Immigration to the UK through marriage has a history of egregious abuse extending back to at least 1971. This abuse most commonly manifests as a so-called "marriage of convenience" wherein a marriage is contracted for the sole purpose of expediting an applicant's entry into the UK for settlement purposes, and additionally wherein the sponsor (i.e., a British national) receives some form of remuneration. The media often refer to these arrangements as "sham marriages" and the two terms are synonymous.
Until the turn of the 21st century, the obvious example of a "marriage of convenience" was a same-sex couple composed of a British national and a non EEA national. Because there was no inward route for such a couple to engage in family life, the answer was for the non EEA national to contract a "marriage of convenience" to someone they could lawfully marry, and once safely landed in the UK to take up their life with their "real" partner.
A second profile where the "marriage of convenience" has occurred is where the parties involved were engaged in a genuine relationship, but were unable to lawfully marry for political, religious, or legal reasons.
Another basis for the "marriage of convenience" stems from purely economic motivation. In these cases, a non EEA national would contract a marriage so as to work in the UK (or operate a business in the UK), and to send the proceeds of his work to his "real" family in his home country. These cases may be accompanied by "chain migration". "Chain migration" occurs when the non EEA national acquires British citizenship (after three years), subsequently obtains a divorce, and then begins to lawfully sponsor the members of his "real" family for settlement in the UK.
A final example of the "marriage of convenience" occurs when the non EEA national is simply seeking access to the UK welfare state. The characteristics of this scenario are similar to the above, but once the divorce is complete, the non EEA national applies for housing and income support. This scenario can also be accompanied by "chain migration" resulting in extended families living on welfare benefits. The British public have found these sorts of marriages particularly annoying, and this sentiment has (to a large extent) driven the objectives of subsequent legislation.
Towards the end of the last century, the public mood was becoming increasingly sour about this abuse and Parliament was forced to react. With a bow to the advocacy efforts of Stonewall and other activist groups, the "unmarried partner" visa was introduced. This visa was the first of its kind in the UK and provided a lawful inward route for same-sex couples. A few years later, the UK implemented a regime that enabled same-sex couples to be treated as married couples. These provisions have virtually eliminated the "marriage of convenience" abuse where same-sex couples are involved. From these acts it can be concluded that Parliament did everything possible to alleviate the need for sham marriages for those whose motivations were morally ascendant to other groups who engaged in sham marriages. Or in simpler terms, Parliament effectively removed the 'gray area' from the concept of sham marriages.
In April 2003, Parliament tackled a related form of marriage abuse called "queue jumping". In this scenario a non EEA national entered the UK as a short-term visitor and then married a British national or permanent resident. Because of the way immigration rules worked at that time, the non EEA national was allowed to remain in the UK on a settlement track. This circumvented the need for a fiancÃ© visa and accordingly reduced the government's ability to detect sham marriages until it was too late. The practice was also unfair to those who played by the rules and acquired the necessary visas abroad (hence the term "queue jumping"); and worse, it promoted the wholly reasonable conclusion that visitors were lying about their intentions when they entered the UK. To reduce this abuse, the rules were changed such that a non EEA national who entered the UK as a visitor and subsequently married could not switch to settlement status without leaving the country and applying at a British consulate abroad.
Having dealt with same-sex couples and queue jumping, legislative intervention was gathering momentum. In 2004, Parliament was examining a bill about the treatment of asylum seekers and their debate drifted into what was to become one of the most bizarre chapters in UK immigration history. During their debate they heard testimony from an unspecified number of marriage registrars who were wringing their hands and hopping from foot to foot claiming that they were being forced to conduct sham marriages. On the strength of this testimony, and without the support of statistics or the other trappings of diligent research, Parliament enacted the "Certificate of Approval" regime which commenced at the beginning of 2005. This regime required anyone on a long-term visa that was junior to ILR to obtain a "Certificate of Approval" from the Home Office before they could lawfully marry in the UK. Incredibly, Parliament seriously considered a loophole for marriages conducted in Scotland; and actually provisioned a loophole for marriages officiated by the Church of England.
The Certificate of Approval regime was successfully challenged in court by the JCWI and the government reacted by retaining the COA and changing the scheme to implement some curious restrictions instead. Our archives contain a sample of media reaction at the time; please see Sham Marriages (note that most of the external links are now broken).
Another abusive immigration strategy through marriage involves a so-called "reluctant spouse". These marriages usually occur when two families agree that one of their British national children will marry a non EEA national and provide sponsorship for the non EEA national to immigrate to the UK. The motivations behind this strategy are complex, but it differs from a marriage of convenience in two key ways: the first is that the couple once married are expected to maintain a single household and live together as man and wife; the second, and more controversial, is that either the bride or groom objects to the marriage but is forced to undertake it due to family pressure. This sort of arrangement not only defies Western values, but also exposes the "reluctant spouse" to the possibility of physical danger. Accordingly, the "reluctant spouse" has also been the target of legislative intervention.
Continuing through 2006 and 2007, the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (now the UK Border Agency) endured virulent criticism (see our archives, Immigration in the News June & July 2006 for a sampling of the British public mood). This was followed by a period of reform (again, see our archives on Reform at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate) and aggressive legislation. Each round of legislation has brought additional restrictions on marriage as an immigration route into the UK.
Paradoxically, despite legislation and Registrars reporting a decrease in the number of marriages they conducted, sham marriages in the UK have not been eliminated. This has been attributed (but not yet verified) to be a result of the EC Enlargement. The enlargement enabled EEA nationals exercising treaty rights in the UK to act as sponsors for fees as low as GBP 2,000. As EEA nationals who are here exercising treaty rights are not subject to the same marriage rules as British nationals, the legislative measures against sham marriages are wholly ineffective. We have commented that while aggressive legislation soothes the public mood, it does little to mitigate the root problems because it often targets the wrong people.
What this history amounts to is that marriage immigration in the UK is an emotive tinderbox. Against the backdrop of legislation on a seemingly 24/7 basis, the UK tourism industry awoke to find revenues threatened because romantic wedding venues could no longer attract non EEA nationals. So to counter this loss of revenue to our tourism industry (amidst other, more tenable reasons), the Marriage Visit Visa (MVV) was invented. The MVV allows a non EEA national to enter the UK as a visitor and get married. As one might expect, the process of qualifying for an MVV is rigorous, hence this FAQ article.
The MVV is provisioned in Paragraph 56D of the Immigration Rules. It says...
56D. The requirements to be met by a person seeking leave to enter the United Kingdom as a visitor for marriage or civil partnership are that he:
(i) meets the requirements set out in paragraph 41 for entry as a visitor; and
(ii) can show that he intends to give notice of marriage or civil partnership, or marry or form a civil partnership, in the United Kingdom within the period for which entry is sought; and
(iii) can produce satisfactory evidence, if required to do so, of the arrangements for giving notice of marriage or civil partnership, or for his wedding or civil partnership ceremony to take place, in the United Kingdom during the period for which entry is sought; and
(iv) holds a valid United Kingdom entry clearance for entry in this capacity.
(source HC395, August 2008)
Note that the rule refers to Paragraph 41, which is the general rule covering all visitors to the UK. This rule says...
41. The requirements to be met by a person seeking leave to enter the United Kingdom as a visitor are that he:
(i) is genuinely seeking entry as a visitor for a limited period as stated by him, not exceeding 6 months; and
(ii) intends to leave the United Kingdom at the end of the period of the visit as stated by him; and
(iii) does not intend to take employment in the United Kingdom; and
(iv) does not intend to produce goods or provide services within the United Kingdom, including the selling of goods or services direct to members of the public; and
(v) does not intend to undertake a course of study; and
(vi) will maintain and accommodate himself and any dependants adequately out of resources available to him without recourse to public funds or taking employment; or will, with any dependants, be maintained and accommodated adequately by relatives or friends; and
(vii) can meet the cost of the return or onward journey.; and
(viii) is not a child under the age of 18.
(source HC395, August 2008)
These two rules taken together give a complete picture of the requirements, and successful applicants must satisfy both rules simultaneously. The next sections discuss the visa in practical terms.
The MVV is specific to a destination and one or more events related to a marriage (which might include stag do, hen night, ceremony, reception, honeymoon, and so on). Part of the decision criteria for evaluating an MVV application is the extent to which these plans have been made. Successful applicants will have given considerable thought to these events and are expected to have made substantive plans about them.
The MVV is not a settlement visa and the holder of an MVV is required to leave the UK. Accordingly, successful applicants will be able to demonstrate an on-going life in their home country along with a need to return to their home country before the MVV expires (usually 6 months).
Unlike the fiancÃ© visa, there are no explicit representations needed to demonstrate that the bride and groom have actually met. We suspect that this was an oversight wrought from haste, and accordingly we suggest that successful applicants will be able to document a history that includes romantic content of one form or another.
The process of getting married in the UK begins with "giving notice" at a Registry Office. Registry Offices are local government offices that record births, marriages, deaths, adoptions, and so on. They are part of the General Registry Office (GRO), which in turn is part of the Identity and Passport Service, which in turn is part of the Home Office. If both parties to the marriage are British, "giving notice" can take place at any Registry Office. If one (or both) of the parties to the marriage is an immigrant, then a special "Designated Registry Office" must be used. At the time of this writing (September 2008), there are 76 such offices in the UK.
A "Designated Registry Office" functions within a specific geographic area called a "registration district". Both parties to the marriage must live in a district for 7 calendar days before they can give notice. If the parties live in different districts, then each person must register separately in their district.
If either of the parties giving notice have been previously married, the Registrar may need to see documentation that any previous marriage has been dissolved in a way that is recognized under English law. The UK is a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Recognition of Divorces and Legal Separations, and a divorce obtained in a country who is also a signatory to the Hague Convention will satisfy this requirement. Divorces obtained in countries who are not signatories to the Hague Convention may still be recognized under the Doctrine of Comity. We suggest taking the additional step of assuring that foreign divorce certificates will be acceptable prior to travelling.
There is no definitive list of items needed to successfully apply for an MVV. In the absence of this, we offer a hypothetical checklist that might be useful in preparing an MVV application. This list is not authoritative and should be reviewed carefully with a qualified practitioner who specializes in MVV applications. We stress that each and every application is different and there is no single authoritative list that covers all cases.
- A valid passport with at least six months of life once the entry clearance has been issued.
- Biometrics enrolment. There is more information on biometrics enrolment at Biometrics FAQ.
- A clean immigration history, or a plausible explanation for a pejorative immigration history.
- Evidence that any prior marriages have been dissolved. Applicants who are contemplating divorce or who are in the midst of a divorce cannot apply successfully.
- Evidence that prior marriages by the applicant's fiance have been dissolved.
- If the sponsor is based in the UK, a sponsor attestation that they are aware of the application and understand its nature.
- If the sponsor is based in the UK, an explanation of why an MVV is sought rather than a fiancÃ© visa.
- If the applicant's fiancÃ© is not based in the UK and is not an EEA national, evidence that the applicant's fiancÃ© is applying for an MVV simultaneously.
- Evidence of the applicant's on-going and continuing life in their native country.
- The name and address of the cognizant "Designated Registry Office" where notice will be given.
- Plans showing how both parties will establish residency within the district of the cognizant "Designated Registry Office" for 7 days prior to giving notice.
- Substantive evidence that arrangements have been made for a wedding ceremony (civil partnership).
For historical reasons, there are slight variations in procedure and terminology across the UK. This is to say that England and Wales are controlled by English law, while Scotland is controlled by Scottish law, and so on. This article assumes the marriage will take place in England or Wales.
Slavik and Svetlana are Ukrainian nationals and decided to get married following a long-term relationship of 4 years. Svetlana was in the UK on a Tier 4 (student) visa and attended the University of Kent and had another 18 months remaining in her course. Slavik worked as an accountant in Simferopol, and was undergoing a critical qualification period to become a senior accountant and thus must remain in Simferopol for another 2 years.
They became enthralled by the idea of having their ceremony and reception at a classical English country manor located in the rural area surrounding Canterbury, and Svetlana learned that the Three Tuns Staple is an approved marriage venue under English law. She contacted the planning staff at this venue and obtained an estimate for a ceremony to be followed by a reception for approximately 25 guests. They reviewed available booking dates at this venue and Svetlana made a tentative booking for a date sufficiently in the future for all of the other arrangements to be made. She made a small, token deposit for the booking with the assurances that it could be refunded if it were cancelled sufficiently in advance. She then canvassed the B&B's in Canterbury for a place to accommodate Slavik during his visit and made a provisional booking at one with the same assumptions as above. At the same time, Slavik contacted a bespoke seamstress in Simferopol to arrange for Svetlana's traditional Ukrainian wedding dress. Slavik also contacted the Simferopol Daily News who ran an engagement announcement in their society news section which featured both their photos.
Svetlana then went to the Registry Office in Canterbury and learned that that the nearest Designated Registry Office was in Maidstone. She wrote to this office to confirm that both her place of residence and Slavik's B&B were situated within Maidstone's registry district. Several days later, she received a reply confirming her enquiry, and Svetlana printed and saved the email.
Svetlana then drafted drafted a letter to the British Consulate General in Kiev which confirmed her intent to marry Slavik and gave particular emphasis to the arrangements she had made along with the evidence she was enclosing. Finally, Svetlana studied the SRA web site, selected an immigration solicitor in Canterbury, and arranged for a consultation for which she paid 70 pounds. During the consultation, her solicitor examined the evidence she had acquired, and advised her on what sort of evidence Slavik should provide with his MVV application. At the same time, her solicitor certified the portrait page of her passport, and the page containing her T4 visa. This service cost Svetlana an additional 20 pounds but she felt it was worth it.
Finally, Svetlana went to the Registry Office in Maidstone and made a provisional appointment to give notice. Although she was aware that this is not a strict requirement, she thought it was necessary because all the plans to date were highly dependent upon the Registrar's capacity to record notice on the appropriate date.
She sent her sponsorship letter plus all of the above evidence to Slavik so that he could begin the MVV application process.
Slavik began by downloading the guidance notes and a VAF1 form so as to study all of the information he would need to provide. When he was fully prepared, he went to the Visa4UK site and completed his application. In the final step, he booked an appointment for his biometric enrolment which he attended three days later. Slavik was aware that once his biometric enrolment was completed, he would have 10 days in which to send all of his supporting evidence to the British Consulate General in Kiev. He made a photocopy of his entire evidence bundle for his own records and sent the originals to the consulate via a Commercial Partner. This bundle included...
The outcome of Slavik's application was never in doubt and his entry clearance was issued on the same day it was received.
Katrina was a single mother living and working in New Jersey (Exit 16A), and Paul was a mobile telephone salesman living and working in Doncaster. They met on the Internet several years ago and have engaged in devoted correspondence and chats since then.
As their virtual relationship progressed, they became more serious and decided to meet in person, and Paul took holiday to visit Katrina. During this visit, they decided to become engaged and that Katrina would ultimately settle in the UK as Paul's wife.
Paul was aware that Katrina would need a visa before moving to the UK, and to this end, they began searching the Internet to learn which sort of visa was needed. They found information on both the FiancÃ© Visa and Marriage Visit Visa, and decided to apply for an MVV because it was so much cheaper than a FiancÃ© Visa.
Before making her application, Katrina asked Paul to visit an immigration solicitor in Doncaster to get a complete list of things she would need to enclose with her application. During Paul's consultation, the solicitor explained that the MVV was not for those intending to settle in the UK; and that once they were married, Katrina would have to return to New Jersey to apply for a settlement visa.
The solicitor went on to explain that the appropriate visa to apply for in this case is a FiancÃ© Visa because it would allow Katrina to settle in the UK after the marriage. Paul and Katrina discussed this and concluded that the MVV was the wrong choice for them.
The UK Borders Agency International (Visa Services Directorate and formerly UKvisas) has a brief discussion about the MVV in their INF brochure for visitors. To navigate to the Borders site, click here.
To follow up on this information, check our Internet Resources page...
Reviewed 9 May 2012