How to Get an Ancestry Visa for the UK as a Canadian
As Canadians, we are quite lucky that other countries are so willing to allow us to visit, and live and work overseas. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to arrange or accomplish.
The UK has several schemes to allow Canadians to spend more time in the country than a regular tourist would. Youth in Canada have particular benefits, as many countries around the world have agreements with Canada to allow youth to travel and work. However, these are often for limited periods (1-2 years) and of course restricted to the young (sigh).
Several months ago, I began looking into how I could obtain the right to live and work in the UK in the longer term. I am a bit notorious in my family for wanting to keep every single option open, and this seemed like one more possibility that could be made available to me.
The process to get the visa turned out to be relatively straightforward – and surprisingly successful! – though there are some spots where it would be easy to get tripped up, and I’m confident if I did it again, I would streamline the process.
Here’s how I did it, and some tips for anyone thinking of applying!
Use the UK government site and read everything
The UK Government site is surprisingly easy to use, and walks you through the whole process. I investigated various types of visas that would allow me to work, but would also give me the flexibility to be self-employed, or to study if I wanted to (again with wanting all the options!).
Most visas do not allow you to be self-employed or work on contract while in the UK. The Ancestry Visa is one exception to this, and allows for maximum flexibility.
There is a flow chart on the website so you can select the options that would work for you.
The Ancestry Visa
The Ancestry Visa is an option open to Canadians because we are members of the Commonwealth. You must be able to prove that at least one of your grandparents was born in the UK, the Channel Islands, or the Isle of Man. The Ancestry Visa is for people who want to work in the UK, who also have a British grandparent. My grandparents both had British citizenship, but only my grandmother was born in the UK, so I applied under her name. I don’t know if I would have been successful applying just under my grandfather, but there’s also an option to apply under both, if both your grandparents were UK citizens.
The timing part of this was a bit tricky. The website says “The earliest you can apply is 3 months before you travel.”
When you go for your visa appointment (more about that later) they will ask for your date of travel. Of course, I didn’t have tickets booked when I went to apply, so I gave a date that was about 7 weeks from the date I was at the visa office (my appointment was Sept. 8, and I said my date of travel would be October 30).
They say a decision could take about 3 weeks from the date you submit your application, and then once the visa comes, you have a three month window from the date of application to actually arrive in the UK. So my visa gave me a window of September 12 to December 12 to get myself to the UK.
When applying, it’s important to keep these dates in mind.
There is also a time window from when you submit your UK Gov application to when you can do your visa appointment. You have 240 days from the submission of the initial form, to complete the application at the visa centre.
All that said, if you want to travel in January to the UK, you cannot attend the visa centre before October, but you can complete your online forms earlier than that.
I didn’t know the costs up front (though I figured it would be a pricey process) but it turned out to be more expensive than I anticipated. Here’s why:
The initial application fee is 531 British pounds (today that’s about $822 CDN), assuming you don’t need any add-ons, extra help, or need to rush your application (all these things will cost more). You have to pay this fee when you submit your application on the UK Gov website. You can proceed all the way through the application without submitting the fee, so if you’re wondering about the kinds of questions that will be asked and perhaps want to wait and see if you plan to apply, you can complete the form without committing financially. This fee is non-refundable. If you decide not to continue with the application, or if the application is denied, this won’t be returned.
The big hit though is the healthcare surcharge which entitles you to UK healthcare for the duration of your stay. In lots of ways, this is sensible. The alternative (not that they give you a choice) would be to pay for health insurance, which can also be costly, or to not have health insurance and risk getting sick and having to pay out of pocket. Regardless, they won’t let you have an ancestry visa without having health insurance, so this is a fee that has to be accepted if you plan to proceed with the application. For the ancestry visa, today (Sept. 2022) it’s quoted at 3,120 British Pounds total, or 624 pounds for each year of the five year visa. This has to be paid when you submit your application, but is refundable. If your application is denied this amount will be returned to you, and if you choose to withdraw the application the health surcharge is refunded.
For the visa appointment (which I had to do in Ottawa, but could be done in other major cities in Canada) there was a fee of $72 US.
Forms and Documents
The actual completion of the application was relatively straightforward. The UK Gov website will give you a password and username so you can save your progress and log back in. At certain points it seemed impossible to return to previous screens though, so make sure you’re really happy with your answers before progressing.
Some of the more unusual questions (beyond the ordinary personal information) included:
Do you have any friends and are you part of any social groups in your country of birth, nationality or any other country where you have lived for more than 5 years?
I was able to answer, ‘yes’ to this, but I never did really figure out what they were getting at here.
Information about the grandparent(s) you are using to justify your application, including their place of birth (town or city) and any other nationalities they held.
In my case, I only used my grandmother because she was born in the UK, but in hindsight I could also have included my grandfather and indicated his other nationalities.
Information about previous travel to the UK in the past ten years, and any other travel in the past 10 years. This necessitated going through my passport and prior passport to find the various stamps.
Finally, you have to select a location in the UK at which to pick up the biometric documents, assuming the application is accepted. They offer you any post office in the country (which was rather overwhelming at the time). I chose one outside of London, as I didn’t know where I’d be going and I knew I didn’t want to search London for a random post office, but obviously you’ll have to do your own research for where you think it would be reasonable to pick up the documents. (This whole process seems a bit strange and Fawlty Towers-esque, and the post office I ended up choosing was entirely random and not at all where I’ll be going. But it will necessitate a fun day trip so best to just embrace the madness in the end!).
Once you submit the forms on the UK Gov website, you’ll have access to the VFS Global site. This is a separate service provider who does the biometrics and submission of documents (this seemed a little sketch, but ended up working out!). Through VFS Global, you book an appointment time to attend, in person, to have fingerprinting and photographs done, and to submit and sign the forms. I had to go to Ottawa as there wasn’t an office closer where I could get an appointment, but there are offices all across Canada. You can investigate the days that various offices are open on the main page of their website before booking an appointment time.
Prior to the appointment time, you have to upload the scanned copies of your documents to the portal. These don’t have to be originals (you are scanning them, after all) and if you need help scanning, for a fee they will scan them for you.
The list of documents was quite short but required some preparation.
- Birth certificates
This was rather more complicated than initially thought. The type of birth certificate is not the little card that most of us have, but rather the long form. If you don’t have a copy of this, it can be ordered from your province of birth, and you’ll have to pay a fee. It also can take several weeks to process and get mailed to you, so plan ahead. I needed to order mine, and then because you have to be able to trace lineage, we needed the long form for my mum as well.
- Marriage certificate or name change documents
I included my grandmother’s marriage certificate to show her name change, but if there were other documents showing name changes, these would have to be included also, and presumably for my mother and me as well if necessary.
- Proof of income/finances
They suggested including pay stubs and bank statements if possible. Because I’m self employed, I didn’t have pay stubs, but did include bank statements from three months to demonstrate that I had sufficient savings.
It isn’t clear how much money they need to see. I assumed that I would want to demonstrate that I could support myself for at least three months, until I get can work in the UK – but this was completely a guess.
- Proof of self employment/intention to work/employment
This was also more complicated. If you run your own business, and have a functional business plan, they say you can submit this. I wasn’t confident enough in my business plan, so I also applied for several jobs in the UK. Of course, while applying, they ask straight out if you’re legally allowed to work, and since I didn’t have the visa at the time, I had to say no. This presumably took me out of the running for the job! It felt a bit like a scheme to be applying for jobs knowing they wouldn’t hire me. I also was worried I wouldn’t get proof of applying, because in Canada it is common that employers don’t acknowledge receipt. But every business or organization I applied to sent me an automated response saying they had received my application. I compiled all the receipts into one document, and submitted that.
All these documents get scanned into the system in advance of your visa appointment.
You need to have a passport with enough room to put the visa in, and that isn’t going to expire straight away. This goes with you to the visa appointment, and then they take it from you and send it to the UK so you’ll be without it for up to 5 weeks. Don’t plan to travel internationally during that time!
The appointment itself was really easy. I booked a time that was convenient for me. When I went in, I was brought to a computer to enter my address and information to create the UPS packing slip. I was then taken to a back room where a staff person processed my form. I had also brought all the other documents – birth certificates and what not – but they didn’t need to see them.
They took a photo of me, like for a passport, and I had to have my fingerprints taken using the digital scanner. Then my package was sealed up, and sent to UPS.
It only took about two weeks for UPS to return my passport, with the visa inside. It seemed quite a bit shorter than anticipated – I don’t know why this was. The woman at the VFS office had said I would need to track my passport and be home when it came, but in fact the UPS guy drove up, rang the bell, and left it on the step before I could get to the door. They also didn’t need any additional information, and VFS sent emails every time there was an update, for example, when my application was received by the UK etc.
And that’s it! Now all I have to do is get to the UK within the three month period, and attend at the post office I initially chose to get the rest of my biometric documents (the biometric residence permit).
Do you have questions about the process? Pop them in the comments and I’ll try to answer.
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