Easy as 1-2-3?… English tests for UK Immigration

The recent case of a woman refused a visa to join her fiancé in the UK shows how much care applicants must take in providing the correct evidence support a UK visa application.

Reports say that Alejandra Santiago’s visa application was refused because the English language test she took, the IELTS Academic test, was “not approved for settlement”. Ms Santiago is a Mexican national, and an English language teacher.

Whether or not this case now attracts the attention of the Home Office’s “rapid response” team set up to deal with negative publicity, it is worth reviewing the English language requirements under the Immigration Rules.

The Rules set out requirements about the following:

  • the visa routes for which applicants must provide evidence of their English language ability
  • the level of English language ability required for different visa routes
  • acceptable evidence of meeting the English language requirement and exemptions
  • where the applicant must take a test, the test provider and the venue where the test is taken

Immigration routes

Not all UK immigration applicants have to take a language test. For example, there is no language requirement for visitors, Tier 1 (Investor) and Tier 5 applicants, UK Ancestry applicants, asylum seekers and other human rights claimants

The routes that do require evidence of English language ability include the following:

  • Partners under Appendix FM of the Immigration Rules (including fiancés, spouses, civil partners and unmarried partners)
  • Students under Tier 4 (General) of the Points-Based System (“PBS”)
  • Employees under Tier 2 (General), Tier 2 (Minister of Religion) and Tier 2 (Sportsperson)
  • Tier 1 (Entrepreneur)

Most applicants for indefinite leave to remain and British citizenship must also meet the English language requirement, even if they have not had to do so in previous immigration applications.

However, it’s worth noting that although the Immigration Rules provide only for English language ability, Schedule 1 of the British Nationality Act 1981 (which sets out the preconditions for naturalisation as a British citizen) says that an applicant must show “that he has a sufficient knowledge of the English, Welsh or Scottish Gaelic language”. You would struggle to discover this from the guidance material provided for naturalisation, and the omission is probably worth a separate post.

Level of English ability

The Immigration Rules express English language ability by referring to the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (“CEFR”). This standard overlaps with the way in which many test providers describe their course and exam levels, but organisations that provide tests for UK immigration applications do now express most test scores by reference to a CEFR equivalent.

The level of ability required depends on the visa route you undertake, and the stage of application you are making. Applicants also need to be aware that they might not have to pass all four components of normal language-learning (reading, writing, speaking and listening) in their particular visa category.

For example, an applicant for a first-time partner visa must meet CEFR A1 standard in speaking and listening. When that applicant applies to renew their status after their first two and a half years in the UK, they must meet CEFR A2 standard.

Tier 2 (General) and Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) applicants must meet the B1 standard in reading, writing, speaking and listening. A Tier 2 (Sportsperson) need only meet the standard in speaking and listening.

Applicants for Tier 4 (General) must meet the B1 standard in all four components for study below degree level, and the B2 standard if they are applying to study at or above degree level. Some Tier 4 applicants do not have to prove their English language ability, depending on their history of study in the UK.

Evidence and exemptions

Some family route applicants do not have to produce evidence of English language ability if they are aged under 18 or over 65. Others may be exempt on the basis of mental or physical conditions that prevent them learning English or attending a test centre.

In applications for indefinite leave to remain, there are also exemptions for some applicants who have lived in the UK for a long time and have not been able to pass a language test at the required level.

If you think you might be exempt from the language requirement, you should check how your specific circumstances are treated under the Immigration Rules and any relevant policy. The Home Office guidance is a useful starting point for these considerations.

Applicants from “English-speaking” countries are assumed to meet the English language requirement, and must produce their national passport as evidence. The current list of countries that are accepted as “English-speaking” is: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA.

A UK degree certificate is also accepted as evidence of English language ability at all levels. Alternatively a degree from a country other than the UK can be acceptable if the holder provides evidence from UK NARIC that the standard is equivalent to a UK degree and that the degree was taught in English.

Tier 4 (General) students should be assessed by their educational sponsor as part of the Certificate of Acceptance for Studies: this usually involves the sponsor checking their language ability including any tests taken. Tier 4 applicants can also be interviewed as part of the visa application process, or on arrival in the UK, to check language skills.

Finally, an applicant can take an “approved English language test”.

Rules for English language tests

Since widespread cheating was reported at test centres provided for students taking the TOEIC language test in 2014, the Home Office has very strictly redefined the number of tests and test-providers acceptable for immigration applications.

The acceptable tests and test centres are listed in https://www.gov.uk/guidance/immigration-rules/immigration-rules-appendix-o-approved-english-language-tests Appendix O of the Immigration Rules.

For tests taken outside the UK, only tests provided by “IELTS SELT Consortium” are acceptable. More than that, the tests must be taken an approved test centre. Applicants need to make sure they choose “IELTS for UKVI” when booking.

For tests taken in the UK, applicants can choose between IELTS SELT Consortium and Trinity College as their test provider. Again, tests must be taken at an approved centre.

IELTS “General Training” or “Academic” tests cover all four study components of reading, writing, speaking and listening. “Life Skills” tests cover speaking and listening only.

Trinity College “ISE” tests cover all four components, and “GESE” tests cover speaking and listening.


Most mistakes that I encounter in the English language requirement are made by people with a relatively high standard of English language ability. It is easy to assume that because you use English in your everyday life, the UK immigration system will recognise that.

From the reports about Ms Santiago’s case, it appears that she might have taken her IELTS test at a centre that was not approved under the Immigration Rules.

Other common reasons that people fail to meet the requirements of the Immigration Rules include:

  • Using an out of date test: approved tests are only valid for 2 years, although a test at a high enough level may be used for subsequent applications provided your application was approved the first time round.
  • Coming from a country where English is an official or common language, but that country is not listed as an “English-speaking country”. This often applies to countries previously subjected to British rule, such as India or Nigeria.
  • Relying on A-level or GCSE qualifications in English: these are not approved language tests under the Immigration Rules, even if you took them at a school in the UK!

If your application is refused based on a failure to meet the English language requirements, the most practical solution is usually to take an approved test as soon as possible, and to resubmit your application. However, in some cases, particularly those involving the best interests of children, it might be possible to have your case reviewed or considered outside the Immigration Rules.

Please contact me if you would like advice about how the English language requirement affects your UK Immigration application.

10 September 2018



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