue of your own passport and you will be granted permission to enter the UK at the UK border. Many people will feel that they have visited the UK and never been issued a visa, but the visa will be an ink stamp in their passport.

How do I apply for a visit visa?

If you do need to apply for a visit visa, then you will need to complete an online form, pay a fee, and submit your application and supporting documents to a Visa Application Centre (VAC) in any country other than the UK. The VAC will forward your application on to the Home Office in the UK who will approve or refuse your application. 

What can a visitor do and what can’t they do?

The rules around what a visitor can and can’t do essentially focus on prohibiting a visitor from undertaking activities that would fall under separate visa categories such as a work or a student visa. Those seeking to visit the UK as tourists can do so freely; the restrictions are largely for those entering the UK as business visitors. 

Business visitors cannot undertake activities in the UK that would constitute those normally undertaken within a UK-based role. Permitted activities centre around one-off activities that form part of a person’s overseas job role. There are also different activities permitted and prohibited for different sectors. 

The risks of being found to be visited by overseas workers who are undertaking activities that are outside of the permitted activities allowed by the UK immigration rules are that the visitors are working without permission. The company then becomes liable to a civil penalty and/or the revocation of a sponsorship licence. 

What happens if I am refused a visit visa?

If you submit your application for a visit visa outside of the UK and it is refused, your documents will be returned to you, but the fee that you paid for the application will not. You can apply again, but if the Home Office suspect that you have included information that is not completely true, then applying again can be very complicated.

If you arrive at the UK border and are asked about what you plan to do in the UK, there is a potential that you might state an activity that is prohibited under the visitor rules. In this event, the border official is likely to refuse permission to enter the UK and, after a lengthy wait, you will be required to travel back to the country from which you came.

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