This article, co-authored with Usman Sheikh, a London-based immigration lawyer and Director of Ansar, offers practical advice for anyone planning to settle in the UK.
You may be planning to move to the UK for work or study, or perhaps for family reasons. As well as preparing for the immediate reason for your move, you will want to think about your wider integration into society. While this may seem primarily a cultural issue, law also plays an important role. Bear in mind that until now the legal requirements have only applied to non-EU nationals, but in the new post-Brexit immigration system from January 2021, these requirements will also apply to EU nationals.
You will generally need to speak English and work from the outset
The ability to speak English is an important part of integration and there is an English language requirement in most visa categories. You may meet this requirement automatically if you come from an English speaking country. If not, you will need to pass a language test at a designated test centre.
Work is another important part of integration, both through the social interactions that it provides and also through the contribution to economic activity that it achieves. There is a requirement to work in most visa categories, whether as an explicit condition of your visa, or through a restriction on your access to public funds.
Even at this early stage, you may be able to vote
Depending on your country of origin, you may also have the opportunity to participate in the UK’s political life by voting in elections. For example, some Commonwealth citizens can vote in general elections; and EU nationals can vote in local government and mayoral elections.
Over time, you will also need to learn about British history and culture
You will generally need to wait at least five years before you can apply for permission to stay in the UK permanently. One benefit of this long period of time is that you will have the opportunity to reach a good level of English and to learn about life in the UK more fully, which you will need for your permission to stay in the UK permanently.
Cultural sensitivity will help you to integrate
Culture is much more than writers and artists, theatre, films and architecture. Culture is also the shared ways that people think, behave and communicate within a country, region or indeed any group. This tends to come from people’s deep-rooted values and beliefs so understanding what really matters to British people and being able to tune in and adapt to these potential differences will help you to form good relationships and get things done more easily. Bear in mind that cultural norms will vary somewhat depending on where in the UK you are. Be ready to share and answer questions about your home culture to help your local colleagues and community to understand what matters to you.
The unwritten rules of living in the UK
Culture is sometimes described as ‘the way we do things around here’: those unwritten rules that can be hard to navigate when you have recently arrived in a new country. Obvious ‘rules’ in the UK include things like queuing, standing on the right on an escalator or making sure you say ‘sorry’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ much more often than you might at home. Also consider how much and who you need to tip, expectations of punctuality, greetings and forms of address and of course, the importance of taking your turn to buy a round if you are having drinks in the pub with friends or colleagues.
Learn to crack the code
Speaking good English is crucial for integration but not enough on its own if you haven’t cracked the British communication code. Learning to interpret what people really mean or what they are not telling you is important in any culture but particularly in British where understatement, self-deprecation and irony are highly valued. Humour is used in business as well as social settings and it’s not always easy to know if someone is joking or not. British communication is typically understated so close physical contact, loud voices and public displays of emotion are best avoided.
Although perhaps not strictly speaking essential, building relationships is an important part of integration into a new society. Whether at work or in your local community, getting on well with people will help things to go smoothly and make life richer. Relationship-building in the UK is a slow process and privacy is important so avoid big gestures or invitations but instead take time to make small talk – comment on the weather, find common interests or share a grumble about things not working. Avoid talking about money or politics and don’t talk too much about your own successes.
You will need to physically commit to the UK
Clearly, you cannot integrate into British society if you do not spend time here. If you want to become a British citizen, you will need to show that you have lived in the UK for a sufficient period of time each year. You will also need to intend to continue living in the UK.
But not everyone can stay here permanently
Some visa categories are only for temporary residency in the UK. Even if you are in a category which can in principle lead to permanent residency, the courts have made it clear that until you have permanent residency, your stay in the UK is ‘precarious’. So you should be aware that you may ultimately be unable to stay here permanently. Clearly, this may create some challenges for your integration in the UK.
Integration is complicated, but important
The government says: “Although integration is difficult to define, its absence can be all too apparent”. Hopefully, this article will help you to define integration, to understand some of its challenges and encourage you to try to overcome them in order to achieve integration.
Further support through training and coaching can also support your transition.