Moving to the UK, in 2,735 Easy Steps (Pt 1)

My daughters and I have a cute thing we do when we read books about Dora the Explorer.

Map: always there when you need to know how to get to the Troll Bridge

If you are unfamiliar with our resourceful, ever successful, Swiper the Fox evading, multi-lingual Latina friend, one of the features of basically every Dora the Explorer episode or book is that she and her friends have to get to some destination, and usually very quickly. Every time she asks, “Who do we turn to when we don’t know where to go?” Always her trusty anthropomorphic friend Map is there to guide the way. The solution invariably requires that Dora go to two places, all on a linear route, and then she will arrive at her destination. So, for instance, to get to the library, Dora has to go Bridge, then Rock, then Library.

<Yes, I am the father of two little girls, and yes, I have watched my fair share of Dora.>

When we come to that point in our books when Dora asks, “Who do we turn to when we don’t know where to go?” we always say, “God … and then Map.” Hokey, I know, but at least I’m trying to balance Nickelodeon with a biblical worldview.

Anyhow, in Dora’s world, three things are always true: (a) getting to the destination is always a simple 3 step process, (b) Map is always on hand to tell her where to go, and (c) she always gets there.

In real adult life, of course, it is not quite so simple. In moving to the UK late last year, we learned that (a) getting to our destination required seemingly an infinite number of steps (and it hasn’t actually ended, though we’ve been here for four months now), (b) there was no Map (though there was God, in a big way), and (c) we weren’t quite sure along the way that we’d get there! The goal of this next series of blog posts is to summarize a few of the major logistics-related things we learned in the move, which I hope might benefit others who may be moving here in the future. While I found numerous helpful websites along the journey, I never saw a consolidated “How to do this without losing your mind” document that covered the major questions I had. So I will try to make one.

Preliminary Comments

The focus of these posts will be fairly practical. There is a lot I could say about the Lord’s purposes in calling someone to move, particularly internationally (faith-building, sanctifying, depending on others, learning to adapt, etc.). There is much to be said about the logistical challenges: regardless of life-stage (single, married, no kids, lots of kids, young, old) and regardless of destination (India vs. Papua New Guinea vs. Canada vs. Europe), an international move is astoundingly difficult at times. There is even more to be said about the heart-level challenges: leaving friends and family, trusting in God to work out impossible details, adjusting to a new place, finding a church, building new relationships, and five thousand other personal issues. Perhaps in a future post I will talk more about some of our reflections on these things.

For this series, however, I will focus more specifically on the major steps that need to happen—to play the role of Map, so to speak. Given that our own experience was tied to our specific circumstances, I want to caveat everything that follows with these points:

  • Nearly all of these details are UK specific (and some are Cambridge specific). However, some of the broad principles might be useful for other international moves.
  • We came over on student visas (Tier 4, in British parlance), which does impact a few things. Some of the points below may not be as helpful for someone on a work visa.
  • We were moving a lot of things but not all our possessions, so that influences some of the steps. Moreover, we were moving with two small children, so I’m sure that may color some of this content as well.
  • Final caveat: if anything here is out-of-date, please forgive me! I’ll try to be as accurate as possible.


Rather than making a long laundry-list of things to do, I find it more helpful to structure things in larger categories. The ones I will use are as follows. The italicized items are in this post. The others will follow in subsequent posts:

  1. Visas and Immigration
  2. Academic Planning (for graduate student moves)
  3. Healthcare
  4. Financials
  5. Moving
  6. Travel
  7. Finding a place to live
  8. Setting up your new life

Let’s begin with the one about which there are likely the most questions.

(1) Visas and Immigration

This is what you're after, folks. (Why on earth anyone posts a picture of their visa online is beyond me).
This is what you’re after, folks. (Why on earth anyone posts a picture of their visa online is beyond me).

Background Information

  • Do I need a passport?
    • Everyone in your family will need a valid US passport, of course.
    • Importantly, the passport cannot be set to expire within six months of your arrival, or they may not let you in the country. Once you are living in the UK, you can renew your passport. FYI children’s passports are issued for only 5 years, versus the normal 10 for adults.
  • Who needs a visa, and what kind do I need?
    • For anyone other than a temporary visitor, the UK requires a visa. There are five “tiers” of visas, and the relevant one for graduate students is Tier 4. The rules pertaining to length of stay, whether you can bring your spouse/family, how much money you need, etc. under the Tier 4 visa vary dramatically based on whether your course of study is less than 12 months (e.g., as an M.Phil student) or more than 12 months (e.g., a Ph.D. student); it is best to consult the page above for those details.
    • Everyone in your family must have a visa, not just the student. Two friends at Cambridge made the mistake of only applying for a visa for the student, and everyone else had to leave the country after a month or two in order to apply for their visas and return.
    • The student applies for the Tier 4 (General) visa, and then each member of the family submit an application for the Tier 4 (Dependent) visa, and during the course of the application fill out the fields that associate the dependent application with the general application.
    • Each application is very expensive; for us, they each cost about $500. So if you aren’t paying an arm and a leg for your visa applications, then something is not right!
  • When should I apply for a visa?
    • The earliest you can submit your Tier 4 visa application is 3 months prior to the start date of your course.
    • However, you cannot travel to the UK until at most one month before the start date.
    • The application occurs in basically two steps: first you submit a lot of information using their online system (and at this point you make your payment), and second you send in the paper documentation to complete the application. You have two weeks from the time you submit online to the time you must postmark your paper forms to the embassy in NYC.
    • Importantly, you have to include all of your family’s passports when you mail in your application, and the turnaround can be anywhere from 2 weeks to over a month; though their statistics on turnaround times in 2013 were actually quite good so long as there is nothing wrong with your paperwork.
    • For us, this presented an interesting conundrum. I needed to visit the UK to find housing (since we were not assigned University housing), which required me to have my passport. However, you do not want to visit the UK to find housing until a few weeks before you will move, or otherwise you will either pay several months of extra rent or you will be too early, for the rental market moves very quickly, and anything you visit will be snatched up if you wait to sign a contract until closer to your departure date.
    • Hence, our timing was pretty tight. I submitted our visa applications online, which started the two week timer to get the paper documents mailed in. During that interval, I traveled to the UK, then immediately upon return I sent my passport with our full package. Fortunately, the visa turnaround was great, so we had everything we needed about 2 weeks before our flight date. But it still felt pretty tight!
  • What does the visa application entail?
    • Applying for a visa requires several key pieces of information: (a) a valid US passport; (b) a valid Confirmation of Acceptance (CAS) from your university (see below); (c) proof of sufficient funds, based on multiple recent bank statements; (d) passport-sized photos that are less than 1 month old at the time of your application; and (e) biometric residence permit.
    • Items (b) and (c) are used to meet the “points” requirement that the UK websites talk incessantly about. This seems more complicated than it actually is. They make a big to-do over the “Tier 4 points-based system,” but in actuality the “points” are basically binary. IF you have a valid CAS, then you get 30 points; if you don’t, you get 0. IF you have sufficient funds to cover their threshold, you get 10 points; if you are one dollar short, you get 0 points. You have to have 40 points to qualify. Hence, you basically just need to submit a proper CAS and proof of sufficient funds and the points take care of themselves. There’s no way to get 35 points or something like that; it’s all or nothing, so I’m not sure why they even bother with points (maybe it’s more relevant for other types of visas).
    • Proof of funds: the UK requires you to demonstrate that you have in hand enough money (in £, not $, which lately makes a huge difference) to cover two categories of expenses: the cost of the first year of your course of study (tuition, fees, etc.), and “maintenance” funds, which are living expenses like rent, food, etc. For maintenance funds, they use a formula to determine the minimum you would need to have in your bank account to cover living expenses based on # of family members and where you’ll be living. At least for 2013, they required 9 months of maintenance funds for each family member. The good news: it’s lower than what you’ll be budgeting. The bad news: the sum of tuition + maintenance funds is still a whopping number, and you have to have it confirmed in cash in a bank account before you can apply for your visa. The kicker: you also have to be able to demonstrate that you have had the money on-hand for a consecutive 28-day period, which normally requires you to have two consecutive bank statements showing sufficient funds. This means, then, that you have to have all that money in your account at least one month before you apply, so that you can have two bank statements to send in. It does not have to be in a single account, but it does have to be legitimate and documented; see the requirements here. (If, however, you have a scholarship or something like that, then you can provide a detailed letter confirming the funding amount in lieu of a bank statement.)
    • Once you have submitted your electronic application, you will be asked to set up an appointment at a local office (depending on where you live) to have your fingerprints and other biometric information taken. These will be automatically sent to the UK Border Agency by the office where you have it done, but you do have to send in your paper confirmation with your package.
You want them to be your friend!
  • What are the restrictions of a Tier 4 visa?
    • This was an important category for us, since my wife hoped to work.
    • The primary student holding the “General” Tier 4 visa – assuming they are full time status – can only work a certain number of hours during the university term (in 2013 it was 10 hrs / week), and slightly more during university breaks. Most PhD students, of course, cannot usually manage to work much more than that, if at all, but it is important to know it up front if you are trying to get a church job or work on the side.
    • Generally speaking, the spouse of the primary visa holder is allowed to work so long the visa reads, “No recourse to public funds.” That is the default for Tier 4 anyhow, an I’m not sure what would make the spouses visa fall into a different category. Anyhow, so long as the spouse’s visa says those words, he/she can seek a full time job. The only exception is that the spouse cannot work as a dentist or doctor “in training.” You’ll see this restriction in some, but not all, of the official documentation, and despite several attempts I could not for the life of me find out what it meant (since my wife is a doctor, it mattered to us).
    • You are not allowed to claim public funds as a Tier 4 student, which is basically like a form of welfare benefits like we have in the U.S.
  • Other pointers
    • Get real bank account statements if you can (e.g., printed on colored letterhead, etc.). Theoretically they will accept printouts, but one basic rule I learned throughout this whole process is to have as many original paper copies of everything as possible.
    • Make copies of everything: passports, visas (when you have them), anything you have mailed in, etc. The border agents at immigration have the right to ask you to show them anything that pertains to your visa. They can ask for your university acceptance letter, your bank account statements, your visa application, your rental agreement – literally anything is fair game. They are taking Tier 4 immigration much more seriously. So when you arrive exhausted after a redeye flight, make it easy on yourself and your spouse by having literally every possible important shred of documentation in a nice organized folder. We did not have to use ours, fortunately (we had a very kind border agent), but other folks have, and I’ve heard of one student (from a EU country) being denied entrance to the country due to a paperwork issue. It happens.
    • I found it helpful to type up a letter providing a detailed accounting of all our funds, which also showed in detail for each person in our family how we met the “Maintenance Funds” requirement. On the online form, there’s just a single box to put a number in. But to expedite processing, I included a one-page document that spelled it out for each named person on our application how they met the requirement.
    • Get several passport photos for everyone in your family: you’ll use them for a lot of things.

Suggested Timeline

  1. 4-5 months from start date: confirm your passports are in order; apply for them if not everyone has one (e.g., children). Consolidate your financial resources into accounts that are verifiable and easily documented. Check the math on the website to learn how much money you will have to show in-hand.
  2. 3 months before start date: study the main Tier 4 page thoroughly:
  3. 2.5-3 months from start date: complete online visa application for each member of your family, making sure to select “General” for the main student and “Dependent” for everyone else. Scrutinize the applications to make sure all the SSNs, CAS numbers, names, birth dates, and everything else are perfectly accurate, for they have to use those numbers to group your applications together appropriately.
  4. In the 2 week period after you submit: if you are going to take a scouting trip, now is probably the time to do it unless you prefer to do it before you submit your visa applications altogether. Theoretically you could make a trip after you receive your visa but before your “officially” move, but I would imagine you could run into some problems at immigration since you are not supposed to come to the country until 1 month before your start date. So if it’s 6 weeks before your start date, I’m guessing you’d have to show pretty good proof that either (a) you’re only visiting temporarily and will be coming back or (b) have gotten approval to do a “pre-sessional” course, which does allow you to come earlier.
  5. 2 weeks after submitting online application: mail your package that includes all your photos, passports, signed copies, biometric confirmation, bank statements, CAS letter, and other supporting documents. Then pray!
  6. 1 month before start date or later: assuming your visa was approved, you are ready to move!

(2) Academic Planning (for graduate student moves)

The assumption here is that you have gotten accepted somewhere. I have an entirely different post planned for the future to provide pointers for seminary students (especially those at evangelical seminaries) who are interested in applying for doctoral work. So, assuming you’ve gotten accepted, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • The single most important piece of information you will need from your university is the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies letter (CAS). This document is worth 30 of the points for your Tier 4 visa. Generally speaking, you will receive an acceptance letter in early spring, but the CAS may take another month or two to arrive (usually online via whatever self-service eportal you’ve been using for that university’s application process). You’ll need to print several of these out, because multiple people in the UK will ask you for them: the visa office, your rental agency, city council (depending on the city), and potentially some utility providers. The CAS is your basis for being in the country.
  • You will also have several additional things to provide your university, which will be specific to that institution. For instance, Cambridge requires you to sign an official acceptance letter for the university, and then sign several additional agreements for the college where you become a member (but only Oxford and Cambridge operate this way). These may include health waivers, confirmation of sufficient funds (in contrast to the visa requirement, this document requires you to show available funds for all 3 years of tuition and a minimum threshold for living expenses for all 3 years!), and so on. It is case specific. The important thing is to turn them around in a reasonable timeframe … and make copies!
  • If you have not received your CAS within 3 months of your start date, then you need to escalate quickly, since you cannot submit a visa application without it. Another friend of mine from the States did not receive his CAS in a timely fashion from a university that shall go unnamed, and it became a big problem for him. It didn’t help matters that he really didn’t know how urgent it was, so about a month before he was supposed to arrive, he realized something was wrong with his visa application, and it became a big fire drill that could have been avoided had he followed up with his faculty two months prior and asked them to make sure to send the CAS.
  • Once you arrive, you have to meet a few more requirements with your university:
    • Upon arrival, you will likely be required to send an email to someone at your faculty or college letting them know you have arrived.
    • More importantly, every foreign student with a Tier 4 visa must check in with their college, faculty, or university office (depending on where you are studying) within 7 days of their course start date. Otherwise, you can be deported. Unfortunately, if you arrive 2 weeks before your start date, you probably cannot fulfill this requirement early since the term has not yet begun. You have to repeat this sign-in process with every term.
    • Within a few days of the start of your first term, there will be a large number of matriculation-related items that you will have to take care of, from getting university ID cards to setting up your online access to getting a student mailbox and much more. It’s good to keep a secondary list of just things you need to do when you hit the ground, as you will be pulled in a million different directions when you first land.

Next time: the extremely important topics of healthcare (are we covered under this sounds-too-good-to-be-true “free” National Health Service in England) and finances (banking, exchange rates, money transfers, etc.).

7 thoughts on “Moving to the UK, in 2,735 Easy Steps (Pt 1)”

  1. That is very well done, Greg. I know it will be quite helpful to others that may follow in your path. Continue the good writing. Mom

  2. …and I thought the big thing was deciding what to sell, what to store, and what to take with you! Seems very complicated. I think we’ll just stay here and visit U 4 from time-to-time!

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