Getting a Student Visa for Your PhD – Some Simple Tips
Trying to sort a visa for an international PhD can seem a bit overwhelming. After all, visas are exactly the sort of things that involve lots of very specific regulations and small print.
The coronavirus pandemic added its own complications, but most countries are now encouraging students to reconsider studing abroad.
This blog has traditionally served as a sort of 'PhD visa 101', using the UK as an example. It's now been updated to take account of the past couple of years.
#1 Make sure you understand what a visa actually is
A student visa is a travel permit that lets you enter a country to start a university course there. Once you've arrived you may also need a separate residence permit during your course (we'll come back to that).
The distinction between visas and residence permits is important because not all students need both.
#2 Confirm you do actually need one
Following on from the above, don't just assume you'll need a visa just because you're studying abroad. Lots of countries have agreements that mean their citizens can move freely between them.
The EU is one obvious example – you don't need a visa to go from one EU country to a university in another – but there are lots of others. For example, students from Australia don't need a visa to study in New Zealand (or vice versa). The Nordic countries also allow their citizens to study abroad freely at each other's universities. These exemptions aren't always obvious, so check our international study guides to be sure.
#3 Check if any conditions are different because of the coronavirus pandemic
The coronavirus hasn't changed the requirement for a student visa. If you needed one to study abroad before the pandemic, you'll still need one now.
What might have changed are the requirements you'll need to fulfill with your visa and the conditions you'll need to meet to keep it. For example, some countries will only accept applicants who have been vaccinated. Wherever you plan to study, check with your university or the government website before you begin your application.
#4 Check what else you'll need
There's usually a time limit on how long you can stay with just a visa. To extend it, you'll need to pick up a residence permit. In the UK your initial Student Route visa will provide a sticker (known as a vignette) for your passport, then you'll need to collect a biometric residence permit (BRP) before that vignette expires (or within 10 days of your arrival – whichever is later).
If you don't need a visa, you may still need to register your arrival at a local police station or similar.
#5 Do things in the right order
There are lots of regulations and requirements for student visas, but they mostly boil down to two things:
- First, you'll need to prove that you're a genuine student. UK universities will issue you with a confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS) once they've accepted you for a PhD. Other countries will have similar procedures. The key thing is that you'll need to do this first: you can't apply for a student visa until you've been accepted to be a student.
- Second, you'll need to sort your funding and show that you have enough money to cover your accommodation and living costs. In the UK you'll need £1,023 per month, for nine months (outside London). You can prove this in a few different ways. Evidence of being accepted for advertised PhD with funding or having won a full studentship for your project will usually do the trick. Just make sure you know what's acceptable for the visa you're applying for.
You may also need to take a language test, but this often happens when you're applying for a course (universities shouldn't 'sponsor' students without the necessary language ability). Language testing has also become more flexible over the past few months. You should still be able to get a certificate, even if you can't attend a physical test centre.
The key takeaway here is to give yourself enough time. The likelihood is that you'll need to complete your PhD application and sort at least some funding before you can successfully apply for a visa.
#6 Understand work and study rules
Working whilst studying a PhD is fairly common and it's normally fine to do so on a student visa, bearing the following in mind:
- There will probably be a restriction on the number of hours you can work. In the UK this is 20 hours a week during term time (so, excluding Easter, Christmas and summer holidays). Other countries will generally set quite similar restrictions.
- You may need to be studying full-time (regardless of whether you're working). This has actually been relaxed in the UK where postgraduate students can get a Student Route visa for full-time or part-time study. Other countries may still have restrictions though.
As a PhD student it's worth checking whether employment with your university will count towards any cap on term-time working hours. It's pretty common for doctoral students to do some teaching work during their PhDs (or even hold full Graduate Teaching Assistantships). This will normally be fine, but make sure it doesn't take you over the limit for your visa.
You should also bear in mind that you can't normally rely on future earnings as evidence of financial support during your visa application. In most cases you've got to already have the money or be able to show that you'll receive it from a scholarship / studentship / etc.
#7 Know what you can do next
You might be hoping your PhD leads to a career in the country you've studied abroad in. There's nothing wrong with that (I certainly don't think so) and most destinations have post-study visa options that will allow you to stay on whilst you look for work.
These vary, of course. Some countries, like Canada, are famously welcoming, with post-graduation work permits of up to three years following a PhD. The UK has also moved back to a more generous post-study work visa with a new three-year Graduate Route visa, which opened for applications last year.
You can check the details for other countries in our guides.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 05/06/2019. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
Last Updated: 07 April 2022
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