Student to Student Report
Travel, Study, and Work in Scotland
Finding a Way to Extend Your Stay
The first time I walked out of Edinburgh's Waverly Station I knew right away that the four days I had planned on staying were not going to be enough. Rising out of the station the first thing you see is the majestic Edinburgh Castle high atop an extinct volcano overlooking the city. The castle's imposing walls lead down into the medieval buildings of the Royal Mile that run down to the Palace at Holyroodhouse. Straight ahead and just below street level are the green fields of the Princes Street Gardens where both locals and tourists stroll beneath the castle in lush surroundings. Immediately to the right of the station's exit is the strange and hypnotic Scott Monument which appears as though it is about to launch into orbit. Edinburgh was love at first sight and before the visit was even over I was already making plans to return on a permanent basis.
As an American, getting a visa to live and work in the UK does not come easy. It takes dedication and a bit of creativity. I thought my first option was foolproof. With two grandparents born in the UK, I figured I was a shoe-in for an ancestry visa. But after spending a few months collecting all the proper documents, I was told by an employee at the UK consulate in Los Angeles I needed to be a citizen of a Commonwealth country like Canada or Australia to qualify for the visa--something they neglected to tell me when I started collecting the documents.
There are, in fact, very few avenues for Americans to obtain a visa to live and work in the UK, but, as with most things in life, where there is a will, there is a way. Having failed in my attempts to gain an ancestry visa, I moved back to South Korea for another year of teaching English and to buy time until I could figure out a legitimate way to stay long-term in Scotland.
Studying in the UK — The Sure Fire Way to Get Your Foot in the Door
It was not long before it became clear that the only way to get my foot in the UK door was to consider going to grad school in Edinburgh. An exciting option, as I had always wanted to go back to school to study journalism. My 20's were coming to an end and time was a motivator in getting a Master’s degree. While Edinburgh was certainly my first choice to study journalism, I was open to moving to any of the UK's four countries of Scotland, Wales, England, or Northern Ireland.
As it turned out, there were not as many choices as I had thought. I was thrilled to find out however that Scotland had two universities with post-grad journalism programs – one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh. I also found a few cities in England that offered what I was looking for, but, with my heart set on Edinburgh, I began making contact with Napier University and the head of its journalism department.
Getting a student visa was simply a first step towards moving to Scotland for more than just the duration of my studies. I have found that when it comes to living abroad, getting that proverbial first foot in the door can open many others. When I got in touch with the head of the Napier University journalism department, it was a good omen that he was a Canadian. I learned that the application process for foreigners was similar to that of UK citizens. I was told to write an original and timely piece of journalism on a topic of my choosing, provide proof of my bachelor's degree from the University of Iowa, and submit an academic recommendation from a former professor.
Being in South Korea made the process a bit more time consuming, but it was by no means a hassle. In fact, I was surprised at how smoothly everything was going. After having the University of Iowa send transcripts to my Korean address and then forwarding those on to Edinburgh, my information was reviewed by the head of the department and a phone interview was organized. The biggest problem I had with getting accepted was trying to set up an interview between two busy people living nine hours apart in two different continents. The interview itself was a formality. After cruising through the application process, it was a matter of finding a few extra side-jobs to raise the money to pay tuition and transportation to Scotland.
Advantages of the UK Post-Graduate System: Just Prove You Can Pay
As a foreigner, the tuition you will pay at UK universities is roughly double what locals pay. While this is similar to the frustrating in-state/out-of-state tuitions in the U.S., the increased fees do work to the foreigner’s advantage. Since the university is getting more money from non-nationals, the entry requirements seem to be a little less stringent. I discovered this when I made the move to Edinburgh and a classmate was from Cameroon. While his French was exceptional, his written and verbal grasp of the English language was shaky at best. Just like their U.S. counterparts, UK universities are exceptionally accommodating when it comes accepting students with increased tuitions.
In addition to that unexpected bonus, heading to the UK for post-graduate study is not going to put you in the red for years to come due to a couple of big differences in how UK schools are financed. Public universities are heavily funded by the government, which lowers tuition costs, and most post-graduate programs can be finished within a year as opposed to the standard two years in the U.S. Once I was accepted into the program, I was going to have to come up with £7,000 just to pay for the course. With the exchange rate at the time being on, that bill came to $14,000 – a fraction of what getting a post-graduate degree in the U.S. would cost and at half the time.
It took nine months to save up enough money to pay for the course and to have enough money to live on until I found a job. UK student visas allow you to work up to 20 hours a week when school is in session and more during holidays. However, I often found myself working up to 30 hours a week at a retail store and no one ever came knocking on my door. The extra hours did not detract from studies and meant I was able to head to the pub every once in a while with better off classmates.
From South Korea to Scotland to Study
But, before I could get to Scotland, I had to get that student visa stamped into my passport. And here is where my train was almost derailed. After setting up an appointment at the British embassy in Seoul, came with what I thought were all of the documents I needed. After waiting in line and paying the fees, I had a brief interview with an embassy employee that is part of the standard application process. I had all my paperwork in order and was feeling that I had jumped the final hurdle when I was asked to show bank statements to prove that I had enough money to support myself while studying in the UK. While I would have been able to get these from my U.S. bank, I overlooked this requirement and was weeks away from getting the statements.
I panicked. My dream, it seemed, had fallen apart on a mere technicality. I did not have enough time to reapply for a student visa before I left Korea. But then that is when the useless stamps in my passport popped into my head. With what I had always thought was a waste of time, bureaucratic Korean government requirement had saved the day. In South Korea, whenever you send teaching money earned from your Korean bank to your home bank, the Korean bank must stamp the date and write the amount sent in your passport. I pleaded with the man behind the thick embassy glass to overlook my lack of bank documents and go through my passport. Living in Korea, he was obviously aware of this practice and let everything slide once he saw the transactions documented in my passport. With that crisis narrowly averted, I left the embassy feeling incredibly grateful to one very understanding Englishman. I now had my ticket to the UK in hand.
The Post Study Work Visa (formerly known as the Fresh Talent Scheme)
Halfway through my course I started to work on how to extend the stay in Scotland. If all else failed, I was planning on getting an extension on the basis of my student visa. My course consisted of two semesters, and once they were completed and exams passed, students would then have two years to hand in a dissertation. I had planned on spending the summer writing the dissertation in order to get my degree and finish the course in a year. But if need be, I could extend my student visa and spend more time on my dissertation. The only problem with this is I would not be able to seek full time employment as a journalist.
But one day in the midst of plotting the extension of my stay, I was having a conversation with a classmate from Nigeria. He told me about the Fresh Talent Scheme that was being offered by the Scottish Government. When the scheme started it allowed any non-British citizen a visa to stay and work in Scotland after earning an undergraduate or post-graduate degree. My prayers had been answered by a skill shortage and a declining Scottish population. All I had to do was complete my studies and apply for the Fresh Talent visa which is exactly what I did. Once my dissertation was accepted and I had my degree in hand, I sent off my passport along with a bit of paperwork and £350 to a government office in England. Six weeks later I received my visa and was eligible to live and work in Scotland.
At the time, the Fresh Talent Scheme only applied to Scotland but in June 2008 the scheme was renamed The Post Study Work Visa and applies to all of the UK. The new scheme allows students to stay on and work for two years after earning a degree from a British or Northern Irish university. The only requirement to obtaining this visa is that you must apply for it within one year of earning your degree. The expansion of the scheme to the whole of the UK has certainly opened doors for many people looking for a way to live, work, and experience the culture. Without trying to land an under-the-table bartending job that is.