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The Right to Remain: The Ongoing Pursuit of Residency in the UK

When choosing which stories to share with The Black Expat community, I do my best to demonstrate the real-life ups and downs of my expat life. Recently, I shared a story about the struggles when entering and re-entering the UK with only a flimsy tourist visa. Indeed, this struggle is real. However, I want to clarify that practical considerations and thoughtful planning are also part of my frequently chaotic lifestyle.

Let’s talk about some of the research and problem-solving that’s involved when seeking legal residency in the UK with a US passport.

My latest migration began when I started dating a man who lives in the UK. He was an old friend I had met years ago in Ghana, and he had been settled in the UK for over a decade. At the time, I was a legal resident in the Netherlands. But since my mother was dealing with an illness in Chicago, I frequently traveled between the Netherlands, Chicago and now the UK. The welcomed combination of romance and low-cost international airlines made the lifestyle feel possible and worthwhile.

Then, the time came to decide: live with this man in the UK, or nah?

I decided to stay. But I had no idea how to do it. Although I had figured out how to make it work in the Netherlands, the UK presented a whole new set of challenges, especially in the post-Brexit, anti-immigrant climate. Using a combination of online research and questioning anyone who ever lived in the UK, I assessed my options.

Here’s what I came up with:

Be Independently Wealthy

It’s commonly known but rarely discussed that borders are for poor people. Wealthy people just don’t have the same concerns when it comes to migrating and choosing a home outside their passport countries. With money in the bank, or at least readily accessible, far more options for legal residency exist.

In my case, I was most interested in options that looked like the entrepreneur visa that kept me in the Netherlands. As a foreigner in the Netherlands, it’s relatively straightforward to start a business. And that business is a pretty reliable option to grant Americans the right to stay for at least two years. Most people must prove they have some money in the bank, along with the viability of the business and their qualifications to run it. With an American passport, because of the Dutch American Friendship Treaty (that’s right, DAFT), I didn’t have to do much more than prove I had some money in the bank. 

The UK has several similar options for entrepreneurs that initially looked appealing. For example, the Innovator and Start-up visas provide opportunities for business owners to set-up and grow their businesses in the UK. But without £50,000 to invest solely in the business, forget about being an innovator. In most cases, even start-ups must prove they can make a similarly steep investment.

For the sake of comparison, I only needed to prove I had €5,000 to invest in my DAFT business. So, without a lot more savings in my back pocket, I didn’t see this business option working in the UK.

Fall in Love, Get Married

Early on, this was something like Plan B. I loved the guy already, which is why I was moving to the UK – a country where I had never previously considered living. So, although I would never want a visa to be the sole basis for a marriage, it was a viable option since we were already planning to spend the rest of our lives together.

The marriage option would cost something over £1,000, tossing in a few additional surprise fees. I also read about couples that were greatly inconvenienced by the amount of time their spouse visa applications took to process. Weddings were ruined, travel plans went bust and chaos had ensued because of the system. But other than that, becoming a spouse was a solid idea.

Indeed, it was solid until the guy cheated on me just two days before I moved all my stuff from the Netherlands to the UK. And I found out just hours after my movers left, while I was excitedly unpacking my boxes. So, although I tried hard to stick around and find ways to forgive the lying cheater, I couldn’t justify marrying a monster just to earn a visa to the UK. 

Find a Job, Get Sponsored

I’ve been working for myself for the past few years, which is mostly wonderful. But since the British entrepreneur visas feel inaccessible, the better option appears to be finding a traditional job – with a boss, benefits, work politics and everything else involved. The plan: apply, show off my skills and talents, be hired, get a visa and settle down.

The biggest hurdle I’ve faced in this category is the getting hired part. Even when folks are interested in my qualifications, they’re less interested in sponsoring my work visa.  When I was offered the perfect job a few months ago, they eventually rescinded the tentative offer because the work permit requirements were nearly impossible for the small organization to meet. They later hired a lovely Black British woman for the role, and I discovered a new mood called bitter perseverance. So, I keep looking for jobs with the hopes of beating the system.

Return to School

More than one person has suggested returning to school for another post-graduate degree, which would give me relatively easy access to a student visa. But as most of those people don’t realize, it’s a terrible idea. Although it always seems appealing to read and learn and write and whatever, the higher education process is always much worse than I remember. So, a few years ago, I promised myself and the heavens that I was finished with school. After a law degree in the US and a Master’s in the Netherlands, I’m about as educated and in debt as I’m going to get. 

Then again, after the more appealing options have disappointed, I’ve done a little research on UK grad programs. I truly don’t see a student visa in my future, but desperation has put every option back on the table. 

Be Exceptional

The UK offers a visa for people who are ‘exceptional talents’, and humble people need not apply. I would never have the guts to put myself in that category, but after reviewing the qualifications, I might convince someone to believe I’m as exceptional as my mother thinks I am. So, for months, I’ve worked on an application to prove I’m exceptional based on the work I’ve done with my business in the US and the Netherlands. This isn’t to say the application requires months of work, but it’s taken this long to work through areas of insecurity and waning confidence. If I can gather some nerves to ask powerful people in the UK to tell me if I’m exceptional, this could be my most likely route to earning a visa.

If I’m not so exceptional after all, then maybe it’s time to reconsider everything, including all my previous decisions in life.

Give Up and Go Somewhere Else

The UK certainly hasn’t opened its arms to welcome this Black expat. Soon I’ll need to decide when to give up the effort. After I have exhausted all reasonable options for legal residency, it will be time to choose what’s next. Or, perhaps the better question: where is next?

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