Step by step: How to get into a UK university as an international student

The UK is full of buzzing cities and idyllic university towns... But how do you get there? Source: Shutterstock.

The United Kingdom is home to some of the world’s best universities, nestled in beautiful historic towns and bustling vibrant cities.

So if you have your heart set on heading there to get your degree, it’s no surprise why. But where do you start?

First off, you need to know this: UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) is your ticket to getting into a UK-based institution.

And different to the US system where you’re required to make university-specific applications, in the UK you’d need to write one personal statement, apply to a maximum of five universities and conduct it all through one online portal.

Sounds relatively simple, right? Well, yes and no… Luckily it should be pretty easy to get a handle on, but when you are just starting out it can be rather tricky to know how to navigate the application process, visas, and all the other steps and requirements you need to go through and meet in order to begin your UK adventure.

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If you are from a country within the European Union you are currently treated the same as a British applicant so most of these steps are not necessary.

However, the future of EU international students in the UK is still uncertain following Brexit and you may have to complete the steps below for the 2019-2020 university admissions year.

You can access our printable PDF step-by-step guide here.

1. Ensure you meet all requirements

Firstly, start early – very little can be done if you miss deadline days and you may end up having to wait another year if you are dead-set on studying in the UK. It is also important you make sure you meet all the necessary requirements to be successful.

You will need:

  • An up-to-date passport
  • An English language proficiency qualification
  • Proof of how you will be funding your studies
  • A Tuberculosis test (certain countries)
  • And possibly more

To study in the UK, you will need to take the IELTS test or its equivalent to prove you have sufficient English language skills to complete your course.

If you hope to study in London you will need to provide proof you have at least £1,020 (US$1,430) per month for living expenses throughout the course of your studies as well as the means to pay for your tuition. Outside of London this drops to £820 (US$1,150) a month.

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Those entering the UK from many countries are required to have been cleared for Tuberculosis (TB) so check whether your home country is on that list and get tested if so.

UCAS updates its website regularly with all application deadlines so make sure you don’t miss out. If you are applying to study medicine, veterinary science, or a handful of other courses, or applying to Oxford or Cambridge, your deadline is likely to be earlier than other subjects or universities so make sure you are checking the specifics.

2. Find a course and select your universities 

In the UK, you choose your course before applying to university and your passion for that particular area of study should be at the forefront of your application.

You can even have a search of our website to find a course that appeals to you if you aren’t sure. Once you’ve settled on one, have a search on UCAS and make a note of its unique code.


London , UK. Source: Jamie Street/Unsplash.

You can select up to five universities to apply to so have fun researching which institutions offer your course and exploring their websites. And don’t forget making a note of your universities’ UCAS codes.

3. Write your personal statement

Your personal statement sets you apart from all other students and is likely to be key to your success when faced with competitors with similar grades and backgrounds. You have a maximum of 47 lines or 4,000 characters (not words) to sell yourself and your love for your chosen subject.

Detail what interests you, what you will bring to the university, why you chose the course and what you have done to show you are dedicated to your subject area.

Have a read of some of our more detailed tips on writing your personal statement here.

4. Apply through UCAS

UCAS’ website is easy to navigate and will guide you through the process. You will need to fill out your personal information, the UCAS codes you collected earlier for your course and universities, and your personal statement.

As we wrote earlier, this is unlike the US where each application is tailored to a specific university, so identical applications will be sent to all the universities you apply to.

Currently, UCAS charges £13 (US$18) if you are applying to just one university for just one course or £24 (US$33) if you are applying to multiple universities or courses. Pay the fee and then there is nothing to do but sit back and wait…

If you are successful you will get your CAS form (Confirmation of Acceptance of Studies) which is a virtual document with a unique reference number sent to you by the university that accepted you.

Keep this in a safe place (do not lose it) as you will need it to apply for your student visa. Additionally, it will have all the important information you need to know, including details of your course, start date, tuition costs and your official confirmation of a place at university.

5. Pay for Immigration Health Surcharge

To receive free healthcare for the duration of your studies you must pay a £150 (US$210) Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) fee, which will cover you for one year. You can pay this fee online.

Keep your payment receipt safe as you will need it to apply for your visa.

6. Apply for your visa

You will need a Tier 4 (General) Student Visa if you are studying for a full-degree in the UK or a Student Visitor Visa if you are studying for a period of six months or less, which you can obtain through an online application. You’ll need to have your fingerprints and photograph taken at a visa application centre (to get a Biometric Residence Permit) as part of your application.

Be careful with your timings for this one: the application needs to be in no less than three months before your course begins but no more than six months after you received your CAS form so keep your eye on your dates.

For a Tier 4 visa, you will need to pay a £310 (US$435) fee and £83 (US$116) for a six-month Student Visitor visa.

You may be able to get your visa faster depending on what country you’re in so check with your visa application centre.

7. Visa interview

You will be invited to a visa interview, at a visa application centre or possibly via video link, where you will be asked questions predominately about your university, course and financial situation. Have all your documents at the ready just in case and be prepared to talk confidently in English about your hopes for your studies in the UK.

You are likely to need:

  • Tuberculosis Screening Certificate from UKVI approved TB Test Centre
  • CAS form
  • Current passport
  • English language proficiency test mentioned in CAS form
  • Financial proof you can fund your studies
  • Two passport photographs
  • Academic certificates mentioned in CAS form
  • Original birth certificate (and translation if not in English)
  • Proof of payment for immigration health surcharge

8. Start planning your journey

Now you can begin making your exciting plans, including your means of travel, to get you safely to your new home in the UK. Speak to the university about accommodation if you haven’t already heard anything and make arrangements for your arrival.

If you are studying in the UK for less than six months, you can arrive in the country up to one week before your programme begins. Whereas if you are studying for a longer period of time, you can arrive up to 30 days before.

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You will have been given a temporary visa which will allow you to be in the country for that period of time. Your actual visa comes in the form of your BRP which you will have to collect within 10 days of when you said you’d arrive in the UK (even if you actually arrive at a later date) and you can face high fines if you forget, so make sure you remember. You will have arranged when you applied for your visa where to collect your BRP from.

If you are heading off to the UK for your studies soon, you might want to have a look at our handy checklist on everything you need to take with you.

9. Arrive in the UK to begin your studies

Let your mind run wild as you travel and dream of what awaits you when you arrive: a whole new adventure.

Remember to keep all your forms and documents in an accessible place in your hand luggage to give immigration if required when you land.

Broken down into manageable steps it doesn’t look quite so intimidating, right? Don’t forget you can view it in an even simpler format here with our handy print-out to make sure you do everything you can to get yourself to the UK to further your education.

Congratulations, you did it – now the fun begins!

**All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change so always ensure you check with your university and the UK embassy if in doubt.

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