The Cost of Getting Settled in the U.K.

by Miranda Ward

I have lived in the U.K. since January of 2008. I moved here from the U.S. to be with my partner, who is British.

I always knew that living 5,000 miles away from where I grew up would mean that my life took on a slightly different shape than the lives of friends back home. I knew, too, that no matter where my partner and I ultimately chose to live, we would have to jump through a series of convoluted bureaucratic hoops. But, I didn’t have any sense of what the privilege of jumping through those hoops actually cost.

Over the course of the last seven years, I have applied for and been granted five different visas; I’ve bought my life here piece by piece, six months, a year, two years at a time. And I’m lucky, not only because I was in a position in the first place to be able to do this, but also because, in spite of a few minor administrative hiccups, my path to settlement has been relatively smooth. I haven’t been detained or deported, haven’t had to appeal decisions or pay hefty legal fees or endure long periods of separation from my partner, or face the reality of restarting our life elsewhere. At times I’ve lived in limbo, but it’s a comparatively cushy limbo. So I’m keenly aware of the privilege of this particular kind of voluntary mobility, and I also think this is precisely why it’s important to publicly examine the cost of it.

A few months ago I was at long last granted Indefinite Leave to Remain in the U.K., which means that I now have the right to live and work here without restriction, indefinitely. This was the most expensive application I’ve had to make, and it got me wondering what exactly it’s cost me to legally settle here:

The cost of applying for indefinite leave to remain in the U.K.

Application fee: £1,051

This is the fee for a postal application; applying in person will set you back £1,426. If you have dependents, the fee increases by £788 per dependent to apply by post or £1,163 per dependent to apply in person.

Life in the U.K. test: £50

Before you can apply for indefinite leave to remain you’re required to take the “Life in the U.K.” test, which ostensibly assesses your understanding of British culture, law, and history.

The test consists of 24 questions, which effectively means that I paid a little over £2 per question: £2 to correctly identify Henry VIII’s fifth wife, another £2 to demonstrate an understanding of the word “volunteer,” another £2 to determine whether the statement “Getting to know your neighbours can help you to become part of the community” is true or false, and so on.

Biometric enrolment fee: £19.20

After you pass the “Life in the U.K.” test and mail in your application form, you have to go to the Post Office and have your fingerprints taken, a five-minute process that naturally carries a seemingly arbitrary administrative charge.

Photos (me): £5

Photos (partner): £5

The photos you submit with your application have to adhere to certain regulations: you absolutely must not smile, for instance, or allow your hair to fall onto your face. They must also be “recent”, and although what constitutes recent isn’t specified, we figured we’d better make them as fresh as possible. The result is that my partner and I now each have a bunch of passport-sized photos in which we look exceptionally surly and which we will almost certainly never use for any other purpose.

Photocopying: £14.75

In addition to the passport itself, applicants are required to enclose photocopies of every single page of their passport (including, the form is very particular to note, all blank pages) with their application. I also had to supply a full photocopy of my partner’s British passport, a photocopy of my completed application form (37 pages long), and photocopies of all supplementary materials (bank statements, pay slips, proofs of address, etc.).

Postage: about £8

I sent my application by recorded delivery; I also wanted to make sure I purchased an envelope substantial enough to contain the application form plus all supporting documentation and photocopies.

Total: £1,152.95 (about $1,800 at current exchange rate). To me that’s a lot of money, a huge amount of money; I’m a freelance writer and a Ph.D. student. But I also understand the magnitude of what it’s bought me: peace of mind, continuity, a sense of stability that I haven’t had for the better part of a decade now. In a way, I’ve effectively bought my own future for under $2,000, which, if you put it that way, makes the sum feel small.

But being granted indefinite leave to remain is not an isolated process. People generally become eligible to apply after living here for a period of time under a different visa; in my case, I had held an unmarried partner visa for two years prior to making my application, which was itself an expensive process, and one which I was only eligible to undergo after having lived with my partner for several years under different visas. So everything is connected, and if I work backwards, the cost increases:

The cost of an unmarried partner visa (applied for in April 2012):

At this point I was required to prove that my partner and I had lived together for at least two years in what’s referred to, without much explanation, as “a relationship akin to marriage.” I tried to submit personal correspondence and photos in order to reinforce our case, but I was told that they don’t accept “that kind of stuff” and it was handed back to me unopened, so the validity of my relationship was evidently judged on bills and bank statements alone.

Having had difficulties and delays with previous visa applications made by post, I opted to splurge on an in-person “premium service,” which was £300 more expensive than the standard postal service, but seemed worth it because it meant I would know right away whether or not my application had been approved. What actually happened is that I paid my fee and spent six hours in a waiting room in Croydon before being told they wouldn’t be able to process my application that day and that they’d mail everything back to me when they’d reached a decision.

Application fee: £867 (approximately $1,356)

The cost of a post-study work visa (applied for in 2010):

Because I earned my master’s degree at a U.K. university, I was eligible to apply for a two-year post-study work visa. (This visa has since been phased out, but at the time I was required, in addition to paying the application fee, to prove that I had access to at least £800 in my bank account.)

Application fee: £500 (approximately $782)

The cost of a student visa (applied for in 2008):

The application fee for a student visa at this time was $208, but I timed things badly, which meant I also had to pay a $140 fee to expedite my application. (This doesn’t include the gas I bought to drive from Santa Barbara to Burbank and back in one evening in order to hand-deliver my application.)

Total: $348

The cost of a BUNAC 6-month student exchange work visa (applied for in 2007):

After I finished my undergraduate degree, I discovered that I was eligible to apply for a six-month U.K. work permit through BUNAC. This particular scheme no longer operates, but at the time it was surprisingly straightforward: send in an application form, pay a fee, and hey, presto! A flimsy blue card with my photo pasted on appeared in the mail one day, and off I went.

Application fee: I can’t find a record of how much I actually paid for this, but my recollection is that it was in the $500 range.

TOTAL COST: about $4,786

(This is not, by the way, the same thing as getting citizenship. That’ll be another £906.)

Miranda Ward is a freelance writer and researcher based in the UK. She is currently working towards a Ph.D. at Royal Holloway, University of London, looking at the geographies of lap swimming and the indoor swimming pool. She is a staff writer at Vela, and her first book, F**k the Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice, was published in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @aliteralgirl

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