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


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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 is 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. If you want to skip the detail, you can go straight to the How does a border officer decide if a visitor should be allowed in? section, where we’ve included a couple of case studies.

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 EU pre-settled or settled status (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 visa to allow them to do so, for example a Skilled Worker visa, marriage 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.

This all sounds very complicated, I just want to go backpacking around the Highlands

Before we go any further, let me emphasise that the vast majority of tourists arriving in the UK from European Union countries will have no issues. Most will be able to go through the eGates and not even speak to a border officer. This article is not intended to scare people or to put off tourists. EU citizens arriving to do a bit of travel or tourism should have no trouble.

With all of the stories in the press lately, though, it is important to be aware of what a visit visa entails and what the limitations are — particularly when it comes to work-related activities.

What is a visitor permitted to do?

Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities sets out all of the things a visitor is allowed to do. These permitted activities introduce exceptions to the broad list of prohibited activities. The permitted activities include:

  • tourism and leisure
  • visiting friends and family
  • school exchanges and visits
  • volunteering for up to 30 days with a registered charity
  • attend meetings, conferences, seminars, interviews
  • negotiate and sign deals and contracts
  • site visits and inspections
  • intra-corporate activities
  • interpreting and translation work as an employee of an overseas enterprise
  • tour group work
  • journalism
  • scientific and academic research
  • preaching and pastoral work by religious workers

At this point you may be saying to yourself: “wait, so some types of work are actually allowed?” That’s right: all work is prohibited except that which is expressly permitted. The rules say:

Visitors cannot work in the UK unless this is expressly allowed under the permitted activities set out in Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities.

Immigration Rules Appendix V: Visitor

Permitted work activity is one of the murkiest areas of the visitor rules and guidance. I am probably not the only lawyer left feeling deeply uneasy when asked to interpret it because there are all sorts of income and work arrangements not expressly addressed. Interpretation of what is or is not permitted is generally going to turn on an individual border officer’s subjective interpretation of the visitor’s intention (see next section). This introduces a risk of refusal even if the would-be visitor believes their intended activities fall within the ambit of the permitted activities.

Is job-seeking allowed?

“Work” is defined as

(i) taking employment in the UK; or

(ii) doing work for an organisation or business in the UK; or

(iii) establishing or running a business as a self-employed person; or

(iv) doing a work placement or internship; or

(v) direct selling to the public; or

(vi) providing goods and services

Paragraph V4.4.(a) of Appendix V: Visitor

Job-seeking/searching is not caught by this prohibition. Visitors are allowed to look for future employment in the UK — but it is critical that they understand the limitations. Visitors cannot, under any circumstances, begin work if they find a job. If they manage to secure an offer of future employment they must leave the UK and apply for the appropriate entry clearance from abroad, likely under the Skilled Worker visa route.

Young adults arriving from Europe with no return flight and a stated intention to search for low-skilled work with no prospect of sponsorship are unlikely to be seen as genuine visitors and highly likely to be refused entry.

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.

Visit caseworker guidance, page 30

My 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.

Example 1

A young Greek man, Dimitris, arrives at Heathrow and seeks entry as a visitor. He has no return ticket. Dimitris is asked by the border officer what his intentions are. He tells the border officer that his partner lives in London and he will be staying with her to look for work as a waiter or kitchen porter. The border officer is likely to err on the side of caution and refuse entry because of the following factors:

– The visit does not sound temporary and there is no evidence of a return flight.

– Dimitris intends to find low-skilled employment which has no prospect of future sponsorship.

– Dimitris has not shown an understanding that employment is prohibited and has implied that he will start working if offered a job.

– Dimitris has a girlfriend living in the UK. This introduces a potential motivation to remain in the UK beyond the six months normally given to visitors.

Example 2

A young Italian lady, Monica, arrives at Gatwick and seeks entry as a visitor. She has a return flight booked in one month’s time. Monica is asked by the border officer what her intentions are. She tells the border officer that she is visiting some friends in London and doing some sightseeing and tourism. She is also going to be looking for jobs as a research scientist and attending some job interviews with Pfizer and GSK. Monica has letters from both with the interview dates, times and locations. She knows that she needs to return to Italy to apply for a Skilled Worker visa if she is offered employment. The border officer should grant entry as a visitor because Monica has demonstrated that she is a genuine visitor.

Can refusal of entry be challenged?

There is no right of appeal against refusal of entry. The only way to challenge a refusal decision is to urgently initiate judicial review proceedings. Judicial review is an expensive remedy of last resort. The alternative option is usually to simply try again at a later date.

For non-visa nationals, it might be an idea to consider applying for entry clearance in advance, the way that visa nationals would. This allows a written case to be made in advance of pitching up at the border desk.

You can read more about challenging a visit visa refusal here.

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.

Where can I find the visit visa rules?

The visit visa rules discussed above are spread over five different appendices to the Immigration Rules:

To add meat to the bones, there is also a casework guidance document which is actually quite helpful (to lawyers, at any rate) in fleshing out some of the finer details.

How might 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. To me this was simpler to understand and to explain.

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.

Final tips

Be able to explain the reason for your visit, and where possible, be able to support this with evidence.

Demonstrate an understanding of the visit visa rules and the requirement to leave the UK at the end of the visit, and not to use frequent and successive visits to make the UK your main home.

Avoid travelling on an open-ended ticket. Organise your return flight in advance.

Carry supporting evidence of your circumstances in your country of residence: employment, finances, family, home.

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Picture of John Vassiliou

John Vassiliou

John Vassiliou is legal director and head of immigration at Shepherd and Wedderburn LLP. His profile can be found at: https://shepwedd.com/people/john-vassiliou.


One Response

  1. What is the situation of EU nationals entering the UK as visitors via Ireland? Are they allowed to stay for 6 months or 90 days in line with the CTA?