In this two-part series, we look back at the various changes to immigration routes which took place in 2023 and what to expect in 2024.
In May 2023, we saw the Office for National Statistics release net migration statistics which showed that net migration to the UK was increasing, followed in December 2023 by a revision of such figures to show an even greater increase than what was initially expected. Despite these figures being nuanced and largely explainable based on immigration trends which we explore here, they have attracted huge media attention and the focus of the government.
In the lead up to an election later this year, the government are taking an incredibly tough stance on immigration. There have already been various changes throughout 2023 which focused on reducing net migration, as summarised below.
Towards the end of 2023, the government also announced an unusually large number of changes (even for the Home Office!) to take effect in 2024 in the hope of reducing the net migration figure further. These are summarised in our second article; What to expect in 2024 for immigration.
Changes to immigration rules for students
1. Restriction on switching to work routes
In May 2023, the Home Office announced various changes in an effort to substantially cut net migration figures.
From 17 July 2023, changes to the immigration rules have meant that overseas students in the UK are unable to switch out of the student route into work routes until their studies have been completed. Post-Brexit, the rules were slightly relaxed which allowed students to switch without completing their course, a practice which the Home Office now prohibits.
Students on courses at degree level or above continue to be able to apply before course completion to switch to sponsored work routes, as long as their employment start date is not before their course completion.
Those studying towards PhDs can switch no earlier than 24 months after the start date of their course.
2. Restriction on bringing dependants
Students applying for courses starting from 1 January 2024 will no longer be able to bring dependants on their student visa unless they are studying a postgraduate research programme.
Student dependants already in the UK will still be able to extend their stay, where they can meet the specific requirements to do so.
Changes to the EU Settlement Scheme
1. Approach to late applications
From August 2023, the Home Office approach to considering late applications under the EU Settlement Scheme has changed.
The Home Office test in assessing a late EUSS application is whether there are ‘reasonable grounds’ for the late application and if so, the application will be accepted as valid. Under the old process, this assessment came at the point that the application was being fully considered, usually some months after the application was submitted. During this time, the Home Office would issue a Certificate of Application which would allow applicants to prove their right to live and work in the UK whilst they waited for a decision.
However, the rules have now been changed so that a decision on whether to accept a late application is now taken at the initial validity stage before any assessment of suitability or eligibility takes place. The Home Office will not issue a Certificate of Application until the application is accepted to be ‘valid’, meaning no proof of right to live/work until the first hurdle of showing a ‘reasonable ground’ for the lateness of the application is achieved.
The intention of this change, to prevent abuse of the application system by ineligible applicants who wish to obtain a Certificate of Application will likely be achieved. However, there is much potential for eligible applicants who are genuinely making a reasonable late application to be penalised. The change also impacts employers in relation to how they can check an EUSS applicant’s right to work. Those individuals can no longer automatically satisfy a RTW check by virtue of an outstanding EUSS application because that application would first need to be accepted as valid before this is the case. This might mean delays in the right to work checking process which employers must be aware of and handle appropriately.
2. Automatic updates for pre-settled and settled status holders
Since September 2023, pre-settled status holders who have not yet obtained settled status and are approaching the expiry date of their pre-settled status will have their status automatically extended by 2 years.
The Home Office have also announced that they plan to take steps during 2024 to start automatically switching pre-settled status holders to settled status, without them needing to make an application, where those people are eligible.
We’ve previously considered these changes in detail here.
Electronic Travel Authorisation
The UK’s Electronic Travel Authorisation (ETA) scheme opened for Qatari nationals, from 15 November 2023.
The UK and most European countries are now requiring visitors to the country to arrange electronic authorisation before travelling to the country. This is not a requirement to apply for a visa, it’s a requirement for non-visa nationals who are entering these countries as visitors to be electronically ‘authorised’ before arriving.
These individuals will need to apply online or using the UK ETA app before they travel. They should receive electronic confirmation of their ETA within 3 working days, although in some circumstances this can take longer. It costs £10 to apply for an ETA.
The ETA scheme roll out will continue in 2024 and from 22 February, nationals of the following countries will also need an ETA before travelling to the UK:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
The online application portal will open to these nationalities from 1 February 2024.
What to expect in 2024
As well as changes to immigration rules, there were also significant increases to visa application fees in 2023 which set the tone for the immigration agenda in 2024. This year, we will see further increases to the immigration health surcharge amongst a wide range of changes to immigration rules, which we explore in our second article; What to expect in 2024 for immigration.