As anyone who has still been waiting for a visa to be granted days before they are due to travel knows: the visa application process can be the most stressful part of any visit to the UK.

Although the Home Office says that decisions on visit visas ‘should be received within 3 weeks’, decisions are often delayed for months at a time, leaving visa applicants uncertain if they will be able to travel to the UK or, in fact, anywhere else, as the Home Office holds the person’s passport until a decision on their visa application has been reached.

As recent press reports indicate that would-be delegates coming to Glasgow for the COP26 Conference have struggled with the UK immigration process, you might wonder if a visit visa application for a short trip to the UK can really be so difficult.

In short, yes, it can.

The UK Immigration Rules are notoriously complex and difficult to use, and applications for visit visas are no exception.

The application for a visit visa to the UK is up to 20 pages long and demands information including your address history, your parents’ names, where you will stay in the UK, how much money your trip will cost you, and where you got the money to pay for it.

After submitting your application, you will be required to provide evidence in support of those answers.

What documents are required to support a visa application?

In assisting clients with applications for visit visas, we often recommend that they include the following:

  • the title deeds to their property or proof of an ongoing tenancy agreement in their home country;
  • proof of their job and confirmation that they are expected to return to work after their trip to the UK;
  • up to six months of bank statements and payslips to show their source of income;
  • proof of return flights and accommodation in the UK already having been arranged;
  • proof of family ties and strong enough connections to their home country that they can be considered unlikely not to return there.

The application process is onerous and time consuming. The Home Office provide a checklist of documents to be provided in support of an application, but providing only the documents on that list runs the risk of an application being refused as more evidence is expected, though not specifically asked for.

The Home Office, in turn, blames delays in the decision making process on applicants failing to have provided the right evidence and does not provide updates on pending applications.

Nor will they generally request any evidence that they find lacking. Applications are refused without a right of appeal and a person still hoping for a visit visa can only take the refusal letter as a starting point for gathering additional documentation for a second (or third) attempt at an application.

Each application is paid for, as no refunds are given when an application is refused.

Who needs a visa?

Not everyone coming to the UK for COP26 needs a visa.

Heads of state, government ministers coming on official visits, and members of ‘certain international organisations’ are exempt from immigration control, although even some of them may require exemption vignettes as proof that they do not need a visa to enter the UK.

Likewise, generally speaking, people from ‘non visa countries’ do not need a visa and can just show up to the UK border, explain that they are there for a holiday and be allowed entry. These people are known as ‘non-visa nationals.’ That is, they have the nationality of a country from which the UK is prepared to let people in without a prior application under the UK Immigration Rules.

However, border guard at the UK border have a significant level of power to refuse people entry.

Even those from non-visa countries such as the USA or an EU member state would be advised to apply in advance for a visit visa to ensure entry if they have been refused any other kind of UK visa in the past. A failure to do so could see a person being detained by border guards and ultimately sent home without being allowed to enter the UK if the border guards decide they might try to stay in the UK beyond the six months allowed to visitors.

Even when discounting non-visa nationals, there are a lot of people worldwide who do need visit visas to come to the UK. This has been apparent in the build up to COP26 as people from all over the world try to fly to Glasgow for the Conference.

In the run up to the global event, the Home Office’s Immigration Rules have been openly criticised as an “unjust immigration system to obtain a visit visa…that often makes deeply discriminatory decisions, refuses the right to appeal, and is made up of a complex documentation process that penalises poorer applicants.” (COP Coalition Visa Support Service.)

Are these allegations of discrimination justified?

As with most legal questions, the answer is not a straightforward yes or no. On the one hand, a visit visa application is the same for a doctor applying from the USA as it is for a new student applying from, say, Colombia (a country from which a visit visa is required).  The same questions are asked and the same evidence is expected.

However, this is where the allegations of indirect discrimination begin to emerge.

As above, the most important things to show in an application for a visit visa, are that you are not likely to stay in the UK beyond the term of your visa, and that you are a ‘genuine’ visitor. This is done through proving strong connections to your home country and evidence that you have good reasons to return home after a short time in the UK.

Proving your connections to your home country will be easier for some than others. People who own property and have full-time jobs in professional industries and families to return home to might easily establish their reasons not to stay in the UK. However, those without such obvious ties may find their applications refused on the assumption that they have no reason to return home after a visit.

Younger or poorer applicants might struggle to provide more than their own assertions that they intend to return home after a short visit to the UK. Arguably already penalised by the very fact that they have to apply for a visit visa, while others from richer non-visa countries do not, such applicants may be more likely to not have savings or disposable income to spend on their trip to the UK. They might not have booked accommodation in advance, preferring the flexibility of obtaining cheap accommodation upon arrival in the UK.

The UK’s standardised process for considering applications for visit visas may well indirectly discriminate against those who find it more difficult to satisfy the requirements. However, if the application process was open to more discretion and different rules were applied to different countries, the Home Office would surely instead face accusations of a lack of transparency in the application process.

How can you get UK visa advice?

In practice, the surest way to have your visa application granted is to instruct an expert to help with your application.

An experienced immigration solicitor will know what additional information and supporting evidence to provide in support of a visit visa application, and how to present your circumstances in a way that is most likely to have your application granted.

The additional expense of paying legal fees to apply for a visit visa could ultimately pale in comparison to the cost of paying for repeated failed applications, and cancelling your plans.

Fair or not, one (perhaps the only) benefit to the visa application process as it stands is the ability to learn exactly what is required and how to construct a strong application every time.

If you have any immigration queries, please get in touch with Grace McGill, Clara Smeaton or your usual Burness Paull contact.