EU citizens are being denied entry to the UK – what are the visa rules for visitors?

Travel to the UK is opening back up, but not as we previously knew it. The news has been replete with examples of EU citizens being denied entry at UK airports and detained for removal. These stories are nothing new to jaded non-European ears. But for many European travellers, this early post-Brexit period has been the first time they’ve come up against the realities of UK immigration policy.

EU free movement rights ended at 11pm on 31 December 2020. All EU arrivals after that date must either already possess valid permission to enter or remain (for example, in the form of pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme), or they must seek permission to enter as a visitor at the border. Entry to the UK for other purposes without a visa is not permitted.

This Q&A explains the rules on entering the UK as a visitor and why people might be stopped at the border.

Although we’ve aimed this at EU citizens, since that’s where the current controversy lies, it applies equally to non-Europeans. By “EU citizens” we mean citizens of the 26 European Union member states bar Ireland, the additional three European Economic Area states (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway), and Switzerland. There are practically no border restrictions for Irish citizens.

For the avoidance of doubt, none of this applies to existing residents with pre-settled or settled status granted under the EU Settlement Scheme (although even some of those people have been having trouble at the border).

Do EU citizens need to apply for a visit visa before travelling to the UK?

No. EU visitors can fly to the UK and ask for permission to enter the country as visitors at the border.

The Home Office publishes a list of “visa nationals” in the Immigration Rules at Appendix Visitor: visa national list. European countries are not on the visa national list. Only citizens of countries on the visa national list need to apply for a visit visa in advance of travel. Citizens of all other countries can just turn up at the UK border and seek entry as a visitor, either by going through the passport eGates or by speaking to a border officer at a desk.

Who counts as a “visitor” and what are the restrictions on them?

The basic definition is:

This route is for a person who wants to visit the UK for a temporary period, (usually for up to 6 months), for purposes such as tourism, visiting friends or family, carrying out a business activity, or undertaking a short course of study.

Immigration Rules Appendix V: Visitor

There are restrictions on what a person can and can’t do as a visitor. The standard conditions endorsed on a visitor’s entry stamp are “leave to enter for six months, employment and recourse to public funds prohibited” (or wording to that effect).

The same conditions apply if a visitor enters via the eGates without receiving a stamp.

Looking beyond the passport stamp, the Home Office publishes a list of prohibited activities at paragraph V4.4. of Appendix V: Visitor. Visitors are prohibited from undertaking these activities unless expressly permitted by another appendix (which we’ll get to):

  • Work
  • Study
  • Marriage/civil partnership
  • Medical treatment

An intention to engage in prohibited activities is enough to be refused entry to the UK. This is an important difference between the situation under EU free movement rules and the situation now.

Those wanting to do any of the above prohibited activities can apply in advance for a special visa to enable them to do so, for example a Skilled Worker visamarriage visit visa or a private medical treatment visit visa. These types of visa cannot be obtained at the border; an application must be submitted via the government website.

What about job interviews?

Under paragraph PA4. of Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities, a visitor may attend “interviews”. The rule does not specify what type of interview is permitted, but a plain English interpretation suggests that a job interview is fine. A job interview is not work.

Is remote working permitted?

Yes. Although not covered in any of the Immigration Rules, Home Office guidance says:

Visitors are permitted to undertake activities relating to their employment overseas remotely whilst they are in the UK, such as responding to emails or answering phone calls. However, you should check that the applicant’s main purpose of coming to the UK is to undertake a permitted activity, rather than to specifically work remotely from the UK. Where the applicant indicates that they intend to spend a large proportion of their time in the UK and will be doing some remote working, you should ensure that they are genuinely employed overseas and are not seeking to work in the UK. You must be satisfied that the applicant will not live in the UK for extended periods through frequent or successive visits.

Our reading of this paragraph is that if a visitor declares remote working as their sole or main reason for coming to the UK they can be refused entry because remote working is not specifically listed as a permitted activity. If however the remote working is ancillary to another permitted purpose (for example visiting family or tourism) then it sounds like it should not be an issue.

How does a border officer decide if a visitor should be allowed in?

The border officer must be satisfied that the person is a genuine visitor and will leave the UK at the end of their visit. The officer will assess the visitor’s credibility and intentions on the balance of probabilities. In other words, the officer must ask themselves, is it more likely than not that the person is a genuine visitor? This is a subjective decision, and whilst there is a 76-page guidance document available, a lot of the guidance is vague. This can lead to variance in border decision-making.

Some of the most important factors an officer will consider are:

  • What is the main reason for visiting the UK?
  • Immigration history, including previous visa refusals, and duration and frequency of previous visits to the UK.
  • Are frequent and successive visits being used to make the UK the main home or place of work or study? Officers will often examine the cumulative time a person has spent in the UK in the past 12 months to aid their decision-making.
  • Personal and economic ties to country of residence. Does the person have a job, family, or home to go back to?
  • Is there a return flight booked?
  • Does the person have enough funds to cover the costs of their visit?

This is not an exhaustive list. Border officers have a lot of power and should generally assess all of an applicant’s circumstances holistically to reach a decision.

How long can a visitor stay in the UK, and how often can they return?

Non-visa national visitors can stay six months from the date of entry.

Visa national visitors can stay six months from the date of entry or until the expiry of their visa document, whichever is the earliest.

Theoretically, a visitor can seek to return as often as they wish, so long as they can satisfy a border officer on their return that they continue to be a genuine visitor and are not using a series of frequent and successive visits to make the UK their primary home.

There is no hard “180 days per year” rule, but spending the majority of a year in the UK is one of many relevant considerations for an officer deciding whether or not to grant entry.

How can the visit visa regime be improved?

The current framework leaves a lot to be desired. It sets out a list of prohibited activities, but then sets out a list of exceptions to the prohibited activities which are in fact permitted.

The list of permitted activities was first introduced in 2015. Previously, there was only a list of prohibited activities. Under the old rules, broadly speaking, whatever was not prohibited was permitted.

Visitor rules ought to be the simplest and most straightforward set of immigration rules a state has. They ought to be understandable by everyone, especially those who do not speak English as a first language. When the rules are spread across five different locations plus a 76-page guidance document, and visitors are looking to lawyers to interpret the nuances of the assessment a border officer might conduct for a simple visit, we are in trouble.

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