For the last year, my girlfriend and I have been exploring a move to the United Kingdom. I’m Canadian, so I need a visa to live anywhere in the EU with her. Sarah is a British citizen, so moving to anywhere in the EU was possible. You’d think her being British would make it easier to move to the UK than to Spain or Portugal.

But you’d be wrong.

Getting a visa to live in another country is rarely a straightforward process. Hell, getting a visitor visa for lots of places is a pain. Even if you hire a visa company, it’s a lot of legwork. I knew applying for a UK settlement visa would be hard. And before I started, I wasn’t sure if I even qualified. This is because my girlfriend is self-employed.

The UK’s Visa and Immigration Office is unclear on the rules for British citizens self-employed outside the UK. Nowhere were the rules for this situation explained in a straightforward way. Most information assumes that your sponsor is living in the UK and employed in the UK. If that isn’t the case, you’re very much on your own.

The UK and immigration

Sentiment around immigration in the UK is similar to in the USA (see: heated). It’s a wealthy country near many poorer countries. And unlike the borders between USA and Mexico, borders between have-not EU countries and the UK are open. Illegal immigration is a problem in the UK, but many consider legal EU immigration as big a problem.

You can find plenty of stories about a United Kingdom flooded by immigrants or about a London where no one speaks English anymore. These views are sensationalist at best, blatantly ignorant at worst. Open borders supply other countries supplies cheap labour–both skilled and unskilled.

The fight against immigration is one that wins votes, but rarely makes economic sense. The UK has been fighting net migration, trying to reduce immigration. Being part of the EU, the UK cannot limit EU nationals from entering. The easiest group to keep out is non-EU nationals.

Restricting British families

In 2012 UK Parliament updated immigration rules for British citizens with non-EU spouses. British citizens must make at least £18,600/year to sponsor their partners. This was–and still is–a controversial rule. On minimum wage, a British citizen would not earn enough to sponsor their spouse. Earning a decent wage in a poorer country excludes UK expats from returning with their families.

I am not a fan of this rule. Fortunately, my girlfriend makes enough to qualify us. I’m a great immigration candidate1 as I’m creating a new job in the UK.

Proof of income

If your sponsor (British citizen) lives and works in the UK, proving your income is easy. Even if your sponsor is self-employed in the UK, the process isn’t hard.

But if you’re a British citizen working outside the UK, you’ll need more documentation. A lot more.

It is possible to apply when both partners are outside the UK. That wasn’t even clear to me when I started. Here’s how we did it:

Self-Employment Evidence

The self-employed sponsor should be able to “move” their business. Without the intent to move the business, UK Immigration will refuse your application. Proving this is as simple as writing it in a letter, but it’s worth mentioning.

Your British sponsor must make at least £18,600/year. I hope your sponsor keeps good books! You’ll need to prove the business makes money. Print out all bank statements for the last two fiscal years in your country. Then highlight every deposit and link it to an invoice. Afterward, find every transfer from the business account to your sponsor’s personal bank account, to prove the business is paying them money. Even if you’re a sole proprietor you’ll need to do this.

You must convert any non-pound amounts to GBP. You must do this at To add to the annoyance, you must use the posted exchange rate on the day the money was transferred. Have fun with that if you have lots of deposits!

Finally, make sure to include the business’s registration papers. Seal the envelope with a drop of your blood.

The hard part is over

The rest of the process is simple: the rules are online. Some of the wording on the site makes it seem like your partner being outside the UK excludes you. It doesn’t; applying from outside the UK is fine. Your British sponsor is “living in the UK permanently” as long as they’re a citizen.

Even if your sponsor has never lived in the UK and doesn’t have a National Insurance number: they qualify. and many visa guides do not make this clear, but it is the case.

If you’re living with your British partner, you’ll need evidence of this. I used our joint chequing account (the only joint account we have) and our individual credit card bills with a matching address. You’ll also need a few photos of you together.

How long will it take?

You can find average visa processing times from the UK’s website. Immigration emailed me Dec 17, 2014 stating they received my application. I had my passport in-hand with a visa on January 8, 2015. Immigration took three weeks to process my application. The vast quantity of documentation I sent did not seem to delay processing time.

I started working with 1st Contact, a visa company, on October 3, 2014. It took two months to gather documents, fill out forms, get things translated, and attend a visa appointment. I spent a total of three months to get my visa.

Should I use a visa company?

I can’t speak for all visa companies or lawyers, but I can say I used one and am happy I did. I did it because I could afford it and I had no idea what I was doing when I started this process. If my situation were less complicated, I might have even done it on my own. Even if you feel sure of the rules, using a visa company will save you some stress.

It isn’t cheap: I paid £980 using 1st Contact Visas. They sped up the process and offered a money-back deal if the UK refused me a visa. If you can afford it I’d recommend it.

Effective? Hardly.

The limits set by the UK are roadblocks, not true barriers. There are ways around these rules. Partners admitted to the country are not huge economic burdens–on a settlement visa, they aren’t allowed access to public funds.

We spent a lot of money on a visa (£1,865). It was a lot of red tape and a grueling wait.

I hope the UK changes the rules on family settlement visas soon. They are, at the very least, counter to the spirit of the European Union’s borders and family permits. And as frustrating as the process was for us, I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to be refused.

  1. I am transferring my position at Mozilla to the UK; my girlfriend is bringing her business. We are both moving jobs to the UK.