Navigating new UK Visa fees: Higher costs but opportunities abound, affirms JP Breytenbach

The UK has recently implemented significant changes in visa requirements and fees, including the possibility of a substantial increase in the immigration health surcharge (IHS). These changes are part of the efforts of the UK government to ease the burden on its National Health. The Director of Breytenbachs Immigration Consultants, JP Breytenbach, told BizNews that  South Africans aspiring to apply for a UK visa should be prepared for higher costs and careful planning. While the changes may appear daunting, various immigration options remain available, especially for skilled workers. The UK, he said, is still pro-immigration, even though it wouldn’t always look that way. – Linda van Tilburg

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Excerpts from the interview

Caught off-guard by new changes

It’s something that caught a lot of us off guard a little bit. The UK actually raised their fees on 4 October 2023. It’s quite a substantial increase, a lot more than we’ve ever seen in one go. The government has also, in addition to upping the fees for the processing, which they justify by saying they haven’t done so for several years and that is justified because by inflation.They want to cover the costs for processing the visas and they’re going to increase the IHS, the immigration health surcharge quite substantially. It has to go through parliament; they can’t just decide one day, this is what we want to do. There’s been a lot of pushback against this from various industry groups because it’s almost becoming prohibitively expensive to immigrate to the UK. The immigration health surcharge is a particularly vexing issue for many of our clients because you pay for it in advance for five years, for example. If the new fees come in, as they’ve suggested they will, they haven’t given exact numbers, but they have indicated percentages. It might very well cost for one individual, on an ancestral visa which is valid for five years, over £5,000 simply for the IHS fees, never mind all the other fees. In addition to that, once they start working in the UK, they don’t get a rebate. Once they start paying national insurance contributions, a large part of that goes to the NHS, they do not have the choice to elect to get private medical care or cover instead of paying the government, which I think would have been a sensible option. We’ll have to wait and see what happens. We are estimating that January will probably be the month when clarity will hopefully be given. 

Read more: Remote work revolution: Digital nomad visas expand globally

Profile of South Africans applying for UK visas has changed

Before Brexit, we’ve seen a large influx of South African citizens or European passports to the UK because they wanted to make that deadline. There’s always been a push factor out of South Africa and traditionally, there’s been a very strong pull factor into the UK. The last year or so, things have been a little bit tricky with the economy. The profile of clients has changed a little bit. I personally do a lot more corporate work, our high net worth individual work. A lot of businesses are looking to expand into the UK, with market saturation in South Africa. They have a good product and believe they can compete globally and they really can if you consider  the success of many of the companies we’ve taken over to the UK over the years. But, I think we’ll always find South Africans who want to go to the UK given all the cultural ties, the historic ties and so forth. 

South Africans who want to apply for UK visa need to plan carefully

I would advise them to do so carefully and to make sure they plan things properly. We found, generally speaking, if you plan things properly, you get good advice and you’re not in a rush, then things tend to work out. The UK has changed previous options, tweaked them a little bit, and called them something new, but many of the options pretty much stay the same. To illustrate, there’s a category called the expansion worker, which used to be called the sole representative of an overseas business. The idea behind it really is you’ve got a business, let’s say in South Africa, that business wants to expand to the UK.  The company is created in the UK, a senior member of staff goes across for two years and then that company gets licensed and then you fall under the skilled worker category again, which is the premier route. So, it’s very clever in a way as you get people in the U.K. and then they go onto the skilled worker route because of course it’s easier for the government to manage that.  They’ve got all the systems to manage skilled workers. So that’s the main difference, that you now have to eventually fall under the skilled worker category. 

Read more: UK Visa fees set to rise on 4 October 2023

Skilled worker visa popular with South Africans, opportunities in entrepreneur route 

The skilled worker visa is quite a popular category with many of our clients. Another one that they’ve changed recently is the innovator founder visa. Effectively the idea is that you apply, you’ve got an innovative and scalable business idea and you then apply to what’s known as an endorsement body and that endorsement body endorses you and you can go to the UK to operate that business. Now what they’ve done, which is interesting, you used to have a minimum amount of money that you had to invest into that business. This all replaced the old tier one entrepreneur route where you used to have to have £200,000 which was reduced in effect to £50,000 and now there’s no amount needed. You can also work full-time in a capacity whilst you are getting your business up and running. 

UK Government is still very much pro-immigration 

The government in a sense is still very much pro-immigration. They have to be. What I believe makes it very difficult for the government, not in their defence, but to an extent; they had Brexit, which was an amazing upheaval. Then we had the Ukraine war, which is of course, unfortunately, still ongoing. My team and I assisted many of the Ukrainian refugees, especially in the beginning. The Law Society made a call for practitioners to do that, and we did try to do our part, but many, many other firms, of course, did their part as well. But it stopped a lot of these projects and plans that the government had for a while and we’re seeing those programmes slowly coming to the fore again. A good example is, in June last year there was a new British nationality act that came into force that had very far-reaching changes for anybody who has a claim to British nationality. That law should have come in much earlier, but because of everything that happened, it only came in quite a bit later and the processing times there are easily looking at a year, whereas for a normal processing time you’re looking at three months or so, but it is slowly getting better. The government, they really are trying their best and I think they are slowly getting ahead of their backlog that was created.

Read more: Navigating UK Visas and Permits: A comprehensive guide for South Africans

Still a lot of options for South Africans who want to live and work in the UK

If you have any British lineage, grandparents, great grandparents born in the United Kingdom, they can consider looking at the new legislation that was passed. A lot of it has to do with anti-discrimination legislation. It used to be the case that if you were born before 1983 to a British mother and she was born abroad, she could not pass on citizenship to you whereas the father could. Then that changed retrospectively. But then it was only if your mother was born in the UK, not if she was born abroad to a British-born father, because she would have been British by descent, but if she was male she could have done it. It’s a case called the case of Romaine, which is a very famous case. Then that changed and now this new Act that came in 2022, tried to expand that further. 

So, there are a lot of changes like that that have occurred, that’s definitely worth looking into. Furthermore, in planning for your children, for them to go study in the UK upon completion, they can apply for a graduate visa or a skilled worker. There are a large number of options but planning is the key thing. If this is something somebody wants to evaluate, speak to us or somebody like us, let’s make a feasible plan, and then work that plan. Then, generally speaking, things tend to work out.

90% of South Africans apply for the Sake of Children’s Futures

Some would say it’s more possible than ever before. Yes, it is expensive. However, compare that to medical aid and the cost of living in South Africa. You should do your maths. It’s a very different way of working out budgets when you live in the UK. I do believe it’s worth it if that is something you want to do, especially for your children. 90% of our clients do it for the children. Nothing’s forever. After six years, you’re a British citizen, and then you can sort of relook at everything. Possible, though, and there are quite a lot of options. The UK is still pro-immigration, even though it wouldn’t always look that way.

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