UK visa saga, continuing

I spent a lot of last week working on how to get a visa to teach short, small-group, low-key workshops in the United Kingdom. A friend wrote, "It seems it shouldn't be that difficult!"

That made me laugh, because it's turning out to be one of the most bureaucratically difficult tasks I've ever encountered (and I've had my share of bureaucratically difficult tasks). This type of activity falls between the cracks of what the Border Agency and immigration generally handle.

As the situation stands, I can't find a viable option. It's true that every time I visit the Border Agency site for details, I find additional categories that end up not being appropriate. The information for any single category has to be pulled from a lot of different pages on the site, then assembled like a puzzle. I'm never sure I've got it all—although I'm always pretty quickly assured that the choice I'm trying to figure out doesn't apply. Then again, the rules just changed on December 13. I don't think the changes affect anything I've been looking at, but I can't be sure.

This blog post feels like a rehash of the one I posted earlier, but I also feel like I'm going in circles and wasting a lot of time. Nonetheless, I'd love to find a solution. I have gone as far as I can. I have formulated my questions. I have written a letter. And now I need to let the issue rest for a while.

Here we go again.

There is a "permitted paid engagement visitor" classification that looks promising, but that requires sponsorship by an entity as large as a university (or similarly well-established organization in a different arena), and the criteria for qualifying are extremely unclear. In fact, in some places the information for permitted paid engagement visitors says no visa is required, and in other places it says one is needed. Even in the not-required advice, a visa is recommended. Getting one seems prudent, to be sure.

The other visa type that is a leading contender (Tier 5, migrant worker, creative/sporting) is constructed to accommodate music and sports stars, and other people who will participate in large, well-funded events. They require a sponsor who has the appropriate license, at a cost of around £500 (about $808), plus a fee for assigning a certificate of sponsorship to an individual, £13 (about $21). Once the license has been obtained and the certificate has been assigned, the fee for each sponsored individual is either £194 or £661 (about $314 or $1,069), depending on where and how the application is submitted (submitting online from outside the country is a less-expensive alternative). Prorated over the 12-month (normal) to 24-month (extended) working period allowed with that visa, that might be sustainable. For a week or so of work, it's not.

I don't know of a guild or local sheep-and-wool festival that can handle the initial expense and paperwork—even a collection of guilds and fiber festivals would be challenged to pull it off. (Here is a PDF explaining what's involved in becoming a sponsor.) And then the teacher needs to be paid for the work performed, and travel and accommodations have to be covered.

Visa advisers exist, in both paid and nonprofit versions, but they have no expertise relevant to this situation. Their clientele needs help with issues like permission to immigrate in order to marry; to immigrate permanently as a refugee or family member of previous immigrants; and so on.

The situation we are talking about requires a policy decision pertaining to cultural exchange. The Border Agency implements the rules, but does not establish them.

While the Embassy guidelines say that they do not deal with visa questions, this is not a matter of an individual visa problem but, as a friend pointed out, of policy relating to cultural and scientific interchange. The questions pertain more to the fiber (or general arts) community than they do to me as an individual, although obviously the individual situation is what makes the policy problem clear and puts me in a position to ask.

Here's where I am stopping for the time being: articulating the problem

Here's the gist of my inquiry, which I supported with an introduction to my background, publications, and other credentials (they do add up over the decades), a brief bio, and other details:


I’m planning a . . . research trip to the United Kingdom for fall 2013, and a number of people have asked me if I would be willing to teach a few workshops while I’m there. I am writing to you at the Embassy because I am stumbling across concerns relating to “cultural relations,” which are stated as part of the ambassadorial responsibilities.

. . . 

The primary purpose of my trip is research. . . . If I were to teach to the extent that my research is compromised, the trip would be a failure; if I am unable to teach and spend my entire time in research and visiting friends, it will be a complete success. . . . I will be self-supporting throughout, except that I would need to be paid for any teaching (for both personal and legal reasons).

In extensive reading of the Border Agency information, it appears that there is no visa option that would allow me to give talks and teach workshops of the types that are being requested:

  1. of short duration (between one hour and five days, most likely half- to three-day workshops),
  2. to small audiences (generally between six and twenty-four people, although possibly more for a slide-talk),
  3. under the auspices of local groups with minimal resources (guilds of handspinners, weavers, and knitters; or local smallholders’ or sheep-and-wool festivals).

Here are the closest-to-possible visa categories, and why they don’t seem workable for the situations in which I’m being asked to teach:

  • The Tier 5, Creative/Sporting, visa requires a sponsor license, which is vastly beyond the means of the groups that would like me to teach for them. [NOTE for the blog: This is the  £500 + £17 + £194/£661 option.]
  • The permitted paid engagement visitor option requires collaboration with a U.K.-based organization of greater stature than a local gathering of fiber artists (who likely get together in each others’ living rooms or a local shop) or a small holders’ fair. (Criterion for this category: “must be invited by a UK higher education institution or UK-based arts or research organisation. . . [or] a UK-based arts or sports organisation or broadcaster.” Those are large, formal organizations.) For this option, even if it were otherwise workable, it’s not clear whether its thirty-day limit refers to the number of days of paid engagement or the entire visit (the latter would not allow me adequate research time). [NOTE for the blog: This is the one with very unclear parameters. It would be possible to arrive at the Border Agency and be turned back if the paperwork, undefined, is not in order.]
  • The academic visitor choice doesn’t pertain. As an independent researcher, I do not have an academic affiliation. In any case, my short-stay trip would be much more abbreviated than this category seems intended to accommodate.

At this point, I am on the verge of giving up on the possibility of teaching. I can, as originally intended, limit my trip to research, and will respond to inquiries about workshops or talks with a note saying that the visa situation makes it impossible for me to teach, even though I love sheep and wool (especially British sheep and wool) and it’s a delight to share what I know with other people who care about these topics.


Here's why I've bothered to spend so much time trying to sort through this

This overall situation causes a great deal of trouble in the fiber community and is restricting the intellectual and cultural interchange among its members. I know that similar issues affect citizens of other countries who want to come to the United States to teach, but this is one aspect of the problem that I can work on. While it does affect me, I am not dependent on any specific outcome. If I teach: good. If I don't: my research can continue—no visa is required for that. By endeavoring to find a way through the thicket, I may help clear at least one pathway for sharing knowledge within what is increasingly becoming a global fiber community.


(I wrote a letter in order to effectively present the information. I couldn't figure out a way to do it succinctly on the phone, and there are no e-mail contacts. A good, old-fashioned letter seems better anyway. I didn't handwrite the whole thing. I want the people I'm approaching to be able to read it easily! And to take their time considering and, I hope, responding to the issues I am raising.)

Teaching across international boundaries is very important to the transmission of the skills involved in traditional textile crafts, and to our ability to work for the conservation of the endangered breeds of animals that provide us with essential materials. I can, and do, teach through print, digital media, and the internet, and I plan to do more of that.

But there is no substitute for being in the same room with people and putting carefully selected fibers in their hands and considering together, on the spot, the questions that we come up with.

The embassies of all countries have much bigger issues than this on their lists of concerns and requests. Most of those have to do with averting or dealing with crises.

I hope that in this case the staff of the British Embassy in the United States, in particular, will have time to consider a situation that has the potential to strengthen international lines of communication and support peaceful, collaborative activities.

It might be a nice change of pace for them.


12 thoughts on “UK visa saga, continuing”

  1. I’ve been following your efforts with interest and am very curious how this turns out for you. I’ve had similar issues while traveling as a freelance journalist. The rules/regs are too labyrinthine for mere mortals. :/

  2. I know it’s probably silly but I can’t dismiss the idea that Prince Charles would be very interested in all of this. Given his involvement in the of which he is the patron.

    Worth reaching out to his office, perhaps?

  3. I can’t thank you enough for looking into this and telling us all about it.

    I’ve spent several hours going in circles on the UK Border Agency website, and it’s soul-destroying.

    A group of us want someone to come from USA to give just this type of class to small groups around the country, but battling the bureaucracy and the costs involved are just beyond me.

    It’s just daft.

    I hope you find a way, blazing a trail for others (until they move the goal posts again!).

    Happy New Year


  4. Thanks for commenting, Lou. I would love to teach. My travel and work don't depend on my teaching: I'm in an ideal position to look into these questions. Soul-destroying, indeed–confusing, frustrating, and downright counterproductive: there's got to be a way to do these small-group cultural and intellectual events. My quest will likely be quiet for a while: I'm waiting for responses to my inquiries. And I'll let you know what I discover, when I discover it. Happy new year!

  5. Deb, thank you VERY much for sharing what you have learned, as discouraging as it is, and I admire your persistence with it. This information is something people in many artistic fields will appreciate…I found your blog as I began my own frustrating research into how to teach a 3-day painting workshop in England this October. I will be very interested to know if you discover a way– I will subscribe to your blog so that I can follow the story, and wish you all the best in finding answers.

  6. Rebecca, good luck with your teaching, too. I paint to train my eye to see better (or at least I do when I have time, a bunch of which is being invested in this quest). I’d love it if I find answers that will help you teach painting, in addition to my teaching about sheep and wool.

    I will certainly let you know what I find out, when I find it out.

    A friend in the UK who is seeking answers from that end did receive a personal answer from someone at the Border Agency, but the situation being asked about is slightly different. AND the Border Agency said, “This does not fall under the points-based system” and then gave links to categories that do fall under the points-based system. The reasoning was circular, and not at all helpful. But at least it was a response?

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