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Briefing: what is the English language requirement?

Briefing: what is the English language requirement?

The English language requirement can be generously viewed as the Home Office’s response to the biblical Tower of Babel story: society is undermined by its people’s inability to speak the same language. But as anyone who has ever had the misfortune to read Home Office guidance can attest, it is more like the Jorge Luis Borges short story The Library of Babel, in which a magic library’s books contain every possible ordering of the letters of the alphabet, meaning that a reader must dredge through mountains of gibberish before coming across even one text that makes any sense at all. 

In this article, we dredge through the gibberish to explain what the English language requirements are for UK visas and how to show that you meet the requirements. We may refer from time to time to Appendix KoLL, the part of the Immigration Rules dealing with knowledge of the English language, and to Home Office guidance on the subject. There is also an Appendix English Language, which applies to a limited number of visas instead of Appendix KoLL.

The basics of the English language requirement

There are a number of ways an applicant for a UK visa can meet the English language requirement, though there are some minor variations, depending on the categories. These variations will be covered later in the article. For now, we will focus on the fundamentals.

Nationality

An applicant can meet the English requirement by being a citizen of a designated English majority country. It is not enough for an applicant to be from a country where the official or majority language is English: the country must be on the list of designated countries, found in Appendix KoLL, to qualify. 

Here is the list in full:

  • 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
  • USA
  • Malta

A dual national may rely on either of their nationalities to prove that the requirement is met, even where only one of their nationalities is on the list. 

As evidence, an applicant relying on this option need only provide their passport or travel document. If they cannot do so, perhaps because their passport was lost or stolen, Home Office guidance states that alternative evidence will be accepted as proof of nationality provided that it is:

  • A current national identity document; or
  • An original letter from the government or embassy of the person’s home country confirming their full name, date of birth and nationality.

Degree from a UK university

Another way an applicant can prove that the English requirement is met is by being awarded a degree by a UK university. This can be a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree or a PhD.

The following evidence will be accepted:

  • A degree certificate showing the applicant’s name, title of award, date of award and name of the awarding institution; 
  • An academic reference from the institution awarding the qualification that is on official headed paper, shows the applicant’s name, title of award, date of award and confirms either the date that the certificate will be issued (if the applicant has not yet graduated) or that the institution is unable to reissue the degree certificate; or
  • An academic transcript that is on official letter headed paper, shows the applicant’s name, the name of the academic institution, course title and confirms either the date the certificate will be issued or that the institution is unable to reissue the certificate.

Copies of these documents, rather than the originals, are fine.

Degree from a designated English-majority country (except Canada)

Where an applicant’s degree is from one of the countries on the designated English majority list, additional evidence must be included. The list of countries is as above, except with Ireland added and Canada excluded. The reason for Canada’s exclusion is because some Canadian universities teach in French rather than English. 

For countries on the list, the evidence that must be submitted is the same for a UK degree, plus confirmation from NARIC that the degree is at an equivalent level to at least a UK Bachelor’s degree. This confirmation is called the Academic Qualification Level Statement (AQUALS). 

What is NARIC?

NARIC is a UK agency that is responsible for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications. Where a degree is from a non-UK institution, individuals must go through NARIC to obtain the required confirmation that their degree is equivalent to a UK degree.

NARIC offers a service specifically for immigration purposes, which streamlines the application process and has a faster turnaround. At time of writing, the fee is £140 plus VAT. It also offers applicants the option of 24 hour or 48 hour fast-track options, for an additional fee: £174 plus VAT for the 24 hour service and £124 plus VAT for the 48 hour one, though both are optional. 

You can send away for a NARIC statement online or by post. Applicants must upload or send NARIC a copy of the degree certificate in question and a final transcript of the qualification, with translation if necessary.

At the end of the process, the applicant usually receives a paper statement that (hopefully) confirms that their qualification is equivalent to a UK undergraduate degree or higher. During the coronavirus pandemic, all such statements are being sent out as PDFs.

Degree from any other country, including Canada

Where an applicant’s degree is from any country other than the UK or the designated English-majority countries, the applicant must first submit the above evidence (i.e. evidence of their qualification and NARIC confirmation of degree equivalence). But they must submit one other piece of evidence: confirmation from NARIC that their degree was taught in English, also known as the English Language Proficiency Statement (ELPS).

The NARIC process is exactly the same except it also requires applicants to provide confirmation from the university that the degree was taught in English.

The evidence that must be included in the case of a degree from a country other than the UK or a designated English-majority country is thus:

  • The degree itself
  • Confirmation from NARIC that the degree is equivalent to at least a UK Bachelor’s degree (AQUALS)
  • Confirmation from NARIC that the degree was taught in English (ELPS)

This also applies to Canadian degrees.

Approved English language test

Most applicants for a UK visa will not be from an English-speaking country or have studied in English. They can still meet the English language requirement by taking a test.

The test must be a SELT (Secure English Language Test) and organised by one of the providers on the Home Office’s list of approved providers:

  • Trinity College London (UK only)
  • IELTS SELT Consortium
  • Pearson
  • LanguageCert
  • PSI Services (UK) Ltd (overseas only)

It is up to the applicant which provider they choose but the test must be taken at one of the authorised locations on the list. Until June 2020, the approved provider list consisted only of Trinity and IELTS. It is fair to say that Trinity was generally the more user-friendly and accessible provider of the two. It is too early to comment on the newcomers but an increase in choice is usually a good thing for applicants.

Unlike the other ways of meeting the English language requirement outlined in this article, the test must be sat at the correct CEFR level for the application. CEFR stands for the ‘Common European Framework for Languages’ and the CEFR level basically shows how well the person passing the exam can speak English. The scale goes from A1 (beginner) to C2 (mastery), though the highest level that is required by any immigration category is B2. Trinity has a useful table showing the different English level requirements of the various visa categories. 

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There is nothing stopping applicants from submitting an English language test taken at a higher level than the minimum prescribed level for a particular category. This can be useful because in some cases, it means the applicant can use the same test to meet the English language requirement at various points in the route to settlement. You can read more about this below.

These tests have a two year validity, though in some circumstances applicants are able to rely on a test that was taken more than two years ago, which are described later in this article.

For tests taken after April 2015, the evidence that must be provided with the application is the unique reference number (URN) on the certificate, which looks something like this:

XXX/123456/123456/123456789

This reference number can be entered on the online form and/or the covering letter, though many immigration lawyers will also submit the certificate itself out of an abundance of caution.

Although the above fundamentals apply across the various categories that have an English language requirement, some routes have extra rules and exceptions.

Indefinite leave to remain and naturalisation

People applying for indefinite leave to remain in the UK (ILR), or for naturalisation as a British citizen, normally have to pass an English language test at CEFR level B1. However, there are a number of exemptions from this requirement. 

Age exemptions

As the Home Office guidance states, ILR applicants are exempt from the English language requirement if at the date of the application they are aged 65 or over. This provision applies across all ILR categories. It can also be found in para 3.1(b) of Appendix KoLL.

Officials can also drop the requirement for people applying for naturalisation. Paragraph 2(1)(e) of Schedule 1 of the British Nationality Act 1981 says that there is discretion to waive the requirement if, because of a person’s age, it would be “unreasonable” to expect them to meet it. In practice, the guidance states that “where the applicant is aged 65 or over you must waive the requirement”. 

For applicants aged 60-64, it states “you must normally waive the requirement if the time needed to reach the required standard means the applicant would then be aged 65 or over”. Where an applicant seeks to rely on this exemption, it would be prudent to provide evidence that they have attempted to learn English to the required level, as well as evidence of the tests they have sat but failed. If the applicant has an English teacher, it may be useful to submit a letter from them that states that, in their opinion, the applicant will be over the age of 65 when they meet the required standard.

Paragraph 3.1(a) of Appendix KoLL also exempts anyone under the age of 18 at the date of application from having to meet the English language requirement when applying for ILR. There is no English language requirement for registration applications so children applying to register as British do not have to meet the requirement in the first place. 

As evidence of their age, an applicant can submit documents such as a passport, EEA identity card or birth certificate. The list is non-exhaustive so the Home Office may accept an alternative document that shows the applicant’s age.

Medical/disability exemptions

Paragraph 3.1(c) of Appendix KoLL provides another exemption for ILR applicants where “because of the applicant’s mental or physical condition, it would be unreasonable to expect the applicant to fulfil” the English language requirement. There is a similar provision in paragraph 2(e) of Schedule 1 to the British Nationality Act 1981 for naturalisation applicants.

The guidance provides the following as examples of when discretion would normally be exercised:

  • is deaf 
  • is a person without speech 
  • has a speech impediment which limits their ability to communicate in the relevant language 

As evidence, the applicant must submit a specific form completed by their GP or another doctor. In practice, it is helpful if this form is accompanied by a letter from the doctor which gives a detailed overview of the applicant’s condition, symptoms, prognosis and reasons why they are unable to learn English or sit the English language test.

Exemptions based on previous tests – Appendix English Language

If you are applying for ILR in one of the categories covered by Appendix English Language (there are 12 at time of writing), you will be deemed to have met the English requirement if you have previously met it at level B1 or higher in a previous successful application.

Exemptions based on previous tests – all other categories

Other ILR applicants can rely on an English language test that was taken more than two years ago if the qualification:

  • is from one of the providers on the current SELT list
  • has previously been accepted by us as part of another immigration application, such as for entry clearance

Naturalisation applicants who have got their ILR on the basis of a B1 English language test can meet the English language requirement without having to pass another test. Unlike with ILR applications, this is so “regardless of whether the original qualification is on the current SELT list”. Although the Home Office will already have assessed the test certificate as part of the ILR application, it is nevertheless useful to include a copy of it with the naturalisation application.

For the sake of completeness, I will add that paragraph 3.2 of Appendix KoLL also covers circumstances where ILR applicants are deemed to meet the English language requirement where the applicant has been on a particular visa for over 15 years continuously, AND has evidence that they have passed an English language test at level A2, AND evidence from a qualified English teacher that they have made efforts to learn English but do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the language to pass the qualification at level B1. This provision is very rarely used. If you believe that this provision applies to you, you may benefit from legal advice.

Family immigration

Someone applying for a partner or parent visa only needs English at level A1. For a visa extension, it’s level A2. There are also a number of category-specific exemptions. These are in Appendix FM, the part of the Immigration Rules covering family members.

Age and medical/disability exemptions

Section E-ECP.4.2 of Appendix FM contains an exemption if at the date of the application the applicant is under the age of 18, over the age of 65 or has a physical or mental condition that prevents them from meeting the requirement. 

The supporting evidence for a medical exemption doesn’t need to be on the specific form referred to in the previous section, but in practice it is helpful to use it. Applicants should also include a detailed letter from their GP or another doctor.

Exceptional circumstances

A further exemption in section E-ECP.4.2(c) applies if “there are exceptional circumstances which prevent an applicant from being able to meet the requirement prior to entry”. The guidance provides the following examples of when this provision might apply:

Examples of situations in which, subject to the necessary supporting evidence, the decision maker might conclude that there were exceptional circumstances, might include where the applicant:

  • is a long-term resident of a country in international or internal armed conflict, or where there is or has been a humanitarian disaster, including in light of the infrastructure affected 
  • has been hospitalised for several months immediately prior to the date of application
  • is the full-time carer of a disabled child also applying to come to the UK
  • is a long-term resident of a country with no approved A1 test provision and it is not practicable or reasonable for the applicant to travel to another country to take such a test 
  • is a long-term resident of a country in which the applicant faces very severe practical or logistical difficulties, which cannot reasonably be overcome, in accessing the learning resources required to acquire English language speaking and listening skills at CEFR level A1

It is important to note that the guidance also states that “Lack of or limited literacy or education will not in itself be accepted as exceptional circumstances” and that applicants who reside in a country with no approved A1 English language test “are expected to travel to another country to take such a test”. 

In practice, it is very rare for the Home Office to accept that an applicant qualifies for this exemption. It should be considered as a last resort and relied upon only where the applicant is unable to meet the English language requirement in any other way. If relying on this exemption, the applicant should provide as much documentary evidence as possible of the reasons why they are unable to meet the English language requirement. This can include evidence of conditions in their country of origin, as well as evidence of their personal circumstances, including, where relevant, medical evidence. 

Previous tests

Finally, Appendix FM-SE states that where an applicant applying for limited leave as a partner or parent submits an English language test certificate or result, and the Home Office has previously accepted it as part of a successful partner or parent application, the decision-maker will accept the result as valid despite the fact that it is:

(a) from a provider which is no longer approved, or 

(b) from a provider who remains approved but the test the applicant has taken with that provider is no longer approved, or 

(c) from a test centre which is no longer approved, or 

(d) past its validity date (if a validity date is required), provided that it is at or above the requisite level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and when the subsequent application is made: 

(i) the applicant has had continuous leave (disregarding any current period of overstaying where paragraph 39E of these Rules applies, as well as any previous period of overstaying where: the further application was made before 24 November 2016 and within 28 days of the expiry of leave; or the further application was made on or after 24 November 2016 and paragraph 39E of these Rules applied) as a partner or parent since the Home Office accepted the test certificate as valid

This means that if an applicant is able to put in a test certificate at level B1 for their initial grant of leave as a parent or partner, they will be able to continue to rely on this certificate until they settle and, if they wish, naturalise. So where someone’s English is good enough to allow them to pass the test at this level, instead of the minimum level of A1, it is always a good idea to do so as this would mean that, barring complications likes breaks in their residence, they would not have to sit any further tests on their journey to settlement, saving both time and money. 

Note that the above provision does not apply where the application that first included the relevant English language test certificate was refused, even if it was refused for reasons other than a failure to meet the English language requirement. 

Business and study migration

Appendix English language

The English language rules for most visas for work and study in the UK are in Appendix English Language. At time of writing, that Appendix covers the following routes:

  • Student
  • Skilled Worker
  • Representative of an Overseas Business
  • Minister of Religion
  • Sportsperson
  • UK Ancestry
  • Global Talent
  • Start-up
  • Innovator
  • International Agreement Worker
  • Hong Kong British National (Overseas)
  • ECAA Extension of Stay

We have written about the requirements of Appendix English Language here. The basics are the same as for other routes, with some minor improvements.

Tier 1 (Entrepreneur)

The Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) route has been closed to new applicants since 2019. Those applying to extend an existing Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa are covered by Appendix B: English language. Appendix B boils down to this: if you are applying for a Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) extension, you have already met the English language requirement in a previous grant of leave so you will be deemed to have met it for the purposes of further leave as well. It is slightly baffling why an entire Appendix is devoted to this.

Genuineness 

Evidence of English language ability, whether it be a degree certificate or an English language test, obviously needs to be genuine and not fraudulently obtained. Where there is doubt over the genuineness of such a document, the Home Office is likely to carry out additional checks. If it is not satisfied that it is genuine, it will usually refuse on the basis that the English requirement is not met, as well as on suitability grounds.

Following a 2014 BBC documentary, a large number of English language tests taken in circumstances that the Home Office considered fraudulent led to the TOEIC scandal which despite substantial criticisms of the Home Office’s handling of the matter continue to haunt applicants many years later. You can read more about it here, here and here.

Conclusion

The English language requirement can be deceptively complex. It is not unheard of for even experienced immigration lawyers to be caught out. It is always a good idea to seek legal advice if you are unsure of how you can meet the English language requirement, which is especially true if the issue relates to a disputed TOEIC test.

However you meet the requirement, rest assured that you are doing better than the Home Office, which in a masterstroke of irony recently published a document on the gov.uk website about the English “langauge” requirement, then failed to correct the error before sharing it on Facebook.

This article was originally published in October 2020 and has been updated so that it is correct as of the new date of publication shown.

Alex Piletska

Alex Piletska is a solicitor at Turpin & Miller, an Oxford-based specialist immigration firm where she has worked since 2017. Alex undertakes a wide range of immigration work, including family migration, Points Based System applications, appeals and Judicial Review. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexinlaw.

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