UK family visa processing amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

25 December 2021

Since February 2020 the world has been all but halted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has affected all areas of life including international travel and immigration. The UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have maintained the government guidelines within the operational restrictions. Whilst casework remains accessible remotely and within relevant departments, there have been some changes to the application process that have brought many questions and concerns to the fore. However, the Home Office has been very compassionate in the way that they deal with individual applications that have been affected by the travel restrictions, or by those who have had to self-isolate due to the pandemic. The UKVI have set out clear guidelines on their interim procedures in light of the ongoing pandemic. They have been very transparent in confirming that once the correct procedures have been followed, there should be no adverse consequences for individuals who are unable to leave the UK or travel to the UK in order to activate their settlement partner or spouse visa during this pandemic.

Family visa holders and applicants in the UK

It is important to note for family visa applicants in the UK that the pandemic is not seen as an exemption for extending the visa or leave to remain. As usually is the case for leave to remain or settlement applications, these normally must be made within 28 days before the current (long-term) visa is due to expire (the actual submission date may vary depending on whether the initial family visa was issued from inside or outside the UK as well as the date the visa holder first arrived in the UK). Further leave to remain (FLR) and indefinite leave to remain (ILR) applications are considered submitted once the Home Office application fees and their associated IHS payments, if applicable, have been made. Therefore, once the application has been submitted online and paid for within 28 days before the visa is due to expire, it is considered as submitted on time. Once this happens the applicant will be covered by section 3C of the immigration Rules, which means that they can legally remain in the UK while their extension or settlement application is being processed by the UKVI no matter how long the process takes.

Temporary visa holders in the UK

The UKVI have introduced an interim category called ‘exceptional assurance’ for temporary visa holders who are unable to leave the UK due to current border closures and associated travel restrictions. Anyone who is unable to leave the UK before their temporary visa expires, including visitors, students and work visa holders, may request additional time to stay in the UK to avoid falling out of legal status. Whilst the UKVI have established a specialist COVID-19 response team to handle enquiries on temporary extension applications, it is vital that visa holders take relevant steps to contact them and advise of their circumstances as soon as possible. The UKVI will not contact anyone in the UK with a short-term visa to remind them of the visa expiry date. Due to the high amount of correspondence received at the Home Office we advise that those requesting ‘exceptional assurance’ have their Home office reference number or visa application reference with their date of birth, full name, passport number contact information and date current visa was granted ready for submission to the UKVI COVID-19 response team. This will allow them to access applicant’s immigration status in the UK easily and make the necessary changes. We would also advise to retain additional proof such as confirmation that flights have been cancelled due to COVID-19 and include this in the initial correspondence to the UKVI.

Switching to family visas inside the UK

There has recently been some confusion over the Home Office’s policy on switching to family visas, i.e. unmarried partner or spouse, from within the UK. It has been confirmed that only long-term visa holders, such as workers and students for example, are eligible to apply for further leave to remain under family immigration Rules (Appendix FM) inside the UK. Visitors are not permitted to switch to a family visa as a matter of current Home Office policy. Those who currently hold a valid visitor visa or ‘exceptional assurance’ derived from the visitor visa held previously, are expected to leave the UK and apply for a suitable settlement partner, spouse or fiancée visa in the prescribed manner from outside the UK. There is no exception to the rule.

UK partner and spouse visa holders

Partners and spouses of British Citizens and UK legal permanent residents who have already received a 90-day visa to enter the UK under the 5 or 10-year route to settlement and are not able to travel to the UK due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, must apply for a replacement 90 day entry clearance vignette once they have made firm travel plans and are ready to book flights. The cost of replacing an expired 90-day vignette is £154 at the moment as the UKVI is no longer able to process replacement applications free of charge. Those who manage to enter the UK on an expired 90-day vignette outside the 90-day window and their settlement visa was not properly activated on arrival as a result, are required to contact the Home Office to vary conditions attached to their visa. Visa holders are not required to leave and re-enter the UK in order to activate their family visa. However, they need to advise the Home Office in writing as soon as possible so that an updated biometric residence permit (BRP) can be issued free of charge.

Fiancée visa holders in the UK

Fiancée and proposed civil partnership visa holders who are currently in the UK can apply to extend their visa if they are unable to get married within the initial six month period due the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Proof that a wedding or civil partnership ceremony has been cancelled or postponed by the Register Office due to COVID-19 will be considered a valid reason under this special provision. The fiancée visa can be extended for further six months.

ILR and FLR holders

Indefinite leave to remain (ILR) holders who are absent from the UK for over two years due to the ongoing pandemic are not subject to any special concessions at the moment. They are expected to apply for a Returning Resident visa from abroad and pay the relevant fee in order to obtain permission to return to the UK. Unlike ILR holders, those who have been unable to return to the UK with activated family visas or biometric residence permit (BRP) cards that expired between 1 March 2020 and 19 July 2021 will face no future adverse immigration consequences. Generally, a short break in continuous residence in the UK (up to six months) will be forgiven as long as they submit their further leave to remain (FLR) application as soon as possible on return. There is no specific timeframe; however, we recommend applying within 5 days of arrival.

Visa process for applicants outside the UK

Most TLS and VFS UK Visa Application Centres (VACs) around the world continue to operate as normal and their operations remain unaffected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with very few exceptions. The UKVI priority service is now available in most locations worldwide. If the local VAC is currently closed due to local restrictions, it is still possible to apply for a UK fiancée, partner or spouse visa apply online and select a VAC in any other country to book a biometrics appointment, which is a mandatory step in the application process. Applicants who are required to take a mandatory English test before they can apply for a UK family visa can claim an exemption on their application form if the local test centre was closed or they could not attend the exam due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions.

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