This Is How One Unusual UK Immigration Rule Plays Out For Couples

The UK requires a British person to earn at least £18,600 a year — more than the amount that almost half of British employees earn — in order to sponsor a foreign husband or wife’s visa. Here’s what happened next for three couples.

On 9 July 2012, David Cameron’s government brought in an unusual rule, as part of an ambitious promise to dramatically cut the UK’s fast-rising immigration numbers. The rule has left thousands of couples stuck apart, stuck abroad, or scrambling through loopholes.

The rule states that a British national must earn £18,600 a year to sponsor a non-European partner’s visa — that’s more than what almost half of employed Brits earn, according to Oxford University research last year. Cameron’s government says this ensures that people bringing over migrant partners can support them without turning to state benefits. The ongoing outcry against the rule ranges from street protests over the summer to a Supreme Court case scheduled for February.

Meanwhile, Facebook groups for the couples kept apart have mushroomed. I spent two months talking online, over the phone, and in person to members of these forums. Here are three people whose stories illustrate how life plays out if you don’t earn the magic amount.

1. Stuck apart: Emma Collier, 23 years old

Photo: Shyamantha Asokan

Emma’s favourite band is The Kooks. In late 2011 she met their lead singer and posted a photo on Facebook, tagging the band’s page. Some months later Cristian Alarcon, a fellow Kooks fan and a Colombian student living over 5,000 miles away, liked the picture. Then he friended her. They got chatting, started visiting each other as friends, and got together in June 2014. They now visit each other twice a year.

“It’s hard to explain really, I’m just completely in love with him,” Emma says, sitting at her dining table in Telford, a town in the Midlands where she lives with her parents. Her parents like Cristian too, she adds, because they think he helps her “come out of her shell.”

Emma, an admin assistant at a nursery school, has been trying to meet the income target since the spring. She and Cristian want to marry late next year after he finishes his degree. But her job pays just over £11,300 a year for 30 hours a week. She’s looking for a second job — bar work, shop work, more admin — but little has come up and her applications have been rejected. Better-paying jobs at call centres ask for experience she doesn’t yet have.

Her age and gender are squarely against her. According to the Oxford University research, 60% of employed British nationals in their twenties earn less than £18,600 a year. Almost the same percentage of all working-age women fall shy of the target, double the rate for men.

Emma and Cristian. Photos courtesy of Emma Collier.

Emma says she’d like to train as a counsellor instead of staying in low-paid jobs, but such plans are on hold due to the target. The rule does allow Emma to use extra assets to help her hit the target, such as savings worth at least £16,000 plus large extra amounts depending on her salary, but this is also well beyond her means. The median average income in Telford was £18,100 in 2012–13, according to the latest government figures.

She finds solace in the Facebook groups, where people not only share practical tips on second jobs and fiddly visa forms, but also cheer each other up during lonely moments and post photos of reunited couples. “It’s a really positive place to be. If you’re having a down day, if you just post on there, everyone will uplift you,” she says.

In September, as the job-hunt wore on, Emma signed up to Forever Living Products (FLP) — people join the Arizona-based company by referral and buy its vitamins, bath salts, and other wares to sell on. She’s putting in up to 10 hours a week and waiting to see if she turns a profit. Her FLP profile page says: “The reason I decided to become a distributor was to achieve more independence and an extra income in order to be with my partner.”

2. Stuck abroad: Charlene Karstel, 35 years old

Photo: Shyamantha Asokan

Charlene is packing, again. At a rented house in Paignton, a south-western seaside town, she and her six-year-old son have crammed their belongings into two suitcases and a few boxes, with a teddy bear sticking out of one case. It’s September 18. They’ll fly to South Africa six days later.

Charlene had returned home to the UK in May, after living in Cape Town for five years with her South African husband Francois. She brought their son Ollie with her. But she can’t find a job that pays enough to sponsor Francois’ visa so she’s going back: “I feel like I’m being pushed out…it feels horrible.”

Charlene met Francois at a pub in Hertfordshire in 2006, when he was playing rugby in the UK on a working holiday visa, and they married two years later. They moved to Cape Town but Charlene struggled with its high crime rates. Their home was robbed and they were mugged after their car broke down. Charlene began to have panic attacks while driving and lost weight. She was diagnosed with PTSD by a doctor in South Africa and with anxiety by a doctor in the UK, she says. It was time to head home.

Francois, Ollie, and Charlene. Left photo: courtesy of Charlene Karstel. Right photo: via

At first, Charlene was confident about finding a well-paid UK job — she has a law diploma and had worked as an executive assistant at Cape Town’s British Consulate — but she soon got stuck. Paignton is in a constituency where the median average income was £16,700 in 2012–13. She’d moved back before Francois, who was wrapping up his work in South Africa, and looking after Ollie alone ruled out jobs with long hours or commutes.

“It makes me feel like I’m a kind of down-and-out and that’s not true,” she says of the rule. “[The message is] if you’re earning below that amount you’re just, like, scum. That’s exactly how it makes you feel.” The UK’s income target for sponsoring partner visas is the second-highest in the developed world, according to MIPEX, a migration policy index (Norway’s is slightly higher).

Charlene launched a petition against the rule and wrote to the Home Office. An immigration official sent back standard responses. Meanwhile, Ollie was crying over tiny things. He asked what would happen if Francois died while the family was apart. It was time to leave again.

At least 15,000 children have been affected by the rule so far, with the vast majority of that group being separated from a parent, according to a report in September by the UK’s Children’s Commissioner. The report said those children often became depressed, aggressive, or socially isolated.

In late October, Charlene emails me about life back in Cape Town: “It’s a huge adjustment again but what can I do. Have to go with it and hope for the best now, at least we are [all] on the same continent now.”

3. Through the loophole: Ahmed, 29 years old

Photo: Shyamantha Asokan

Ahmed is heading to his third shift at a McDonald’s in Plymouth, where he’s on minimum wage. He made it to the UK this summer, using a way around the income rule that took him to a remote Irish village and burned through his savings. “It’s what had to be done,” he says.

The “Surinder Singh route” is a legal and officially-recognised caveat named after a court ruling about an Indian man living in the UK. It goes like this: if a British person and their partner go to live in another country in the European Economic Area, they can apply to be classed as an EEA family and move to the UK under European freedom of movement rules. No income rules apply.

Ahmed, who’s Egyptian, met his wife in 2010 on a gamers site. Their online chats soon became daily Skype calls. She visited him that summer and they began a long-distance relationship — she was working shifts at a care agency in Plymouth, he was a web developer running an IT team in the resort city Sharm-el-Sheikh. But, after they married in 2012 and later had a son, they had to make a call on where to live.

Ahmed has asked me not to use his full name as he’s concerned about future UK residency applications. He showed me his Egyptian passport and Irish visa, plus recent Facebook pictures of his wife and son.

The couple moved to Ireland in February to try the SS route, on edge and with no idea if it would work. Following advice on the Facebook forums, they chose a village in central Ireland and avoided the cities’ higher rents. Ahmed’s wife worked as a door-to-door charity fundraiser and donated to local good causes (successful SS couples must prove that the British partner has integrated into the European country in question.)

However, despite gaining entry to the UK in June, they’re still far from a happy ending.

Ahmed’s Egyptian passport (left and centre), and Ahmed rolling a cigarette before work starts. Photos: Shyamantha Asokan

Having blown £6,000 on the Ireland move, Ahmed says they must now live with his in-laws in Plymouth rather than moving to a city with more IT jobs such as London. He’s had to take menial work and he hates being bossed around by teenage colleagues at McDonald’s. His relationship with his wife is under serious strain.

It’s not clear how many couples have been directly affected by the income rule. Partner visa applications fell to 33,400 a year on average in the three years after the rule was introduced in July 2012, versus an annual average of 43,300 in the three years before it was brought in, according to Home Office figures. The percentage of successful applications fell from 83% to 71%.

However, the Home Office brought in a number of new rules for partner visas in 2012 and it doesn’t disclose how many refusals each rule has caused. The number of couples doing the SS route is similarly hard to extract from overall immigration figures.

In response to criticisms about the income rule, the Home Office emailed me a statement saying: “We welcome those who wish to make a life in the UK with their family, work hard and make a contribution. But family life must not be established here at the taxpayer’s expense.” The statement added that the rule has been approved by the UK’s parliament and upheld by courts, and that the income targets reflect the levels at which British families generally stop accessing welfare.

Back in Plymouth, Ahmed is about to catch a bus to McDonald’s. He has battled to be here, and yet “life is not as I wanted it to be — not even a quarter as good as I thought it would be.”

Journalist & photographer who has lived and worked in the UK, USA, Nigeria, and India. Stories for The Economist, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Reuters, etc.

Journalist & photographer who has lived and worked in the UK, USA, Nigeria, and India. Stories for The Economist, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Reuters, etc.