Oxford / Travel

How to get your Tier 4 UK Student Visa, tears and stress excluded

Visas have been in the news more the last month in South Africa than ever before in my memory. However, it has mostly been about how difficult it has now become for parents to travel to South Africa with children. My dilemma was a bit different, I needed a visa to get out of the country (no child included here).

According to Buzz South Africa as a South African national you can visit up to 114 countries without a visa, you can even go climb Mount Everest in Nepal without a visa (as long as it’s done within 90 days that is). After being accepted to Oxford Brookes University to do my Masters in Digital Publishing starting this September I needed a visa for the UK, but not any normal travel visa, a Tier 4 Student Visa. It was a long, confusing and very tiring process and honestly I was disappointed in the whole process. I tried to get help everywhere I could, even called all the way to the UK, but I really wished someone had just put the steps down on paper.

So that’s what I’m doing here. I will be giving you a step-by-step guide on how to get your Tier 4 Student Visa, hopefully with fewer tears and headaches than I had. I included a bunch of links in blue to help you navigate to the correct pages easily, so hope it helps as well.

UK Visa Logo

Before you start make sure your visa is valid for the time you will be in the UK and at least six more months and make sure to take some ID photos (take a bunch, you’ll use them all over). Finances is probably the most important and most stressful part of any visa application. If you are wondering how much money exactly you will need, it is almost impossible to say (especially with the weakening Rand), but to apply for your Tier 4 visa you need enough to cover your full class fees (tuition) and an additional £7 380 for living costs. This works out on 9 months worth of living costs and housing costs. You will naturally need the full housing costs and more living costs (as soon as I am in the UK I will do a post on how much this really is) in the real world, but this is what you need for your visa to be approved. Very important, make sure the money is in your account for 28 days or longer consecutively before you apply for your visa.

Here goes:

Step 1: Get your CAS form from your University or other institute of study

This is the most important document (other than your visa) and also the one you will probably wait for the longest. The CAS, or Certificate of Acceptance for Study, form is a document you will receive from your university or other institution where you will be studying. You will only receive this form after you have accepted your Unconditional Offer from your university and paid your first deposit. It has all of your information on it; your nationality, passport number, date of birth, course you will be studying, any sponsorship information if you received a sponsorship from the university, course starting and finishing dates and most importantly the amount of money that needs to be paid for the course. The form is sent to you by your university or institute, but it is issued by the UK Higher Education Government (so they know you’re coming). This form will also have all of the contact information of your university on it so you will use it to fill in all forms from here on out.

Step 2: Make an appointment for a TB test

You can do this before you receive your CAS form (sometimes it takes a while for the form to arrive), but make sure your form is on the way so as to not make this appointment unnecessarily. It will cost you R1 268 for the appointment and you need to make it through the International Organization for Migration. You need to call or email them to make an appointment at one of the test centers closest to you. I was lucky, I live in Pretoria and the test center was close by. To find out where your closest test center is and get their contact details click here. Make sure to book long in advance, as they are always busy and bring the following:

  • Your passport
  • Letter with your unconditional offer (or CAS if you already have it) from the UK university
  • Proof of payment for TB test (it needs to be done online)
  • 2 x ID photos (they probably won’t use it cause they take their own there but take them in anycase)

It’s a quick x-ray and then you need to see the doctor for a few routine questions about coughing and night sweat, but it takes a good two hours to issue your certificate, so go for a coffee or something. The people are really friendly and if you do lose your copy (like moi) then they can reissue one for you for R100 (it’s for the shiny hologram on the certificate).

Step 3: Make your visa appointment (and have A LOT OF PATIENCE)

Once you have your CAS form and your TB test certificate you can finally make your visa appointment. Before you start the process, read through all the guidelines on the UK Government website here to make sure you know everything you need to know, and even the things you don’t need to know. You will have to apply online and as of January 2015 everyone applying for the Tier 4 visa must also pay for UK immigration health surcharge (IHS). Personally I think this is a very good thing because taking out health insurance from a travel agent is much more expensive than the, roughly £225, you pay once off for this. It also means you can go to most doctors in the UK so for colds and flues you should be covered. Important, do not pay this beforehand, you will be taken through the payment process when you make your visa appointment.

Now comes the longest, most stressful part of the process. As I said you will need to apply online by using the UK Visa & Immigration page. To use this service you will need to open an account (this same portal is used when applying for any kind of UK visa not just the Tier 4). The registration process is pretty straight forward, provide your details such as date of birth, nationality and a password. One nice thing is that once you have created this account you will always have access to it, so you can see all the applications you’ve made for UK visas, even after they have been approved.

You must choose the Apply for Myself option once you have created an account to start your application process. There are a few things I found extremely frustrating about this online process so please note them and be aware:

  • There are no help functions. This makes it very difficult if you don’t understand exactly what you need to fill in so make sure to read through all of the information on the UK Government website before starting your application
  • There were language errors. This was very prominent in the finance section (one of the most important and stressful) where they ask how much money you have available for living costs and then repeat the question again two questions later. I later learnt that the first finance question refers to how much living costs you have per month for the 9 months required by the visa. Thus, you fill in £820 there (see comment above)
  • The application times out if you’re not active for too long. Make sure you are busy filling in the whole time.
  • Very importantly, the date selection scroll down bars reset themselves. I have to say it these bars are crazy. Make sure to select your year last as it sometimes resets back to the current year if you make changes to the day or month. I ended up having to redo my whole application because my date of birth reset to 2015 (yes I was only a few days old on their system). There are no error messages showing you this mistake so be very careful.
  • Once you have signed the declaration you cannot make changes to your application form. Please don’t stress too much if you made a mistake on your application form and you only realise it at this point (this was where I realised my birth date error and called all the way to the UK for help because of the lack of a help function). If you made a mistake you will have to start a new application. This sucks big time and takes a lot of time, but your other application has not yet been submitted so you can start again. One really irritating thing is that the application with the mistake on it cannot be deleted and will thus stay on your profile forever. I guess it doesn’t really matter, but it is frustrating for me to see my mistake in my face like that the whole time.

After completing the application form and signing the declaration you can schedule an appointment. Make sure to print out your appointment details and write down your reference number.

The second last step is to pay for you Health Insurance. This is a relatively easy process and one nice thing is that your details are pulled through automatically from your visa application onto this application form so you have almost nothing to fill in. Use this time to check all you info is correct again. The payment has to be made online with a credit card so make sure you have one. Important print the proof of payment email sent to you.

The last step is paying for the visa appointment. This appointment is not cheap and you will have to dock up £322, just over R6 000 just for the appointment. This is another online, credit card payment.

After spending a few hours behind your computer and a few thousand rands later, you finally have an appointment.

Step 4: Open an account at Teleperformance (online)

You need to open this account because Teleperformance is the company that does the visa processing here in South Africa. This is a very important step and one that many people miss. If you don’t open an account with them and get a reference number your appointment won’t register and you’ll arrive with no appointment made. There are a number of confusing pages, but this is where you need to go. Choose your city and visa center and follow the instructions. Print all documents they send you via email as well.

Step 5: Go for your visa appointment

A year before this I went for my Schengen visa and honestly it was a much easier, much more helpful process than my UK visa. I was so stressed about what documents to take as I couldn’t find a full list anywhere online (and even when I arrived at the visa application center and asked if my documents were correct or too much or if I needed anything, I was told it’s not their responsibility to check my documents, they just process it, it felt very TIA and not very UK to be honest).

On the UK Government site (the one used to collect all info so far) the following documents are listed to bring:

  • Valid (current) passport
  • Passport photos (which they do not use for you visa but only for admin purposes)
  • Proof of financial support (this will either be a sponsorship letter or bank statements showing the money in your account for 28 days or more)
  • TB test certificate

This might not look so bad, but unfortunately it is not sufficient and from my personal experience I learned that the following documents are what they really want (you can take a chance and leave these out, but to be safe please make sure you have all of these):

  • Valid (current) passport
  • Passport photo (which they do not use for you visa but only for admin purposes)
  • Proof of financial support (this will either be a sponsorship letter or bank statements showing the money in your account for 28 days or more)
  • TB test certificate (make sure you get it back with your visa)
  • Proof of payment emails for both the Health Insurance and the Visa Appointment
  • Email confirmation of your visa application appointment with your reference number on it
  • CAS Form from UK university
  • Housing information (I am staying in the postgraduate university residence so I had a letter from the university, but if you are staying in private accommodation I suggest you call or go see someone at the visa application center beforehand to find out what to submit)
  • PLANE TICKET (you cannot get a visa without one. You won’t get a place ticket for a flight in September of the next year, it’s too far out, so don’t worry about your ticket’s exit date)
  • Letter stating your travel insurance (it’s important to buy a place ticket with a credit card to get this insurance)
  • Certified copies of your previous degrees (they might or might not ask for it so rather include it)

I also included a proof of residence in South Africa and a certified copy of my ID.

Once you are at the visa application center be ready to wait another two hours or so. You will have to submit your documents, go for a biometric test where they will take the photo to be used on your visa (I didn’t know this and of course I look like a red-eyed little girl) and you will fill in the whole online application form, AGAIN. It seemed extremely redundant to me, but at least this one was much clearer with no language errors so I could correct any mistakes I’d made online.

Finally, you will have an online video interview. I was not prepared for this. Nowhere on any website does it say you WILL do an interview. It does say that you might be asked to do an interview, but it’s brushed off as not a must. I had to wait a full 45 minutes for this interview and thanks to our wonderful internet connection it was very laggy. One tip, speak VERY slowly. The person on the other end will ask you questions about why you’re going to the UK, what you’re going to study and where you’re going to live and then they need to type it out. I got quite an ear-full for speaking too quickly (it happens when I’m nervous) so keep calm.

After the interview you are done and you will be contacted within 10 to 15 working days on the outcome of your application.

Step 6: Pick up your visa (hopefully)

The 10 to 15 days you have to wait for your visa to come through are the most nerve wrecking. If you’re lucky like me you’ll only find out about the truck with UK visas that was highjacked just a few days after you applied for your visa, after you get your visa back, but you never know.

You will get a bunch of emails during this time stating that your visa is now with the British High Council and is under review. The emails will make it very clear that the visa application center has no influence on your visa application outcome and the final email saying a decision has been made regarding your visa and it is ready for collection still doesn’t let on whether your visa has been approved or not. If you’re anything near as big a control freak as I am this will have you laying awake at night, but all you can do is wait. When you finally go to pick up your visa (do it as soon as possible after you receive the email) check that everything is correct. On my visa they had my departure date wrong with a month! Luckily it was a month too early and not too late, but it is frustrating. One nice thing about the Tier 4 visa is that you can exit and enter the UK an unlimited amount of time during the time your visa is valid.

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Applying for your visa is a long, frustrating and tedious process. No two applications are the same. I have a friend currently studying in the UK and her visa, for example, is valid until January 2016 (she finishes now in September). Mine, however, is only valid until 30 November 2016 (I finish next year September). I don’t understand why this is and I am still confused about a lot of steps in the process, but the best you can do is be overprepared. I hope that this guide can help someone shed less tears than I did and go into the whole process a lot calmer than I did.

Hi, I'm Andri. A 20-something creative, content creator, writer, reader, traveler, healthy living enthusiast and eco warrior! My day job is in digital publishing, but just like The Loud Library, I am full of contradictions. I love my bunny rabbit Olive, cows and sharing my journey to rediscover my spark.

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