On Monday the White House announced that the COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed on passengers from the UK and most of the EU would be eased, allowing fully vaccinated passengers to enter the country from early November. This will be welcomed by families that have been kept apart as a result of the ban first imposed by President Trump 18 months ago.
The UK moved to end similar restrictions on US travellers in July, and both sides of the pond are once again open for business. As such, this is a good time to restate and explain the rules and procedure for applying for a UK spouse or partner visa from the USA. This post is not intended to cover the law and substantive requirements of the UK spouse visa in great detail; you can find more on that on our website.
Step 1 – online visa application
Applicants begin by completing their visa application via the UK Government's online form. The form will vary in length depending on the applicant's circumstances, containing questions on:
- the family's basic personal information (i.e. address history);
- the relationship between the applicant and their partner (i.e. the date they first met);
- the applicant's immigration history (i.e. details of any previous visa refusals);
- the applicant's criminal record (if applicable); and
- the family's finances (i.e. details of employment and income).
The application form should always be checked several times before submitting online as there is no opportunity to change answers once the application fee has been paid.
Step 2 – priority service and payment
The payment page is the final stage of the online application form. Subject to availability, applicants should be given the option to pay an additional £573 for the priority decision service. It is important to note that the out-of-country priority service does not guarantee the applicant a decision within a certain timescale. It simply marks the application as a priority, meaning that it will be considered before any applications submitted through the standard service.
Another important, and confusing, aspect of the priority service is that applicants are given the opportunity to pay for the service when they submit the application through the gov.uk portal, and again at a later stage when they pay for their biometric appointment. Applicants can purchase a priority decision service for a fee of $824 through VFS Global (further details on this below) when they book their biometric appointment. This is exactly the same service offered to applicants on their online application, which understandably creates some confusion.
Any applicants who want to submit their application under the priority service should always ensure they do not pay twice for this service.
Once the application has been submitted, the applicant will be transferred to VFS Global to register for their biometric enrolment appointment.
Step 3 – document upload and biometric enrolment
The biometric enrolment process involves the provision of the applicant's fingerprints, photograph and supporting evidence for the application. The Home Office outsources the administration of its biometric enrolment for applicants from the USA to VFS Global. The VFS Global website can be temperamental so a degree of patience is required to navigate this stage successfully.
Applicants will be taken to the VFS Global website to book a biometric enrolment appointment at their local visa application centre (VAC). Once the appointment has been booked, the applicant will be asked to choose how to provide the supporting documents for their application. There are two ways of doing this:
- self-uploading digital copies of supporting documents to the VFS Global website (free); or
- paying the VFS Global staff $100 to scan the documents for you. This requires the applicant to bring physical copies of their supporting evidence to their biometric appointment.
We always advise choosing the first option for two reasons: you can ensure that the evidence is uploaded correctly and nothing is missed, and it comes at no extra cost. Relying on a third party to do the scanning for you might seem like the easy option but we have seen past incidents where important evidence has been accidentally left out, resulting in the refusal of the application.
The paid document scanning service is just one of the optional 'premium services' offered by VFS Global. Most of these are unnecessary. Applicants may, however, wish to purchase the return courier service, for example, as they need to provide a pre-paid shipping label to ensure the safe return of their passport once the decision has been made. The 'keep my passport when applying' service is also useful for applicants who need to travel pending a decision on their application.
Step 4 – VFS scanning hub
Once the applicant has attended their biometric appointment at the VAC they will have five days to post a copy of their application form, their current passport, and their biometric receipt to the VFS Global Scanning Hub in New York. The applicant's passport will be retained by VFS Global in New York until a decision on the application is made.
If the applicant has paid for the return courier service through VFS, then a pre-paid return shipping label will be generated for the applicant to print off and include in the package. Otherwise, applicants will need purchase a fully addressed UPS prepaid electronic shipping label and enclose this in the package to VFS Global in New York.
Step 5 – decision
The decision-making process usually takes around eight to 12 weeks for applications submitted through the standard service, and around four to eight weeks if submitted under the priority service. These timescales are estimated, and cannot be guaranteed by the Home Office or Shepherd and Wedderburn. We advise applicants to check the Home Office guidance on visa decision waiting times for updates on timescales.
The applicant will receive an email from VFS Global when a decision has been made on their application. The decision itself is not conveyed by email and the applicant will not know if their application has been successful until they receive their passport back from VFS Global in the post. If the application has been granted, the applicant's passport will now contain an entry-clearance vignette stamp allowing their entry to the UK. The passport should be accompanied by a Home Office decision letter that explains its decision, but this is not always included.
The vignette stamp will usually be valid for 30 days (currently 90 days due to issues related to the pandemic) and the applicant must enter the UK within this period. After arriving in the UK, the applicant must collect their Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) from their local post office. The BRP is essentially an ID card for migrants that contains the full details of the holder's visa type, duration and restrictions. Uplifting of the BRP signals the final step in the spouse visa application process, and the BRP can be used as evidence of the spouse's permission to live and work in the UK for the following 30 months.
How can we help you?
Our specialist immigration solicitors are experienced in dealing with family migration issues, having acted in hundreds if not thousands of spouse and partner visa cases.
Where appropriate, our specialist immigration lawyers offer full legal representation to prepare and submit your visa application to UK Visas and Immigration.
You can expect:
- clear advice on rules and procedure;
- a bespoke document list of all mandatory and recommended evidence for your application;
- assistance with drafting supporting statements or letters;
- a thorough review and feedback on all your documentation and evidence;
- a tailored covering letter from your lawyer that addresses any complexities specific to your case; and
- assistance with completing and submitting your online application forms and digital evidence.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.