Hello again! My name is Lauren and I am in my first year of the GEP program in the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. I am originally from California and moved to Edinburgh in the beginning of August this year. Moving to Scotland has been such an exciting adventure for me, as living abroad was a lifelong dream of mine. But getting here was a bit of a challenge. The scariest part of moving abroad was going through the process of getting a student visa. If you plan to study abroad at any point in your life, you will probably have to go through the visa process. In talking to my classmates, experiences with getting a visa ranged from quick and easy to a disaster that almost resulted in them being sent home. My visa story was somewhere in the middle of that range and was definitely the cause of many sleepless nights. Having been through all that, I want to share my story and throw out a few tips I learned along the way!
To begin, here is how the visa process works along with the estimated wait times for each step:
- Graduate and obtain your final transcripts
- Present proof of completion of your studies to UoE
- Receive an unconditional offer (1 week)
- Receive a CAS number from UoE (2-3 weeks)
- Fill out the visa online application
- Schedule and attend an in person biometrics appointment (2 weeks)
- Physically send your passport to the visa processing center (3 weeks)
- Obtain your completed visa passport BEFORE entry to the country in which you plan to study
My story begins about a month before I was set to graduate from my undergraduate university. I had decided I would be going to Scotland for vet school and was overjoyed. That excitement soon turned to worry, however, as I did a little number crunching on my timeline for getting a student visa. My university was on the quarter system, which meant that I didn’t graduate until the second week of June. The GEP vet program at the University of Edinburgh started the second week of August. That left me 8 weeks to complete the entire visa process, which was complicated even further by the fact that I was traveling over the summer as well.
Problem No. 1: How can I travel out of the country while leaving my passport to go through visa processing?
Solution: Apply for a second travel passport.
Until this past year, I wasn’t even aware a person could have two passports. It is not permitted in every case, but I was lucky enough to meet the requirements and got a second passport. This gave me a little peace of mind because it meant that I, at the very least, wouldn’t have to cancel my summer plans.
Problem No. 2: How do I get all this done in time?
Solution: Do everything I could control on my own as quickly as I could and just hope for the rest.
Figuring out the timing of getting my visa in my narrow 8-week window was the biggest nightmare. There were days when I was almost certain it just wouldn’t work because it felt like everyone I spoke to was trying to prepare me for the worst-case scenario. I couldn’t expedite the passport process because services like that were suspended due to global issues at the time. But I was determined to make it work. I spent the majority of the last few weeks of school emailing anyone and everyone I could to see if there was any way to move things along. The issue I kept running into was the chain of succession. I can’t submit my visa application without the CAS number. I can’t get a CAS number until I receive an unconditional offer. I can’t receive an unconditional offer until I have my final transcripts. I can’t get my final transcripts until my undergraduate university releases them. I felt so helpless and frustrated because no matter how prepared and ready I was on my end, my ability to study abroad was entirely in the hands of a notoriously slow bureaucratic process. Despite all of this though, I still planned for the best-case scenario.
I graduated on the second weekend in June and waited a week for my university to release my transcripts. The moment I had the transcripts, I sent them over to the administration at the University of Edinburgh. One thing I didn’t anticipate as a problem that quickly became one was the time difference. Even if I received my transcripts at 9 a.m. California time, I would have to wait till the next day to get a reply as the work day was already over in Scotland. I was very lucky in my case in that the vet school administration granted me my unconditional offer the next day rather than a week later as they forecast on their website. That is not to say that their projection isn’t true (it probably does take longer), I just think they were tired of getting emails from me! Once I had my offer, I applied for my CAS number. The University of Edinburgh website states that CAS numbers take around 3 weeks to process and award. I was banking on that not being the case and much to my delight it only took 3 days for me to receive my CAS number.
The next steps in the process were to apply for the visa online and schedule a biometric appointment. The online application was easy and fast. The biometric appointment was more of a challenge. I had to travel to get to an office that would do it, and they had a very limited number of appointments that were two weeks out. So two days before I left the country to travel with my second passport, I drove two hours to the biometric appointment. They took my fingerprint and picture and then sent me away with a single sheet of paper stating that I had attended the appointment. I remember sitting in my car trying not to panic as I realized I was still holding my passport, when I had entirely expected them to take it from me.
Problem No. 3: Why didn’t they take my passports and documents at my appointment?
Solution: They aren’t supposed to. They give you a stamped piece of paper that confirms you attended your appointment. That document and your passport are then your own responsibility to send to the visa office.
That same day I took all my documents and my passport and paid an insane amount of money to ship it to the visa office in New York and get it returned as quickly as possible. Two days late,r I left for Greece for a choir tour. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. The plan was for my grandparents to mail my visa passport to family friends in Italy I was staying with once it was returned to California from New York. A week before I was due to arrive at my friend’s house in Italy, my grandparents texted me to say the passport had arrived and they were sending it in the mail. Hooray! This might work out after all!
Problem No. 4: I was only staying with my family friends for three days before I flew to Scotland.
Solution A: It arrives and you enter Scotland with your visa and begin your studies there!
Solution B: It doesn’t arrive, you have to enter Scotland as a tourist, have your visa mailed to you in Scotland, and then leave Scotland with it and reenter the country in order for the student visa to be validated.
At this point it was a race against the clock. How much would snail mail actually live up to its name? My grandparents had provided me with a tracking number for the passport, and I watched it as it went from my hometown to Los Angeles and then got stuck for 4 days in Los Angeles. Was this it? Would a delay in customs really be the reason I would possibly have to start my studies late or not go at all? The next day I woke up and checked the tracker to find it was … in Italy!! All that had to happen then was for the passport to make the last leg of its journey to my friend’s house. But I woke up the next day to find it had not arrived. I was set to leave Italy that day to fly to the UK. I begged my parents to wait an extra hour, but we had a plane to catch so with a heavy heart I resigned myself to Plan B. I would enter Scotland as a tourist, get my passport in the mail, take a train or plane somewhere outside the UK, turn around and fly back in. I had multiple meltdowns as I wandered through the airport with my family waiting for our flight. I had done everything to come so close and the United States postal service had failed me. We got to our gate in the airport when my phone buzzed. There was a message from our family friends. “Guess what just arrived in the mail?” We had missed it by one hour! One hour! It was here, in the same general geographical location as me and I still didn’t have it to be able to enter the UK. So in a last-minute change of plans, my parents left me at the airport to catch a later flight while our family friends drove an hour to deliver what now could only be described as my holy grail to me. A few hours and a lot of anxiety later, I entered the UK, student visa in hand and ready to take on whatever was thrown at me.
From everyone I have talked to, there is one thing we can agree on. Getting a visa is not a process to take lightly and was probably the most stressful part about preparing for vet school at the University of Edinburgh as an international student. The biggest tip I have for this is to start early! If you have six months before you are set to start classes, start as soon as you know you’re studying abroad. It’s so much easier to enjoy the transition to a new place when you aren’t worrying about whether or not you can actually go. The next tip I have is to use your resources and do your research. The visa process can be extremely confusing and overwhelming and it’s very easy to make a tiny mistake that results in major consequences. The University of Edinburgh has a lot of good resources here:
You can also email any questions to StudentImmigration@ed.ac.uk.
Finally, make sure you have a support system around you through this process. I could not have stayed as optimistic as I did without my family beside me through the whole process. Getting a student visa is a pain and a half, but now I have a silly story about missing a flight for a little book with a sticker and I am studying in one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. When it comes to visas, don’t give up and don’t be afraid to ask for help!