"How do you remain in the UK?" is the most common question fellow Malaysians have asked me. I completely understand their curiosity, after all I know firsthand how difficult it is for anyone outside of the European Union and Switzerland to stay on in the United Kingdom once they've stayed their student visa. While I don't claim to be an expert on immigration I can say that having stayed in London for eight years on three different visas has given me some insight on gaining permanent residence here.
The Home Office certainly doesn't make it easy for anyone outside of the EU, much certainly less so for those seeking employment in creative (art and design related) fields. I graduated from Central St Martins in 2009 and almost all of my non-European classmates---most of them more skilled, employable, and deserving than I---had to leave London and return to their countries because they couldn't find ways to extend their stay. My story is one of being in the right place at the right time and also that of being relatively privileged. When I left university I applied for a Tier 2: Post-Study Work visa to pick up where my Tier 4: Student visa left off. This visa essentially buys you two years to stay on after graduation to decide on your options, the most viable being offered a skilled job from an employer who values you enough to sponsor a work visa before your T1:PSW visa ran its course. The thing is, the Post-Study Work scheme officially ended in April 2012, leaving graduates with a very real urgency to not only find employment but also one that comes with a Tier 2: General visa. Even so, the Tier 2 visas are for only three years, but you need to stay in the UK for five years to qualify for Permanent Residence (PR), meaning that even after remaining in the same job for three years your employer has to renew your visa for at least another two. As a freelance illustrator gaining a Tier 2 visa was almost impossible, so instead of putting my fate in the hands of someone else I decided to seize my own destiny and I became an entrepreneur. I set up a company in London under the Tier 1: Entrepreneur visa. Frustratingly the two years I'd spend in the UK under the Post Study Work visa did not count toward the five years I needed to achieve the right to remain. Still, I've owned my own business for three years now and am inching ever closer to PR.
Anyway, to answer all the questions posed to me on the tricky topic of immigration, here is my understanding of the best (and legitimate, I must stress) ways to stay on in the UK with the goal of achieving permanent residence. All my knowledge on this subject is based on endless hours of researching the Home Office website, speaking to other Malaysians who achieved PR, and of course my own experience of having been in London for the last eight years. Please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, I'm in no way professing to be an expert on UK immigration but am just sharing what I've learned over the years.
|Horsing around the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot 2013|
How To Stay On In The UK
1) Marry a British citizen
If your spouse or partner is British, has settled in the UK, has asylum or humanitarian protection in the UK, then you're sorted. Boom. God Save Our Gracious Queen, Long Live Our Noble Queen! God Save Our Quuuuuueeeen. Obviously it's not as simple as saying 'I do' or asking 'Will you do the honour of being my wife/husband/partner in this life and next?', there are exceptions and restrictions as with any other visa. I know only one person whose done this, his husband is American-British, and they've been together since the day the world was created. I know one person my parents' age who married his friend just so she could stay on in the UK, but if you're thinking of doing the same (marrying someone for a passport), seriously, don't.
If you're wondering what citizenship I want mine and Henry's child to choose---as Malaysians aren't allowed dual nationality---the answer is: I want our child to be British first, Malaysian second. Brits can have two passports. I want our child to enjoy the benefits of being British (NHS, education, being able to travel to more or less anywhere without a visa) while having the option to move to Malaysia should he or she wish.
2) Tier 2: General Visa
As I've described above, companies who can sponsor foreign workers will fork out for a Tier 2: General Visa if they value your skills enough to go to the trouble of obtaining a work visa for you. Friends I know who have been sponsored Tier 2 visas are usually highly skilled i.e. lawyers, doctors. These visas don't come easily to people in design or creative industries but unlike Tier 1, these visas have less restrictions ie. you can do a second job in the same sector and at the same level as your main job for up to 20 hours per week. (Gov.uk)
There are three types of Tier 2 General visas, and like all visa applications you have to qualify by a points system.
a) Tier 2 General (up to 3 years)
b) Tier 2 General (more than 3 years)
c) Tier 2 General (up to 3 years) - shortage occupation
3) Tier 1: Graduate Entrepreneur, General Visa, Investor, and Entrepreneur
a) Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur:
This scheme is news to me. Up to 1,000 students annually can stay in the UK to work on and develop business ideas that are considered to be world-class, innovative business plans. Because of the difficulty in meeting the requirements for Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur it is unlikely that many applicants will qualify for this visa route. Entrepreneurs who meet the requirements under this new visa route will be able to stay in the UK and then switch into the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa if they invest £50,000 in their business which should enable them to stay in the UK on a long term basis. You have to be endorsed by UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) as part of the elite global graduate entrepreneur programme or your current UK higher education institution if it’s an authorised endorsing body. (Gov.uk)
b) Tier 1: Exceptional Talent
Have you been endorsed as an internationally recognised leader or emerging leader in your field in science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts? If you are, you're probably too busy to read this blog and likely already know about this. If not, never mind, there's always...
c) Tier 1: General Visa
You can apply to switch from your current visa to a Tier 1 (General) visa if you have permission to stay (‘leave to remain’) in the UK in one of the following categories: writer, composer or artist, self-employed lawyer, or Highly Skilled Migrant Programme. You can’t apply for a Tier 1 (General) category visa if you’re outside the UK, and you usually can’t switch to it from other immigration categories. From 6 April 2015 it will be closed to applicants who want to extend their visa. You can work in most jobs in the UK without a sponsor, be self-employed, and bring family members with you. (Gov.uk)
d) Tier 1: Investor
You'll need some dollah for this route. £2,000,000 to be exact, of which you have to invest in UK government bonds, share capital or loan capital in active and trading UK registered companies. However you cannot invest in companies mainly engaged in property investment, property management or property development, or work as a professional sportsperson or sports coach. If you invest £10 million, you can apply to settle after 2 years. Invest £5 million and you can apply for PR after 3 years. No trust fund? Go down the route I followed...
d) Tier 1: Entrepreneur
This is the visa I currently hold which allows me to stay in the UK as an owner of a business. After proving that I could support myself and scoring over 95 points on the point base calculator (ie. access to at least £50,000 that is free to spend in the UK, graduated with a UK Bachelors degree (Honours, no less) that was taught in English etc) I set up a business in the UK with £200,000 in a UK bank to invest in my company. In the course of the first two years I've employed British nationals, essentially investing in the British economy. I can't, however, work for anyone---my role in the eyes of the Home Office is to be an employer, not an employee---and I have a set amount of days that I can leave the country: no more than a total of six months a year if I am to apply for indefinite leave to remain. Indefinite leave to remain is basically one step down from getting a British passport, which I can't do because I'll have to renounce Malaysian citizenship
and my parents will throttle me if I do. I'm on the second leg of my Entrepreneur visa, having recently renewed it, and when I complete this in three year's time I can apply for indefinite leave to remain.
Of all the routes I applied for Tier 1: Entrepreneur because although I'm not an Noble-prize winning genius of the sciences, nor a super-entrepreneur in the vein of Mark Zuckerberg, nor Roman Abramovich, I do have some funds, an idea for business, and the passion and commitment to run a company. And here you thought I was only good for writing aspirational fluff on the internet!
If reading all of these requirements and restrictions hasn't daunted nor put you off the idea of applying to remain in the UK, and you still want to stay on and try to give everything you've got to this fair country, my last piece of advice to you is: get a good immigration lawyer. Your immigration lawyer is the captain of your boat in the stormy seas that is the bureaucratic process of applying for visas. Trust me, before I engaged a lawyer to help me understand the in-and-outs of applying for PR I was more confused than a short-sighted hedgehog confronted with a box full of shoe brushes.
All that said and done, before you even consider applying, read the Home Office website to be sure that you understand the basic requirements. I've quoted some of their overview information in some of the paragraphs above but you can read more about eligibility, requirements, and application fees on their website.