The UK government has announced major changes to dependent visa rules, including tougher eligibility criteria, higher fees, and an end date for certain categories. These changes are expected to significantly reduce the number of dependents able to accompany visa holders to the UK.
Overview of Changes
The key changes announced are:
- Most international students will no longer be allowed to bring dependents to the UK, with exceptions only for PhD and other postgraduate research students on courses designated as essential. This takes effect January 2024.
- The minimum income threshold for family visa sponsors will increase from £18,600 to £38,700 from Spring 2024. Applicants will need to demonstrate they meet this requirement.
- Overseas care workers on the Health and Care Visa will be banned from bringing dependents to the UK from Spring 2024.
- The immigration health surcharge fee is increasing by 66%, from £624 to £1035 per year, from January 2024.
Rationale and Expected Impact
The government states these changes will deliver the “biggest ever cut” in immigration numbers, with an estimated 300,000 fewer people entering the UK each year. Bringing immigration under control is a major policy priority.
The changes are expected to prevent visa abuse and ensure sponsors can support their dependents financially. However, the significant fee increases and income thresholds will make it much harder for families to reunite in the UK. Healthcare leaders have warned staff shortages could worsen if social care roles become less attractive to migrants.
From January 2024, most international students will lose the right to bring dependents unless they are on designated postgraduate research courses lasting 12 months or more. The government claims the number of student dependents increased by 930% from 2019 to 2023, indicating abuse.
Critics argue the policy could damage universities financially and the UK’s reputation as a study destination. Students already in the UK can continue sponsoring current dependents until their leave expires. But new rules will apply when they extend their stay or switch visa routes.
While skilled workers can still bring dependents, the raised income threshold will make this harder for many roles. Sponsors must prove a gross annual income of £38,700, up from £18,600. For a family of four, the required income would increase from around £24,000 to £58,000.
Technology and healthcare employers fear staff shortages worsening if the UK becomes less attractive for skilled migrants from countries like India. However, the Shortage Occupation List may be expanded to ease pressures in priority sectors.
Banning care worker dependents aims to curb visa numbers, as data showed more than 120,000 visas granted to dependents last year. But social care leaders have warned of disastrous consequences, given existing staffing shortfalls of 165,000 in the sector.
Care groups are lobbying the government to exempt care roles from the changes. There are also concerns it could increase illegal migration, if workers choose to bring families regardless.
British citizens and settled residents wishing to sponsor partners or other family members for long term stays face a significantly increased income hurdle from Spring 2024.
Applicants on family visas must prove a gross annual income of £38,700, making it impossible for many single earners or couples in lower paid occupations. The changes risk separating established couples and families or forcing them to relocate abroad.
Renewals and Transitional Arrangements
There is still uncertainty on exactly how the new rules will apply for visa renewals. In particular, whether restrictions will apply to dependents extending existing leave, or only at the point of next renewal. Updates are expected in early 2024.
The Home Office has promised case-by-case consideration for those impacted, but campaigners say this leaves families “in limbo” over futures in the UK.
Response from Sectors and Critics
The changes have prompted widespread criticism from universities, businesses, migrants rights groups and even some Conservative MPs. Detractors argue the plans are poorly evidenced, risk damaging key sectors, and could prompt legal challenges under human rights laws.
There are also concerns about the impact on social integration and communities. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warned the measures “will have a negative impact on family relationships” and could undermine wider government objectives.
What Should Applicants Do?
Migrants looking to bring dependents to the UK would be wise to make applications sooner rather than later, before the new rules take effect in 2024. Prospective international students who wish to bring family should consider deferring courses until PhD level, or exploring study options in other countries.
For family visa applicants already in the UK, seeking immigration advice on extending a partner’s stay before Spring is recommended. Alternatively, reviewing if the sponsor can boost their income above the new threshold. The coming months will bring further clarity on specifics of the policies. But the overall direction of significantly increased barriers for dependents is now clear.
The UK government hopes the changes will help demonstrate to the public that it is delivering on promises to reduce immigration numbers. But there are widespread concerns on the impacts for universities, the care sector, families and community relations.
Migrants with dependents face a narrowing window to apply under current rules. Meanwhile, sponsors seeking to bring family may need to urgently review their options in light of the higher income and harsher eligibility requirements.
The changes mark a watershed moment for dependent visas in the UK, with profound implications for work, study and family reunification going forward. Their real-world consequences will become evident during 2024.