Let’s work backwards from when you want to arrive to figure out when you need to do what you need to do:
Let’s say that classes start on October 1. You can move into your residence hall on September 25, so that’s your target arrival date.
The initial entry time for visas is 30 days. That’s it. You can enter on the first day, the 30th day, or any day in between, but if you show up 31 days after the visa start date, sorry, but they might not let you in.
That sucks. So I strongly recommend that you don’t cut it close on the back end. If, say, you want to arrive on September 25, don’t apply for a visa with a start day of August 26. What if your flight is delayed or canceled, and you don’t arrive until September 27? Yikes. Don’t do that.
Instead, aim for a window that puts your target arrival day a week into the window when you want to arrive. So, in this example, the start date could be September 18. It’s possible that, even though you’d have to pay for a hotel for a couple of nights, the airfare from the US is so drastically cheaper if you arrive on September 23 that it’s worth coming in a little early. Or, if there’s a big storm, or a volcano erupts, you could arrive on September 29 or 30 and still be fine.
This site has some great resources and FAQs for student visas, but one thing I want to point out is that you need to apply at least six weeks before you want to go, but cannot apply more than three months before you want to go. So using the scenario above, here’s one possible timeline:
- June 19 – Earliest possible date to submit visa application
- August 7 – Last possible date to submit visa application
- September 18 – Visa Start Date
- September 25 – Residence Hall Move-In
- October 1 – Classes Start
This one takes a little more time due to some of the rules around job offers and requirements to confirm that the non-UK citizen is indeed the only one who can do the job. As an example, here was our timeline:
- October 16 – Accepted job offer
- October 18 – Completed visa paperwork
- October 16 – November 16 – Waiting period (for my partner’s new employer to re-post the job and ensure no UK-based candidates could be found. This doesn’t apply to every worker category, but most)
- November 21 – Biometrics appointment / shipping documentation to immigration attorney
- November 30 – Visa application accepted!
- December 1 – Passports with visas returned to us
- January 2 – February 1 – Entry window
- January 10 – Arrived in London
- January 15 – My partner’s first day at work
A Note About Flights
As I type this, the UK has just approved Boris Johnson’s plan for Brexit, e.g. leaving the EU. I think it’s absurd, and am holding out some totally misplaced hope that someone will exercise some common sense and reverse course, but I think that ship has sailed.
Why does this matter?
If at all possible, try to book a trip that does not include a flight connection through an EU country, because then you won’t be stopping at passport control once you arrive in the UK. And that’s a problem. One that I learned (almost) the hard way.
When I moved to London for graduate school, I booked a flight from NYC through Ireland. I went through immigration in Ireland, then transferred to my Ireland – London flight. When I arrived in London, I just went straight to baggage, collected my items, and headed to my residence hall.
Which meant my visa was never stamped. I’d essentially never arrived.
About six weeks later, a friend and I flew to Barcelona for the weekend (isn’t it so unbelievably cool that you can do that when you live in Europe?!). She headed back to the US and I returned to London. I showed immigration and border control my visa (which didn’t have the original entry stamp), and was confronted by a very stern immigration agent asking where my paperwork was.
It was in my residence hall, shoved on a bookshelf because I didn’t need it anymore, or so I thought.
After a bit of a talking to, the immigration agent asked whether I had my student ID with me. I did, and that served as sufficient proof for them. They stamped my visa and let me in.
Clearly you want to avoid that situation, especially for those coming on a work visa.
Additionally, as of summer 2019, US passport holders are allowed to use the e-gates at customs and immigration. It’s an AMAZING time-saver if you already live here or are just visiting, but you CANNOT use it if you are making your first entry on a visa. Airport staff will try to redirect you to the e-gates. Explain that you need to speak to a real live person to get your visa stamped. They may argue with you. Just be very kind and patient and refuse to use the e-gates. Trust me here.