Customs and immigration – perhaps the most daunting aspect of international travel. For young immigrants and foreigners in the UK, whether applying for student visa or leave to remain, jousting with the Home Office is an experience that can be a bureaucratic minefield and a process that has left many “riddled with anxiety”.
Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has displaced millions of Ukrainians, has drawn fresh attention to the UK's immigration system: with Home Secretary Priti Patel recently announcing the simplification of the application process for Ukrainians seeking refuge in the country. This rule change followed extensive cross-party criticism, and public pressure to make the scheme less cumbersome for those fleeing war.
We asked young immigrants what shocked them most about their experiences with the UK’s immigration system.
Elisha Bautista, 23: ‘I was stumped by how onerous some of these questions were’
I’m a first-generation immigrant. I moved to the UK to study when I was 15. What shocked me the most about the immigration system was the additional (and imperative) Life in the UK test which we had to take. It’s a prerequisite for anyone seeking indefinite leave to remain, or citizenship.
As a history junkie and avid reader, studying for the test was almost exciting to me. But the more I delved into guides and handbooks - I was stumped by how onerous some of these questions were.
They ranged from asking what a Welsh cake was to how many parliamentary constituencies exist to which palace was cast-iron, glass-plated and housed the Great Exhibition of 1851? This was supposed to be a testament to the practical day-to-day knowledge that a “true Briton” would have. Half of my family is white, educated, born-and-raised British. They share a great passion for general knowledge. None of them passed our role-play test on the first go.
I’m a big fan of British culture down to the food, music, art, and literature. Is the Life in the UK Test a true cultural measure of an immigrant’s intelligence and capabilities? Or even the extent of their devotion to a country where they can build a life, a family, and contribute as a valuable member of the community?
Jude Bonsu: ‘Out of about 20 Commonwealth countries that are exempt from taking such tests, none is an African country’
Ghana being a former British colony, one might expect that Ghanaians be exempt from taking English proficiency tests – the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) – as part of the immigration process. English was adopted after independence by Ghana as its official language (over about 50 local languages) which was directly linked to its having been colonised by the British. The English language is the medium of instruction from the lowest to the highest level of Ghana’s academic institutions and English is a “core subject” at Junior High School in Ghana. Failure to get a convincing pass in English makes you ineligible to be admitted to the next level of education: senior high school.
I find it interesting that we are still made to take the IELTS test before we are considered for admission to schools in the UK. Ghana is part of the Commonwealth and there are other countries in the Commonwealth exempt from taking the test. It’s worth pointing out that of all the commonwealth countries that are exempt from taking such tests, not one is an African country.
I see people using the word “extortion” when talking about these tests, in the sense that requiring the numerous applicants to take them serves as a moneymaking avenue for the UK government. I am tempted to agree with that. I think this is unfair to the people of Ghana and also other British colonies who have to go through this.
Iryna Zamuruieva, 29: ‘I’d like to see the dismantling of the hostile environment policy’
I was not surprised by the UK immigration system when I arrived because I was already aware of the hostile environment policy that the government is deliberately pursuing. I came to the UK because my partner had a British government-funded PHD. In spite of that it was still difficult and very expensive to get our visas. The cost of the application itself, as well as the Imigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fee, is really high. Those details shock you when trying to deal with moving from abroad. Another shock: They lost our wedding certificate - a minor detail in the grand scheme of things, but I had to pay for the phone calls needed to figure out how to get it back. I ended up spending £100 in phone bills.
As a Ukrainian living in the UK - I would like to live in a world where I can travel and see my loved ones without excessive cost and bureaucracy. At present it's free to come to the UK from Ukraine, but sadly it's just a temporary measure as far as the rules go. I wish it was permanent, not only for Ukrainians but everyone else fleeing war or [the impacts of] climate change. I'd like to see the end of labelling people “illegal” - rendering them disposable, and of course I'd like to see the dismantling of the hostile environment policy and a move toward a more welcoming environment for those who need a place to live.
Tim Seong, 26: ‘It was a very high stakes and tense experience’
My immigration experience had its positives and negatives. I think what shocked me the most was how stressful it was. There were lots of requirements - which we were expected to meet “to-the-T”. For the student visa, for example, we had to do lots of tests and show tons of documents.
Financially speaking we had to hold the balance to cover our first year’s whole academic fees and maintenance for 30 consecutive days - we were warned that if the balance dropped by $0.01 (for even a day) our visa application wouldn't succeed. I remember when I went to the embassy to collect my passport there was a woman crying because her visa application failed as a result of a $50 drop in her balance.
It was a very high stakes and a super tense experience for me and my family. As someone who has lived around the world I still can’t recall any visa experience as stressful as the UK’s. Of course the experience was worth it and I'm so grateful. There's such relief when they stamp your passport at immigration and you walk through the gates. But it shouldn’t be this way.
Natalie Dean, 19: ‘It surprised me how much work actually went into moving across the world’
The process of moving from California to Liverpool as a whole was difficult but worth it, although I miss the sun. I was able to get a student visa because I was accepted to study music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts for the next three years. I think my visa process was a bit more challenging than usual because it took place during COVID. The application itself is rather simple but you definitely have to have a solid plan for what your life in the UK will look like once you arrive, before you apply. Honestly, it was just a ton of paperwork, and waiting. It surprised me how much work actually went into moving across the world! Out of ten, I would give the immigration process a whole seven.