In December 2011, I was studying for my Masters degree in London. In the span of a year I went from a harried, emotionally fragile student, desperately searching for any job that would have me to a confident, successful, self-employed graduate engaged to be married to the most wonderful man I have ever met. We’re now married and should be reveling in newly wedded bliss, but we’re not. I’m married and I’m not allowed to live with my husband.
We met by chance while I was still a student, through a mutual friend, and immediately clicked. Our initial relationship was completely platonic as he was dating someone else at the time, but we kept in touch through Facebook and would chat briefly every few months. After he and his ex split, we realized the potential of our relationship and got together less than a month later.
Before we became a couple, when friends would ask me if there were any men in my life, I would answer, “Not really. I met a guy in Scotland, and if he didn’t have a girlfriend and we lived nearer to each other, I might like him.” But honestly I didn’t think that was in the cards. I was happily wrong.
After our first weekend together I told a friend, “I know it’s cheesy and unlikely, but I’m going to marry that man.” True story.
Four months in, my student visa expired and I had to return to the States. Neither of us were prepared to jump into marriage at that point, so we made a plan that he would come and visit for a few months and stay with me in the US. We needed time. I think we were both fairly certain at that point that we had met our match, but smart enough to know that if we got the timing wrong, we could wreck it.
He was denied a visa waiver. Then he was denied a visa. His interview lasted four minutes and ended with the officer simply telling him, “No.” We assume they thought he would be a flight risk and try to immigrate illegally. This is a man who, to put it mildly, is America adverse. But we wanted the time and he wanted to get to know my family and we knew it was a temporary measure. Instead he is now not able to set foot on American soil and has a permanent black mark in his immigration record.
I immediately planned to return to the UK. After three months apart, I arrived at the airport in Glasgow. As an American, I was allowed to visit the UK without a visa for up to 6 months as long as I didn’t work while I was there.
When I landed in Glasgow, I was detained at immigrations for 2 hours while they grilled me about my reasons for being there, combed through my luggage and called my now-husband to verify my story. Jetlagged, confused and generally not one who handles overbearing authority figures well, I sobbed throughout my interrogation.
They asked me how I was supporting myself (answer: savings, low expenses by staying with my boyfriend, and my parents in a pinch). They asked me about the nature of my work (by now I had successfully started up my freelance translation business and most of my work was done online). They finally let me through with a stern warning that I should not work under any circumstances.
We got engaged less than a month later, in May. We got married in July. We had a small but cozy ceremony at the (surprisingly nice) registry office and a reception back at our flat. It was lovely. We made all the decorations, splurged on a fancy cake and a bouquet, and had a few friends and my husband’s family with us and my parents on Skype (they were not able to book a last-minute transatlantic flight and take off the necessary time from work to attend). We rented a car and drove down to Somerset for our honeymoon, where we spent a week hiking, sightseeing, visiting friends and eating cheese (that’s where Cheddar comes from, after all).
Two weeks later I was flying back to the States again. Did you know that if you want to apply to live with your British spouse in the UK that you cannot do it from within the country? I had to go back to the US, pay £800, send in about 70 pages of forms and supporting documentation (including very personal love letters to prove our relationship was genuine) and send them my original marriage certificate (which I still don’t have back) and my passport.
I paid an extra fee to have the process expedited so I could get back to my husband and just settle into my life as a newlywed. Every day I checked my email waiting to see the notification that my visa had been approved and was on its way to me.
About 3 weeks after applying, the long-awaited email from the UK Border Agency appeared in my inbox. To my horror, my application had been refused, but weirdly placed on hold at the same time because of an ongoing court case regarding the rules.
On the application, they asked about our earnings. In order to qualify for a spouse visa, you need £18,600 per year in income. What I didn’t understand when applying was that your “sponsor” (the UKBA’s horrible word for spouse) needs to be earning at least that much. I thought that my earnings would be considered as well and make up for any shortfall. I was mistaken.
My husband earns £17,950 per year. My additional £7,000 earnings did not merit consideration. £650 per year was the sole reason I was not permitted to join my husband and live with him in the UK.
Now, £18,600 does not sound like much, especially to an American, but the average worker in the UK earns about £13,000 per year. The £18,600 may seem random, but that is the amount of money a person needs to disqualify them from claiming benefits. The argument is that foreigners are a drain on the welfare state and it is too easy for them to abuse the system.
Did you know that, as a non-European, when you get a UK visa they write “No recourse to public funds” in it? My husband has never claimed benefits. I can’t claim benefits.
After a couple of months apart, we couldn’t stand it any longer. I got my passport back and returned to the UK as a visitor again. The simple act of getting my passport back was kind of miraculous. All of the information given by the Home Office indicates that you must withdraw your application to get it back; they do not tell you that you can simply request for your passport to be returned but for your application to be kept on hold. It’s all very sneaky and complicated and frankly soul-crushing. Every single step of the way.
I was interrogated at the airport again. I was told that I was very suspicious, that I had gotten married illegally and that I was really lucky to be allowed to enter the country but if I tried to do it again without a spouse visa, I would not be afforded the same luxury. It turns out that when we got engaged, I was supposed to have gotten a fiancée visa. When we went to get our marriage certificate, we specifically asked if we needed anything like this and were told it wasn’t necessary. When I told this to the border agent, he replied that the registry office had no legal obligation to tell me I had to get a fiancée visa, so I had broken the law. By all accounts you are presumed guilty until proven innocent, which seems to be an impossible thing to achieve.
Though it kills me that I have to break the law to have any semblance of a normal life, I have continued working and have done pretty well for myself. Our combined income this past year was just over £30,000. We have more than enough to comfortably live on and are working on building up our savings.
Speaking of savings, did you know that if you want to make up for the shortfall in income on a visa application that they won’t even begin to consider your savings if it amounts to less than £16,500? And that’s the base line. If you don’t meet the income requirements, you need £16,500 plus double your shortfall. For us this means we would need savings of £17,800.
We make a decent amount of money and live within our means, but we do not have that kind of money in savings. Even if we could suddenly pool that kind of cash, they do not take it into consideration unless you have held it in an account for at least 6 months. My husband’s parents very generously loaned us a “wedding gift” of £20,000 to store in my husband’s account. As of April, we will have met this 6 month mark and will hopefully qualify when we re-apply.
This is something that I feel guilty about every day because there are so many other people going through this (almost 18,000 at the moment) who might not have the option of doing this. Furthermore, it is technically illegal since we plan on returning the money as soon as possible.
They do not accept letters of support from family -– the only option is to act underhandedly. They did not accept a letter we submitted from my husband’s employer stating that he was eligible for non-salaried bonuses that would put us over the income threshold. They do not accept my income or my earning potential. Studies have shown that if every British citizen were subjected to this requirement, 47% percent would not pass.
Even worse, I consider myself fairly lucky that I am the foreigner instead of my husband and that we don’t have children. Imagine trying to care for a newborn on your own while at the same time holding down a full-time job that pays you way more than the minimum wage to meet the financial requirements. Add to that the heartache of missing your spouse and knowing they are missing out on the milestones of your child’s life and that your child is being deprived of valuable bonding time with their father. It is cruel.
I understand that the economy is rough and people don’t think there are enough jobs to go around. You know what? That’s the case pretty much everywhere at the moment, and I am not an employment statistic or a job thief, I am a person. I am self-employed. I work online for customers that are mainly located in Europe. I “steal” jobs from approximately no one.
By applying for the right to live and work in the UK, I am essentially asking the British government if I may pretty please pay them taxes in addition to the economy bump that I am giving them by spending all of my money there. Forget about me; my husband, as a British and European citizen, has a right to family life that is currently being denied him by his own government.
I have a Master’s degree from a British university. I don’t think that education itself (and often the privilege that accompanies access to it) should give me an advantage over others, but the fact that I have proven myself worthy of living in the UK, meeting the standards of a well-regarded university, contributing to the local economy during my stay and not breaking the rules while there should at least count toward granting me the benefit of the doubt when judging my character. But they don’t judge your character. They judge a number.
I have to go back to the US in April and hope that my previous refusal doesn’t impede my new application. I also reluctantly have to pay another £900 for the privilege (surprise, they have raised the price since last year). Even if I do get my visa, it only lasts for 30 months. I can’t apply for permanent leave to remain until I’ve been here for 36 months, so I will have to go through this all again in 2.5 years. We want to start a family but are sincerely reluctant to do so since the income requirement increases to £22,400 for one child and another £2,400 for each additional child.
My nightmare scenario is having to choose between aborting our wanted child or being able to live with my husband if I accidentally get pregnant. I have panic attacks and wake up in the middle of the night because I dreamed about being interrogated at the airport or deported. I’m plagued by guilt because, compared to others, I am lucky and have it relatively easy in this battle. There is an eventual end in sight when so many others have simply run out of options.
Hold your loved ones close and be thankful for their presence. I’ve learned not to take this for granted.