I don’t remember how I heard about the UK Ancestry Visa, but it was when I was working in London for a month on the 2012 Olympics, hearing my local coworkers talk about their weekend trips to Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, etc. So my desire to take advantage of an easy live/work visa thanks to my Grandpa Wild’s birthplace was fueled by jealousy and wanderlust. I gathered the paperwork I’d need back then, thinking I’d want an escape after my brother’s death, but it took me another six years to want to break out of my comfort zone after that profound destabilization.
Finally realizing I was ready to proceed was the first major decision that kicked off a series of seemingly endless major decisions, so I plan to explain here some of the more complex or interesting logistics I’ve faced as I approach The Big Move. The logical place to start is with acquiring the visa itself — a process that both made me feel lucky to have such an “easy” method of living and working in another country, and made me feel like the universe was conspiring against me to make my life difficult.
One thing I learned was that other people’s experiences are only so instructive. Specific processes change over time, and some seem to differ depending on where you’re applying from. So keep in mind this was my experience in mid-2018, applying from Vancouver.
Am I eligible?
The requirements for the Ancestry visa are reasonably straightforward. You need to be a Commonwealth citizen who has a grandparent, living or dead, who was born in the UK (you or your parent can be adopted and still qualify, but step-relationships don’t qualify). You have to apply from outside the UK, be able and intending to work in the UK, and have enough money to support yourself and any dependants. You don’t need to have a job lined up already. It allows you to live and work in the UK for up to five years, which you can renew for another five years. At the end of the five or ten years you can choose to apply for indefinite leave to remain and eventually, if you want, citizenship.
If you have a parent born in the UK your path is easier. If you have a great-grandparent or beyond who was born in the UK, your ancestry won’t help you get you a visa, but there are other visa categories you could check out.
The devil is in the details, of course. How much money is enough money to land with? How do you prove you’re able and planning to work? Google was my best friend through this, leading me to visa services, expat forums, and the guidance document on the UK government website, intended for the officers who review applications. None of them offer concrete answers, but visa services and other applicants provided estimated amounts to have on hand and for how long, and advice on documents to provide to prove your employability, among other things.
If you have questions, it seems like UK immigration charges you to answer emails or phone calls, and others suggest the information was less comprehensive than what they found on expat forums, so I managed my questions on my own.
To apply for the visa, you fill out an online application form and then go to a “biometric appointment” where they take your fingerprints and picture, as well as your passport and the documents you will include in support of your application. They do tell you to have everything you need at that appointment, but I had read elsewhere that you left the appointment with your documents to courier them yourself. That wasn’t true at least at this time and place — they took everything and submitted it for me. You then wait up to three weeks for your passport to be returned with — or without — the entry clearance inside.
Others online talked about getting an email saying a decision had been made and the passport was being couriered back (with no information on whether the application was successful or not), but I didn’t get that email – I just got an email a week after my appointment to say they received it and would start to process the application, and then a courier at my door after a couple of weeks, luckily with the stamped passport and a letter I need to show the UK immigration officer on arrival. From there, I pick up my “Biometric Residence Permit” at a post office in Edinburgh close to the address I provided in my application form.
When I first learned of the visa, I gathered the birth certificates I’d need — the long form that includes parentage are essential. Getting my grandfather’s was surprisingly easy. I ordered it online, paid a nominal fee, and it arrived in the mail. Getting my father’s was more difficult – at least at the time (2012), Alberta required you to go to a Service Alberta location in person or jump through hoops that were even less convenient. I didn’t live in Alberta but was there a lot that summer, so I stopped by and had to sign an affidavit that I was his daughter and he was dead before they would release it to me. I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that people use dead people’s birth certificates to create new identities so I get it. I think.
Because my ancestry is on the paternal line and my last name is the same as my grandfather’s, and the birth certificates include parents’ names, my line of decent was clear without submitting marriage certificates. Some people will need to supply those too, if that’s not the case.
This visa category doesn’t require you to have a job before you arrive, just to prove that you’re able and planning to work. Previous applicants indicated that a resume and registration with a job search website was adequate. I want to continue as self-employed and a business plan and possibly business finances are apparently the ticket to prove that, but at the time I was waffling and ended up applying for a couple of jobs, and I submitted an invitation to a Skype interview. That single email printout gave me confidence in my application and also in my ability to job search once I was settled if that’s the direction I decided to go.
No one will give you a concrete answer about how much money you’re supposed to have on hand, unlike some other visa categories. Based on advice I read from previous successful applicants and from the websites of companies that charge people to assist with visa applications, I felt around $5000 would be sufficient and that it should be in your account at least 3 months prior to your application date — they want to make sure the money is truly accessible savings. I put that money into a separate account in March, and added to it in the intervening 3 months, so I ended up with just over $6000 earmarked for the move by the time I applied. I went into the bank to get a stamped and signed statement of the last three months (you can’t just print out your online banking statement) to prove how much I had, and how long I had it.
I did let them know in my application that I was only accounting for money on hand but I would also have proceeds from the sale of my condo, and gave a lowball estimate of that. But since I didn’t offer any proof, and the bank statements for that savings account should have been enough, I doubt they took that into account.
Some of the information on the official site is vague, which I suppose gives immigration agents more leeway to consider each application as a whole. But would it kill them to give more guidance on the kind of bank statements needed, for example?
Application form surprises
You can apply for the visa up to three months before you want to arrive. I had originally aimed for May or June but ended up postponing until September, so had to wait until June to apply. It was a happy day when I discovered you can fill in the online application and wait to submit, because seeing the actual questions answered a lot of my questions. Even after consulting with Google, Ph.D., I was surprised by some of them, so not having to/being able to rush the process was a benefit.
The first surprise was that, despite warnings that you shouldn’t book travel until you were accepted, the application form asked for a specific date of arrival and the address of where you would be staying. I’d been thinking mid- to late-September, depending on plane fares and availability of a pet-friendly AirBnB where I could stay until I found a permanent place. Since I couldn’t work backwards like that, I had to pick a date.
I plucked a date out of thinnish air — September 22 — and booked a week at a pet-friendly hotel with a generous cancellation policy. What I wish I’d known, or looked into or pondered logically better, was what that specific date meant. I wanted to make sure I’d be ready to go by then, thinking it might be a deadline if it wasn’t just a guideline for them. In reality, you’re provided with an entry clearance in your passport that is valid from that date for one month. So I couldn’t arrive until Saturday, September 22, and have until October 22 — but that first date is already the last date I wanted to arrive, and it turns out because of shipping the cats, I needed to leave on a weekday. So September 24 it is, arriving September 25 thanks to the magic of time zones.
The other surprise was that I had to list every trip I’d taken out of Canada in the last 10 years. My love of travel was less of an issue than the fact that I’ve been living within a short drive of the US border. I ended up going through my passport stamps, Facebook pictures, and then cross-checking my email for etickets to ensure I got at least the trips that went beyond an afternoon of shopping.
You have to provide your work history, including answering if you’ve ever worked in media, civil service, etc. Those don’t seem to rule you out — I answered yes to media — but depending on the circumstances maybe it would raise a flag for them? Even though they consider self-employment sufficient for their work requirements, and in fact you can be unemployed as long as you are looking for work and have sufficient funds, I had a moment of concern wondering if my freelance status would hurt me. However, there are ample free text boxes and I used one to explain that I had quit a permanent job of many years in order to work on the Olympics and then make this move.
Because they’re so vague on how much money they want you to have, I was startled to see how much detail they wanted on your current living expenses, projected living expenses in the UK, income, and move costs. It doesn’t say great things about my financial acumen that I found it difficult to fill out my current living expenses, but some of that is complicated by overthinking the definition. For example, in one of the sections they broke out accommodation, and in the other they didn’t. I did the best I could with my current expenses and was grateful for the University of Edinburgh’s cost of living estimates for their foreign students. I added a certain percentage as an “I don’t want to live like a student” bonus.
There wasn’t a line where selling my condo fit, so I added it to the “anything else you’d like us to consider” open-ended questions.
One multiple choice question was if you have friends or family in the UK, to which I answered no. Thanks for making me feel like a loser, UK Immigration. There wasn’t a “well, I know some people but calling us friends would stretch the meaning of the word” option so in the open-ended question about what I planned to do once I arrived, I mentioned knowing some people but not well, hoping to settle in Edinburgh, integrating into the community by using coworking spaces and joining Meetup-like groups, blah blah blah to give them a sense that I have considered the practical and social aspects of moving to a new country.
Supporting documents I submitted
What I submitted erred on the side of minimalism, but my philosophy was I would give them what they asked for and no more. Easier said than done in some cases where their ask is vague, but that’s where some research came in handy. I submitted:
- Birth certificates
- Job interview invitation
- Savings account bank statements of the last three months
Supporting documents I wish I’d submitted though I obviously didn’t need them but they would have eased my mind
After attending my biometric appointment I had my confidence shaken by employees who didn’t seem to know what they were doing. (It’s a contracted facility to gather your information, not UK immigration officers with decision-making power, and they were in training. One didn’t recognize that I had the right birth certificates.) So naturally I went home and googled “U.K. ancestry visa declined.” More than once. In various permutations.
I only came across two stories: one woman whose sister was rejected because she had around $2 in her bank account. Duh. The other gave me more cause for concern — it was a man applying with three dependents who was rejected for not having enough funds, and for not proving that his accommodation — a family member’s home — was sufficient to house an additional four people for an extended period of time.
I also discovered fellow paranoid people who listed what they’d submitted to ask if it was enough. What I submitted in comparison was definitely minimalist.
In what should have been a comforting discovery, I found statistics for one quarter from last year that indicated only around 5% of ancestry visa applications were denied. But someone has to be in that 5%. I knew I was eligible; the question was did I adequately prove my case, or did I make some random error in my application? If I’d searched for denial fears and stories before submitting my application, I might have beefed it up to ease my mind with some of these things:
- A printout of the hotel booking, with an added explanation in the application form about my accommodation plan. It seems so obvious that a hotel would be a short term solution while looking for a long term rental, I didn’t explicitly say that. So the story of the rejected man had me worried. Maybe he thought it was obvious that staying with his family member was a short term solution. (Or maybe it wasn’t supposed to be short term and he had made it clear that was his long term solution, but without knowing more, my imagination took hold of me.) This is the one item I would have submitted if I’d thought of it. It certainly couldn’t have hurt.
- Proof of current income. I deliberately didn’t submit this because they don’t ask for it and I worried I’d be penalized for being self-employed, despite knowing that’s a legitimate status for this visa. Still, I was unsure if, say, the statements for my chequing account would help by showing I was earning enough money, or hurt, by showing irregular payments. Because the application form asks for your current job information, they knew I was self employed, so it likely wouldn’t have hurt. But going with my “give them only what they ask for” philosophy, I chose not to.
- Overall financial picture. Related to the above, I actually had two printouts from the bank, only one of which I used (the savings account to show I had sufficient funds to get settled). The teller also printed off an overall picture of my accounts, including chequing, mortgage, credit card and registered savings accounts, but again I shied away from providing more detail than asked for. (Then again, the UK visa site only says “bank statements” — the information that it’s savings they’re interested in came from third-party sources). I could have overthought this to death: if I showed my mortgage, shouldn’t I prove that I was selling the condo (but it wasn’t listed yet)? The answer is likely no, it wouldn’t matter since I already said I was selling it, but my uncertainty even now reinforces my minimalist policy: why give them information they didn’t seem to need, when it might raise more questions? I had the printout at my biometric appointment and I’d meant to ask there if I should submit it … until I realized the employees knew less than I did about the process.
So that was my experience, leading to a successful visa application. Questions? Fire away. Want to share your own experience? Please do!