The UK's wide range of research-intensive universities make it an excellent choice for PhD study abroad. However, you'll normally need a visa to study for a UK doctorate as an international student.
PhD students are part of the UK's points-based Student Route visa system (previously known as the Tier 4 student visa). Gaining such a visa is not usually complicated, provided you are a genuine student and have been accepted to study at a recognised UK university.
This page explains how the UK's student visa system works, who is eligible and how to apply. We've also covered the new Graduate Route post-study work visa which will allow PhD students to remain in the UK for up to three years after completing a doctorate.
Most international students need a student visa to study in the UK. This applies to all levels of study, including undergraduate, Masters and PhD.
You should normally apply within your home country, before travelling to the UK and beginning your doctorate. However, you can also apply to extend your visa if you’re already studying in the UK (for example, if you’re enrolled on a Masters programme). Once granted, your visa will last for the stated duration of your degree and normally allow for multiple entries into the UK.
If you're an EU, EEA or Swiss national and you're beginning a PhD that starts after 1 January 2021, you'll need to apply for a student visa.
Some international students may still be able to study in the UK without a visa. This may be the case if you have been granted asylum, recognised as a refugee or have lived in the country for an exceptionally long time (long residence).
In most of these circumstances you would already be in the UK and would therefore not be applying for a student visa in the normal way. If in doubt about your visa status contact your prospective university, or see the comprehensive advice provided by the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).
In October 2020, the UK Government replaced the previous Tier 4 (general) student visa with a new, points-based student visa route.
We’ve covered how these points work below, but in practice there isn’t a huge difference between the two schemes.
However, there are a few key changes to the Tier 4 visa that it’s worth being aware of:
As a genuine international student, you will normally have no problem applying for a student visa, provided you can satisfy the following criteria:
Further information about these requirements is given below.
Student visas are available for qualifications at all levels of the UK higher education system, including Bachelors, Masters and PhD programmes.
However, student visas for part-time study are only available to postgraduates. Undergraduate students must study full-time.
In order to study at a UK university you must be able to speak, read, write and understand English at a level sufficient for a higher education degree.
Your university will normally request a score from an academic language test as part of your PhD application. It will then certify this as part of your CAS.
However, if you've already studied a degree-level qualification in an English-language country, you won't usually need to prove your English proficiency using a test.
You must be able to show that you have enough money to pay for at least the first year of your PhD. This amount will be based on fees stated by your university (as part of your CAS).
You must be able to show that you have sufficient money for living costs. The minimum requirements are:
You will need to show that you have sufficient costs to cover you for at least nine months of your PhD. So, if you are studying outside London, you will need access to £9,135. If you’re studying in London, you’ll need £11,385.
Proof that you have sufficient money for your living costs can include:
Other forms of finance, such as personal loan or credit agreements are not normally acceptable. Neither is money you plan to earn from part-time work.
However, if you're from an exempt country, you won't need to prove you meet the financial requirements.
The Student Route visa system requires universities or other higher education providers to 'sponsor' their students' visa applications. This helps to confirm that students are genuine and that the qualifications they intend to study are suitable for a student visa application.
Once a university has agreed to sponsor you it will issue you with confirmation of acceptance for studies (CAS). You can then use your CAS to apply for your visa.
The majority of higher education insitutions in the UK can sponsor their students visas (and issue CAS). If in doubt, contact your university, or check the Government's register of licensed student sponsors.
Your CAS will be issued to you by your university in the form of a unique reference number (your CAS number). You can then use this to make your visa application.
Once issued, your CAS will be valid for six months. You must apply for your visa within this time.
This is relatively rare, but may lead to two outcomes:
In practice, it is rare for a university to lose its sponsorship status and most institutions that do will retain some form of legacy sponsor status. UKCISA offers additional resources and advice for students with any concerns.
The UK uses a 'points-based' visa application system. A number of points are awared to you for satisfying each eligibility criteria and you must earn a certain amount before you can apply.
A student visa requires 70 points. These are awarded to you as follows:
You earn these points separately, but you must have the full 70 in order to be granted a visa.
Don't let the points-based system confuse you. It mainly serves to keep track of the different parts of your application. Provided you meet the criteria for your visa you will earn the necessary 'points' as you go.
There are three steps to applying for a student visa for a PhD in the UK:
Once you have registered your online application, you should make an appointment at an official visa application centre (VAC). You should check in advance to find your nearest centre.
Staff at the VAC will take the photograph and fingerprints you'll need later for your biometric residence permit.
Sometimes you will also be interviewed to check why you are applying for a visa. If so, simply explain why you want to study a PhD and why you have chosen to do so at your UK university. Your answers don't need to be very detailed: you just need to prove that you are genuinely interested in studying a PhD abroad in the UK.
If you’re from a specified country and have a biometric, you may be able to use a mobile app called ‘UK Immigration: ID Check’ to verify your identity without visiting a VAC.
You will have to pay some fees as part of your student visa application. The exact amount will vary depending on your circumstances.
If you’re applying from outside the UK, you’ll pay an application fee of £348.
If you’re applying from inside the UK (to extend an existing student visa or switch from another kind of visa), you’ll pay an application fee of £475.
Some visa application centres may also charge a small VAC fee to cover their administrative costs. You should be able to check this in advance.
Most students will also need to pay an immigration healthcare surcharge allowing you to use the UK's National Health Service (NHS) during your degree. The fee for this is normally £470 per year for students, but you can check the exact amount.
If you’re applying from outside the UK, most visa applications are processed within three weeks, but the exact time required may vary. You can begin your application six months before your PhD begins.
If you’re applying from inside the UK, your visa will usually be processed within eight weeks and you can apply three months before the PhD programme starts.
Once you have your visa you will be allowed to come to the UK and get started with your PhD. There are a few terms and conditions that will apply to you whilst you study.
You can arrive in the UK up to one month before your PhD begins.
Initially your visa will be issued as a short-term entry 'vignette' (a sticker in your passport). This will allow you to enter the UK for up to 90 days, during which time you must collect your longer-term biometric residence permit.
Your biometric residence permit (BRP) functions as your immigration document for the remainder of your degree. It contains records of your photograph and fingerprints (taken at your visa application centre) as well as specific details about your visa.
Your BRP will normally be sent to your visa sponsor (your university). You should collect it from them within 10 days of arriving in the UK, or before your short-term entry permit expires.
You can work in the UK with a student visa, subject to the following conditions:
Don't forget that you cannot rely on income from employment to cover your living expenses in the UK.
You may be able to bring dependants (such as your partner or children) to live with you in the UK during your PhD.
You will need to pay an additional immigration healthcare surcharge for each dependent and demonstrate that sufficient money is available to support them during their time in the UK. You must also be studying for your PhD full-time.
The UK's student visas include part-time postgraduate students. However, students on these visas are not normally allowed to work during their degrees, or bring dependants with them to the UK.
Your visa will be valid for the duration of your PhD, provided you continue to study at your sponsoring university.
Once you have completed your doctorate, you can remain in the UK for up to four additional months. You will still be covered by the terms of your student visa during this period, but may use the time to seek skilled work and potentially apply for another visa.
Alternatively, you may apply for the UK's Graduate Route scheme (see below). However, you must do this before your visa expires.
The Graduate Route is a new UK post-study work visa option being introduced for international students who graduate from the summer of 2021. It will allow you to remain in the UK for up to three years after your PhD.
This Graduate Route will replace the Doctorate Extension scheme for new PhD students starting in 2020-21.
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The Doctorate Extension Scheme allowed international PhD graduates to extend their visa for up to 12 months in order to seek work in the UK.
From summer 2021 the Doctorate Extension Scheme will be replaced by the new Graduate Route, which allows all eligible international PhD students to remain in the UK for up to 36 months
We've done our best to ensure the information on this page is accurate and up-to-date, but we recommend you check your visa requirements carefully. The following resources may be useful to you:
If you're looking for a visa to study a UK Masters degree, rather than a PhD, see the full guide at FindAMasters.com
The first step to applying for a student visa is finding a PhD. Why not take a look at some of the current opportunities on our website?
Last updated - 05/11/20