"Your UK visa has been issued."
Those may have been the best words I've ever read. I, like a few of my fellow students going into the same study abroad program, have had some trouble understanding the visa process, and successfully applying for one. Thankfully, I just recieved word via email that my visa has been issued. This couldn't have come at a better time since if it had been rejected, I may not have had enough time to fix my mistakes, and re-apply for a visa before my program starts. And without a visa, I'd have a very hard time getting into the country to study for a year. So I'm sure you can imagine my relief and joy when I found out that I am now officially allowed by the government to enter their country and to stay there for a year!
So, I figured I'd go over the general process just in case anyone out there reading this is attending a similar program, and is confused as well.
Step 1 - Apply online
Since I am studying abroad for an academic year, and not one semester, I had to apply for a Tier 4 General Student Visa (this is also the visa to apply for if you plan on working, or if you might extend your stay over 6 months). You first need to apply online for a visa at: http://www.visa4uk.fco.gov.uk/
For this you just need your personal and family's information, and a credit card to pay the application fee (around $400 after you convert the fee from pounds to U.S. dollars). It would also be a good idea to wait to apply until you have your CAS number, but I don't think I needed it at this part of the application. Also make sure you print a copy of this application as you will need it later!
Step 2 - Biometric Data
Right after you finish your application for the visa, you need to schedule an appointment to have your biometric data taken. There should be a link/connection to a local office that can do this once you've finished the online application. When you go to this office, you must have your passport and your appointment booking confirmation notice (you will need to print this out after the initial application as well). (Note: My local office did not allow any cellphones, cameras, or recording devices in the building. They did not ask me if I had any or check my bag, but it'd be better not to have it with you, If you do need it for safety reasons, make sure you turn it off before you enter and don't play with it even if you're bored while waiting in line.) This part is pretty easy - you go in, tell the guards what you're there for, then wait until an attendant can see you. Then they take your fingerprints and a picture of you, and take some of your information. When I went, I wasn't given any more information on the visa process, but it might be a good idea to ask if they have any papers/information on it, since I've heard some students mention that they were given information pamplets.
Step 3 - Mailing Your Documents
This is the part where I got confused. I mailed my biometric data form to the British Consulate in New York, but nothing else. I kept waiting to hear back about the next step, and then realized that I should have sent everything together in one big package. On one hand, it was good I sent the biometric data form in early, since I've read that the information expires within 28 days (I could be incorrect about the details on that though). When I finally realized I hadn't even submitted the main part of the visa application, I panicked and tried to get everything I needed within a few days, and then rush ordered the package to the Consulate. So - learn from my mistakes - send everything at once, right after you get your biometric data taken.
What to Send:
1) A copy of your initial online visa application (print this out once it has been completed, and make sure you sign and date it).
2) Passport. Yes - your real passport. This freaked me out too, but this is just their process. Make sure this is signed as well.
3) Appendix 8 Document. This needs to be filled out and completed. To fill this out, you will need some personal information, as well as information about your school. Most of the info is provided with the CAS number, but I had to get some information online. If you scroll down this page, you can find a link that you let you download a copy of the Appendix 8 document: http://www.ukvisas.gov.uk/en/howtoapply/vafs
4) CAS Number. Just make a copy of the initial CAS document you recieved (usually recieved by email).
5) Letter of Acceptance to your host university.
6a) Bank Statement. In order to study abroad for a year, you must prove you have sufficient funds in advance to show you can afford to live in England. This part of the visa application was a shock to my family and I, since we rely on financial aid to help pay for school. I wish my study program at my home school could have given a bit more of a heads up about this part, but they were surprisingly hands off for the entire visa process. The amount of money you must have depends on if you will be living in London or not, and what the recommended living cost is for the part of the country where you will be living. You must have this money in the account for about 28 days in order to prove that the money is legitimately there.
6b) Parent's Note and Birth Certificate. If your parents are helping to pay your expenses to study abroad, you must have a signed note from them saying they will help, as well as a copy of your birth certificate to prove you are their child.
7) Passport photos. You must include passport quality photos for the Consulate so they can put a photo into your visa. You need two identical copies of a recent passport photo. The required size for the British Consulate is 45mmx35mm, but I included two that were the size of US standard passport photos (2inx2in) and they were deemed acceptable. The following site also has some useful information about the photos: http://www.vfs-uk-th.com/photo.aspx Make sure the photos are of good quality or they could be rejected.
1-Housing acceptance letter. I included mine to help confirm I was a student living in the dorms, but this is not necessary.
2-Home University Official Transcripts. I did not include these. I'd sent some to my host university during the school's application process, so I didn't feel these were necessary at this point.
3-Home University Tuition Receipt. This depends on whose tuition you will be paying - whether it be your home school's or your host school's. I did not include this, but said on the Appendix 8 form that I had sufficient funds and that I held evidence to them.
4-Previous Passports. This one might be necessary, but since I did not have any, I did not submit them.
Send the visa package to where it was ask to be sent (usually the N.Y. British Consulate). Send all the information asap, in case you are required to re-submit your application for any reason. I would put a tracker on the package since you are sending your original passport to them. If you have submitted everything that was required, they will send you an email saying that they received your package, and that it is ready for review. If it is approved, then you will receive another email in about 1-2 weeks that it has been issued.
I do not know the extent of these situations, but I have heard that people have had problems applying for the visa if 1) the money in their bank statements had not been there for the required period (28 days), no matter how much money you have in the account. 2) If you have had any trouble with the law (even minor infractions) you must provide some evidence that any and all legal situations have been settled, are no longer going on, etc. Again, I don't know all the details about this kind of situation, but if this applies to you, be ready to provide extra evidence/supporting documents during the visa process. 3) Providing poor quality photos for the visa. Just go and get pictures taken at your local pharmacy or wherever you can find that provides them and you should be fine. My pharmacy even offered to retake them if they weren't accepted, which (despite my time crunch) was reassuring.
My list may not be complete, so if you are applying for a visa, it'd be a good idea to check with various visa and government websites (most of which I found unhelpful and frustrating, but it's always better to get your information straight from the horse's mouth). And for those of you not applying for a visa...well, sorry if this was long and boring, and hopefully you skimmed and/or skipped over most of this.
These are some important websites, but you really need to dig around the websites to find out the information you are looking for:
http://www.ukstudentlife.com/Prepare/Cost.htm (More information about living costs for different parts of the country.)
Also, this site (from another blogger who is embarking on the same program) also has a detailed list of how to apply for a visa, and what to include. Her site helped me a lot when I was applying, so it'd be a good idea to check her's out as well: http://larybray.wordpress.com/2011/07/21/shouldnt-i-be-nervous/