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UK Visa Guide for PhD Students

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 Tier 4 (student) visa system. 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 recent changes for PhD students, such as the new Doctorate Extension Scheme.

On this page

Who needs a visa to study a PhD in the UK?

You will need a Tier 4 visa to study in the UK if you are an international student from a country outside the EU, EEA or Switzerland. 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. Once granted, your visa will last for the stated duration of your degree and normally allow for multiple entries into the UK.

Brexit

EU, EEA and Swiss students can normally study in the UK without a visa. This is unaffected by Brexit for courses beginning in the 2018-19 academic year. We've put together an FAQ with the latest Brexit information for PhD students.

Who doesn't need a visa to study a PhD in the UK?

Some citizens of countries outside the EU, EEA or Switzerland 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 Tier 4 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).

Am I eligible?

As a genuine international student, you will normally have no problem applying for a Tier 4 visa, provided you can satisfy the following criteria:

  • You must have been accepted to study at a UK insitution with the right to act as a Tier 4 visa sponsor and granted confirmation of acceptance for studies
  • Your course must be a full-time or part-time PhD (or other postgraduate programme) at Ofqual level 7 or above
  • You must possess the necessary English language skills for your course
  • You must have sufficient money or PhD funding to pay your fees and cover living costs whilst you are in the UK

Further information about these requirements is given below.

Eligible courses

Tier 4 visas are available for qualifications at all levels of the UK higher education system, including Bachelors, Masters and PhD programmes.

However, Tier 4 visas for part-time study are only available to postgraduates. Undergraduate students must study full-time.

Language requirements

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.

Money for course fees

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).

Money for living costs

You must be able to show that you have sufficient money for living costs. The minimum requirements for 2018-19 are:

  • £1,015 per month if your PhD is based outside London
  • £1,265 per month if your PhD is based in London

These amounts are updated each year to reflect changes in the cost of living.

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 (£1,015 x 9).

Proof that you have sufficient money for your living costs can include:

  • Funds in a bank account held by you (or by your parents / legal guardian)
  • A student loan granted to you by a government or other state sponsor
  • Financial sponsorship or scholarships awarded by your government, the UK Government, your university or a similar body

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.

How does Tier 4 visa sponsorship work?

The Tier 4 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 Tier 4 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.

Which UK universities can act as Tier 4 sponsors?

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 Tier 4 visa sponsors.

How does CAS work?

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.

Can a university stop being a Tier 4 sponsor?

This is relatively rare, but may lead to two outcomes:

  • Your university becomes a legacy sponsor - In this case, your university will not be able to issue new CAS, but any CAS it has already issued with remain valid. You should be able to apply for your visa, or complete a PhD with an existing visa, as normal.
  • Your university has its sponsorship revoked - In this case any CAS issued by your university will become invalid, as will a visa it was used to apply for. If you are studying on such a visa you will need to apply for a new CAS from another sponsor, or leave the UK within 60 days.

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.

What is 'Highly Trusted Sponsor' status?

Prior to 2015, universities with the right to sponsor visas were referred to as having 'Highly Trusted Sponsor (HTS) status. This has been replaced with Tier 4 Sponsor status.

How do I apply?

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 Tier 4 (student) visa requires 40 points. These are awarded to you as follows:

  • 30 points - for gaining your confirmation of acceptance for studies
  • 10 points - for proving that you have sufficient funds to support yourself during your degree

You earn these points separately, but you must have the full 40 in order to be granted a visa.

The points-based system

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.

Application process

There are three steps to applying for a Tier 4 visa for a PhD in the UK:

  • Step one - apply for a PhD - You'll need to find a PhD in the UK and be accepted before you can begin a visa application. Your university will confirm that you meet the requirements for your course, including academic qualifications and language proficiency.
  • Step two - receive CAS - Once it has offered you an unconditional place, your university will issue you with a CAS number. This confirms that the university will sponsor you as a genuine international student. Your CAS is valid for six months
  • Step three - apply for a visa - You can now begin your Tier 4 visa application online, using the official Visa4UK service. You should do this from within your home country, no more than three months before your PhD begins.

Visiting a visa application centre

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.

Visa fees

You will have to pay some fees as part of your Tier 4 visa application. The exact amount will vary depending on your circumstances:

  • All international students must pay a standard application fee of £335. You can use the official visa fees tool to see how much this will be in your home currency.
  • 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 £150 per year for students, but you can check the exact amount.

Processing times

Many visa applications are processed within three weeks, but the exact time required may vary. You can see how long it normally takes to issue a visa for a student from your country.

What other conditions are there?

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.

Arriving in the UK

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 30 days, during which time you must collect your longer-term biometric residence permit.

Collecting your 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.

Working alongside your PhD

You can work in the UK with a Tier 4 student visa, subject to the following conditions:

  • You can only work for a maxiumum of 20 hours per week during term-time (there is no limit on working hours during vacation periods)
  • You must be a full-time student as confirmed by your university
  • You cannot work as a professional sportsperson or in certain other jobs

Don't forget that you cannot rely on income from employment to cover your living expenses in the UK.

Bringing family members

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.

Visas for part-time PhD students

The UK recently updated its Tier 4 regulations to 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.

Visa duration

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 Tier 4 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 Doctorate Extension scheme (see below). However, you must do this before you finish your PhD.

What is the Doctorate Extension Scheme?

The Doctorate Extension Scheme is a new option, specifically designed for international PhD students. It makes it possible for you extend your visa after your PhD and remain in the UK to seek work with your doctorate.

How does the scheme work?

Your visa will be extended for 12 months after your PhD ends. During this time you can work freely (with no limits on your hours) in all professions other than those of a medical doctor, dentist or professional sportsperson.

Who is eligible?

You can apply for your visa to be extended if you are:

  • A current PhD student on a valid Tier 4 visa
  • Applying from within the UK
  • Studying at a university willing to sponsor you for the Doctorate Extension scheme (and issue a new CAS for it)

Note that this scheme is only available to PhD students (including those on professional doctorate programmes such as a DBA or EdD). It is not available to students graduating with an MPhil, or other research-based Masters degree.

How do I apply?

You should apply for the Doctorate Extension Scheme by requesting a new CAS from your current Tier 4 visa sponsor. This will state when you are expected to complete your PhD and you must apply up to 60 days before this date (so, you can begin your new visa application 59 days before you finish your PhD, but not 61 days before).

What happens if I find permanent work during my Doctorate Extension?

The Doctorate Extension Scheme is designed to make it easier for PhD students to find skilled work in the UK. This could involve working in higher education as an academic, or working in industry as a professional researcher.

If you are successful in finding work, you should apply for a Tier 2 (skilled worker) visa. This will allow you to live and work in the UK on a longer term basis and potentially apply to settle in the UK in future.

Further information

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:

  • The UK Government website publishes official information on Tier 4 visa requirements
  • The UK Council for International Student Affairs offers a wide range of resources and guidance for overseas students
  • The international office at your university may also be able to offer specific assistance with your visa application and requirements

If you're looking for a visa to study a UK Masters degree, rather than a PhD, see the full guide at FindAMasters.com

Search for a UK PhD

The first step to applying for a Tier 4 visa is finding a PhD. Why not take a look at some of the current opportunities on our website?

Last updated - 22/01/2018

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