Ten years ago, I got on a plane flying from Kuala Lumpur to London. It was a sunny afternoon when I landed at Heathrow Airport for the first time, reeling from the long-haul, trundling one big suitcase, one small. Groggily, I stumbled on the coach that would take me to Coventry for my first term at the University of Warwick. I still have much to learn today at twenty-eight, but wow I was young then. I didn’t know that I’d eventually go on this long, mostly banal, occasionally dicey journey to make this country my home.
Skipping to the good part: At 3.34pm last Friday afternoon I received an email from my lawyers confirming that I have indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom (for anyone reading this outside of the UK, it’s our way of saying I have permanent residency.) It read:
I’m setting out to tell this as a story. Because really at its core, it’s more about narrative than utility. The way I went about this was fairly alternative, and it was rooted in a lot of lucky encounters and a good deal of privilege. But I hope it will help anyone going through this. You’re not alone. The complexity of every single nuanced emotion you feel / you will feel about the process is normal, and being a ‘good immigrant’ is sometimes (often) a bitter pill to swallow.
My entire visa journey to become a permanent resident of the United Kingdom can be summarised like this:
Tier 4 Student Visa (which did not count towards my indefinite leave application) > Tier 5 Temporary Work Visa (which did not count towards my indefinite leave application) > Global Talent Visa (previously called Tier 1 Exceptional Promise visa) > Indefinite Leave to Remain.
Getting on the Global Talent Visa
In late 2015, I was beginning to think about leaving the job I got right out of university. It was a job that made me feel equally indebted and trapped: they put me on a Tier 5 Temporary Work visa that was tied to my employment at the company. Leave the company = leave the country. It was something I never wanted to feel again, so I set out to make sure my next steps gave me as much flexibility as I could manage.
The usual route for folks who hail from outside the European Union* is to get on a Tier 2 Skilled Worker visa, which gives you the permission to stay in the country for a fixed length of time (up to five years). After said fixed length, you can apply for the right to permanently live in the United Kingdom if you so wish. This would have tied me to my employer again. Instead, I applied for what used to be called the Tier 1 (Exceptional Promise) visa, now called the Global Talent visa, seeking endorsement from an organisation called Tech Nation.
When I was going through the application, I was lucky to have the support of Debut, my new employer. They connected me to some contacts at Tech Nation, and spent time with me on my application. They also provided financial support, by paying for the bulk of my fees up front. (I paid them back over time through a reduction in my payslip). An unspoken truth about any immigrant’s journey to becoming a resident in a Western country? It costs so. much. money.
The Global Talent Visa states you can apply if you’re a leader or potential leader in one of the following fields: academia or research, arts and culture, or digital technology. Back then I was still working in marketing and social media, so the digital technology route was always going to be the one for me.
My application pack for this visa included ten pieces of evidence proving how I was a ‘potential leader’ in digital technology (if you’re wondering whether I had any flare-ups of impostor syndrome writing this application, you would be correct). Two letters of recommendation (from an ex-colleague and friend Amy Everett, and an industry connection Tom Sharman, who I will forever be grateful to.) One mention in the Metro newspaper. Four industry blog posts detailing my speaking appearances at conferences, and two examples of my then side-project Mythical Millennial. Oh, and my CV.
It felt like the most intense job application of my entire life.
After you apply, there were two stages: endorsement from an organisation approved by the Home Office, and then the application itself. Once you get your endorsement it should be fairly smooth sailing to get your application, but it did take me around four months from start to finish (looking back on my emails, I started thinking about applying for this in July 2016. My visa was valid from October 2016.)
Receiving this visa five years ago felt like a temporary exhalation. I had never had a visa for the UK lasting longer than three, but I didn’t need to think about my residency status for a few years. “Oh, I’ll start worrying about this in 2021…” I thought. I set a Google Calendar notification for the 1st of January 2021 and lived my life for a little bit. So let’s flash forward.
* Well, before Brexit. The playing field is now much more even for anyone who attempts settling in the UK, and it makes me feel horrifically sad for my EU friends they have to go through this now.)
Applying for indefinite leave to remain
My phone alarm went off on the first gloomy day of 2021. We were still in the dark depths of another pandemic lockdown, my partner Nick and I were slowly succumbing to cabin fever and I was definitely slightly hungover off the Tesco prosecco from the night before. I didn’t need to look at my notifications to know that it was time to get serious about how I was going to stay in the country. So I got out of bed and started planning out the year in Notion (which is such a painfully startup thing to do, isn’t it?)
There was one thing I wanted to do first: I knew it was time for me to move on from my then job at Monzo, so I did. I left Monzo in April to join a company called Prolific. After joining Prolific I brought up my immigration status with my manager Allie, and her manager Wahida. They didn’t hesitate to say they’d do what they could to help me, which moved me. It is so easy for organisations to say no, or to do what they can in a way that’s more beneficial overall for the organisation versus the individual, but it wasn’t the case with them.
But, neither of them have ever gone through this process for an employee before, so I had to do my own research. I toyed with submitting the application on my own and goodness, I nearly did. Eventually I figured this felt a little too important to leave to chance, so I got in touch with Fragomen for help. They are a specialist immigration law firm and my endorsement body Tech Nation’s exclusive immigration provider. Fragomen’s associates provided legal advice and they also submitted my indefinite leave to remain application on my behalf.
Now, I want to be clear about the following bit of information. I’m sharing the full price breakdown of my fees because I think it’s really important for anyone reading to understand the financial burden of engaging a legal firm with this process. It’s not something you have to do. However, I personally feel if I didn’t, I would have royally messed up my application (this was proven time and time again as they asked me questions I would have never thought of, and requested documents I didn’t know I needed to provide). The folks at Fragomen were also truly wonderful to work with: professional, timely, and empathetic.
On a fixed fee basis, this is what it cost: £5,958.20. Similar to my arrangement with Debut five years ago, Prolific has kindly paid this for me up front, and I am paying them back over time. I would not be able to afford this otherwise.
- Fragomen professional fees: £2,500 + VAT
- Government filing fee: £2,389
- Biometric enrolment: £19.20 – (where you pop over your fingerprints, signature, and photo)
- Priority service fee: £800 (reduces processing times from 6 months to 24-48 hours)
- Contingency fee (covers appointment fees and postage): £250
There were two lingering anxieties I couldn’t shake until I submitted my application. Firstly, when I applied for my Tier 1 visa, I did so with the sub-category of ‘performance marketing’ (as that was my field at the time). In the five years since, I’d made more sideways moves than a spider crab, going from social media to customer operations to learning and development to internal communications and now… people operations (human resources). I haven’t been a marketer for years. The folks at Fragomen suggested I write a personal statement explaining my career history, so I wrote one. Even so, I was haunted by the idea that the Home Office would reject my application because I wasn’t in the right line of work.
Secondly, getting the priority service that shrinks your processing time from 6 months (!!!) to 24-48 hours was also not a guarantee. If I didn’t get this, I would be in immigration limbo, passport-less, until I got my decision. It’s safe to say both of these things stressed me out to no end.
It all worked out of course, and Fragomen told me to block out 9am on Friday the 12th of November for my biometric enrolment appointment. Nick came with me on the train. I was in and out of there in seven minutes and for once, didn’t dare to do my usual Brenda thing of being very non-British and chit-chatty with the lady reviewing my application. It just… felt so fragile and anticlimactic all at once.
We took a walk from the processing centre near Tower Bridge to London Bridge, and it was the kind of London weather you romanticise if you’ve never lived here. Slightly spitty rain, grey clouds for miles, and a ton of optimistic tourist faces as we crossed the river. And then hours later, I received the news that I never have to worry about my immigration status in this country again.
Common questions I get about applying for indefinite leave to remain
Why didn’t your other visas count?
Because there are very specific routes towards indefinite leave to remain, and the one with best chances of success didn’t take those years into consideration. There is one that says you can do it if you just so happen to manage to spend ten years in a row in the UK, but years as a student or in temporary work do not count! This was probably the thing that shocked me the most about this whole process.
Wouldn’t it have been easier for you and your partner to get married?
Lots of people think that if you simply get married to a British citizen, you’re a shoe-in for permanent residency. This is not the case. You still have to apply for a family visa, and then you’ll have to live on a family visa for a continuous five years before you qualify for indefinite leave.
Hypothetically I could have done this with Nick as his spousal equivalent. But there is also something deeply unappealing to me about having to lay your relationship bare to the Home Office to prove you’re worthy of staying in the country. When I marry, I want to do so without the extra obligation my immigration status would have on my relationship. This was a personal choice for me.
Will you become a citizen now?
Ask me again in a year or so. I haven’t dared even imagine the prospect before this weekend, if I’m frank. I come from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is a country that doesn’t allow dual citizenship. There’s something gut-wrenching thinking about giving up a part of me that I’m deeply proud of, especially as I’m now a permanent resident of a country which has its share of flaws.
It’s a strange feeling having to fight to prove you’re worthy of the home you’ve built. I started psychotherapy in the summer, and my (very stoic) therapist and I have been talking about the difficulties I have with roots. I’ve lived in three countries, move houses almost every year, and have never had the security of feeling like I’m worthy of a permanent spot in this country.
Yet I’ve paid income tax and National Insurance for more than seven years. I’m marrying wonderful Nick who so happens to be a British citizen (Northern Irish), and the community that surrounds me and makes me feel the most me are either in London or dotted around the island. Do I feel British? Not yet. Do I want to feel British? I don’t know.
I’m going home for the first time in two years in late January for a little while, back into the arms of my parents and sister who encouraged me to go on this journey in the first place. They remain the hardest people I’ve ever had to leave. I don’t know what’s next. But my god am I’m excited to find out.