Aug 29, 2013

UK Transit Visa for a valid F1 stamp and H1B approval

[Note: This post should now be obsolete, since I haven't kept up with the rules that might have changed since this article was posted. Please don't use this as a reference.]

In a couple months, I'll be traveling to India from the US, transiting through London. Just today, it came as a shocker on learning that I would need a UK transit visa for my London layover. Googling around helped to a certain extent to learn that one should be good to go without a transit visa as long as one has a valid visa stamp in the passport. However, there are others that talk about the 6 month rule, and stand by their opinion that even with a valid stamping, one would need a transit visa if one is transiting UK from the US, Canada, New Zealand or Australia, after having stayed in the country longer than 6 months.

Here's my quick little analysis of the first two points mentioned on the UK border agency website. The first three points explain the conditions for the transit visa exemption. These three points, about departing by air, departing within 24 hours and possessing valid documentation for destination, are all very clear without any ambiguity.

The mind games begin with the next section, "Additionally, you must hold:". This section is where people start coming up with their own hundred different interpretations and what ensues is confusion and panic about whether one needs a transit visa or not.
  Here's my humble interpretation of what the first two points mean. This would best apply to people in the no-man's land between having a valid F1 visa and an H1B petition approval, but no H1B stamp, and traveling from the US, transitioning through the UK.

The web page says :

Here goes..
 - You only need to satisfy condition 1 or condition 2. There is a lot of misleading advice on forums such as that lead you to believe that you would have to satisfy both conditions.

- It is important to note that you only need to possess a valid visa. This provision offers a lot of flexibility. Take for instance an individual with a valid F1 stamp but who has already transitioned to a H1B status despite not having a H1 stamp. This individual is no longer in an F1 status. However, as long as the expiration date on his F1 stamp hasn't passed, he still satisfies condition 1. One doesn't have to worry about the fact that one is technically not in F1 status. All that matters is a valid visa. So, a person with an F1 stamp and an H1B approval is good to slide through London without a transit visa. One doesn't need to worry if his or her I-20, SEVIS or the EAD card does not support their case.

- Condition number 2 drove me nuts. This condition is what opens the can of worms and lands people in an indecisive mess. Let us ignore the "journey to" part of condition 1, and only focus on "journey from" part of it. For all you know, one would of course have a valid visa as well as a valid status while returning to one of these countries. Hence it would be safe to ignore the "journey to" part of it, and what I write further applies only for the "journey from" part of condition 1.

I wondered for I don't know how long as to what is different between condition 1 and 2. There is a heck of a lot of confusion here. Here's a sampler of some puzzling questions one can think of. For someone traveling from the US to India, which condition needs attention? Is it 1 or 2? If condition 1 is satisfied since one possesses a valid visa, what if one still violates condition 2 since one is traveling out of the US after more than 6 months? Is there any case where one satisfies condition 2 but fails condition 1? Seems impossible. Here's what I think of all this :

- Even if someone leaves the US after having stayed in the country for more than 6 months, condition 1 is satisfied as long as he possesses a valid visa, although condition 2 is violated. Since any one condition needs to be met, this should eliminate the need for a transit visa.

- The only case I can think of where one would satisfy condition 2, but fail condition 1 is when one is traveling out of the US with an expired US visa, but has stayed in the US for less than 6 months. This would mean that the person last entered the US with a valid visa within the last 6 months, thereby meeting condition 2, but failing condition 1 due to the expired visa. This however is my own fancy interpretation and I'm not sure if I would be so confident as to risk trying to sneak through the UK with an expired US visa and without a transit visa. It is best to go for a UK transit visa if the US visa is not valid anymore, although I strongly believe that this condition is specifically for people with expired visas who are traveling out of US within 6 months of entering.

[UPDATE - I transited through London without any hassle with my valid-until-2015 student VISA. Now I'm back to the US.]