Why we won’t be living in the United Kingdom

There are many questions people ask once they hear you’re getting married. When you’re a binational couple one of these questions is: “Where are you going to live?”

It’s not that easy a question to answer. As young, fresh graduates, we could potentially live anywhere. But the only answer we have so far is, “Not the UK.”

Neither of us have a problem with Great Britain. I’ve been here over a year now, and have received nothing but kindness and generosity from the people I’ve met. Yet my time is limited: my visa runs out at the end of January. Most people don’t see that as a problem since we’re getting married, but it’s not that simple. As it turns out, getting married doesn’t guarantee you a visa to remain in the country; that probably only happens in movies.

In an effort to drastically cut down the number of immigrants entering the UK, the government has changed a whole range of immigration policies. The Post-Study Work Visa, which allows international students to stay and find work in the UK after they graduate, is gone. The spousal visa has also changed. A binational couple will only be able to get a spousal visa if the British spouse earns an income of £18,600 a year (and has been earning that for at least six months). 47% of people in employment in the UK are unable to meet this financial threshold. The foreign spouse’s income is not taken into account.

This might not be as big a problem in London, where wages are likely to be higher. The same report linked above found that 29% of Londoners in employment will not be able to meet the requirement; the number shoots up to 48% when looking at Scotland, where we currently live. It’s yet another sign of how British policymakers are often London-centric in their outlook.

This has been justified as a move to reduce the number of people claiming benefits, thus relieving the burden on the taxpayer. Yet there is little evidence to show that a significant number of foreign spouses are claiming benefits from the UK government in the first place. In fact, research has shown the opposite to be true – by imposing such a requirement the government could be losing money.

Sarah and her husband Chalermchon could illustrate this particular point. She works as an editor, while he’s a university lecturer. They have two children, both of whom have been granted British citizenship, but Chalermchon will not get a visa until Sarah can earn £18,600 a year in the UK. To do that, she would have to leave her family – or take her two children with her as a single parent – to find employment in the UK and work her way up to that amount. Refusing to do so, the whole family now lives in Thailand, their skills and expertise (and tax dollars) out of the UK’s reach.

Before Calum and I finished our degrees and moved up to Scotland we had thought it might still be possible for us to stay; perhaps I could find a job on my own merits and get a work visa. Or Calum would soon get a job that pays enough for us to meet the criteria.

As the weeks and months went by our situation grew more and more depressing. I had only been called for one job interview, a part-time position that was never going to pay me enough to get a work visa. The interview went well, but the interviewers weren’t sure if my lack of a permanent visa was going to be a problem. They said they would check with their bosses. For whatever reason, I never heard back.

Other attempts to apply for work, work experience or internships also came to nothing. Competition was so fierce that I didn’t even make it through the final screening rounds to be a trainee at the BBC, something I had thought my professional experience would at least get me. Zip. Nada. Dozens of edited CVs and cover letters got me nowhere except closer to my visa expiry date.

Calum wasn’t having much luck either. Journalism jobs – already not the easiest of industries – are scarce in Scotland at the moment, and competition is fierce. Every vacant position gets piles and piles of applications, and you don’t know if yours even gets read. Besides, the appetite for free labour is huge; Calum went to one job interview where the interviewer spent her time chastising him for not having worked for free – for “experience” reasons, you see – before trying to apply for paid work. In today’s job market, free labour is not a bonus but an expectation.

Meeting the financial requirement isn’t as easy as not going on the dole or finding a job. We learnt this the hard way, and I later heard our experience mirrored in the accounts of others.

Take Noriko and William, for instance. Right now, she’s living in Japan with their baby daughter, while he’s here in Scotland. He works as a chef and hasn’t been able to meet the required amount. Settling down in Japan proved a no-go when he found it difficult to adjust (both the culture shock and the language barrier were problems), while she struggled to support the family on a single income. Having a baby daughter who is a British citizen apparently doesn’t count, at least not until William is able to earn the ‘right’ amount of money. “I feel as if my life as a family is stuck at the moment,” Noriko wrote to me in an email.

She isn’t the only one who feels that way. When I Skyped Amanda, she told me that she and her husband Phil are living in limbo. After graduating, Phil has had trouble finding a full-time job that meets the criteria. Unable to meet that financial requirement, they’d been living apart for seven months before she could travel to the UK to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. They’re now in the process of applying for an American spousal visa for Phil to move to the US, but the process is slow, especially after it was affected by the government shutdown in October. “There’s a lot of hanging around waiting,” she says of their visa troubles. “You can’t plan.”

It’s hugely unfair. We aren’t talking about scam marriages or “benefit scroungers”, two scenarios so often used by the government to scare-monger and twist the immigration debate. We’re talking about ordinary families. Couples who love each other. Parents with children. People who just want to be together. And the major thing keeping them apart is money. Noriko, Amanda and Sarah aren’t the only ones with such stories: the charity BritCits has a long, depressing list of families who have been divided by the financial requirement (and other administrative issues).

At a time of rapid globalisation, when travelling has never been so easy, it’s no surprise that people will meet and fall in love with someone from beyond their home country’s borders. Throwing up such obstacles for binational couples makes little sense; people aren’t going to stop getting married to those they love. Lucky ones might just leave the country and settle elsewhere, taking their skills and ability to work with them, in which case the country loses out. Those who aren’t as fortunate will have to suffer the pain of being separated from their spouse and even their children, for no reason apart from not earning enough money to satisfy the state.

The loss from the breaking up of families cannot simply be counted in dollars and cents. In many ways the UK is a brilliant country, and when the time comes I will be genuinely sorry to go. There will be family and friends left behind that we will miss very much, but right now we see no other way.

18 Comments Why we won’t be living in the United Kingdom

  1. BT

    So will you be coming back to Sg, where the (ungrateful) people accuse the govt of being solely focused on the economy (so that Sgreans have jobs and that they can even bring in their foreign spouses on long term visit passes, which add to the apparent congestion).

    Btw, thought you proclaim yourself to be a journalist, filmmaker, videographer, activist and blogger. With such multi talents, why can you even secure a job there in UK?

    Worst case, you can survive on ‘human rights’, right? :)

    1. Dave

      Dear BT. You really do have poor manners. Is that how your parents taught you to address people? As a child, my mother would have given me a good firm slap if I dared speak to a lady like that.

      However, you do touch on a fair point.

      In France 45% of GDP is taken in tax. In Britain 39%, In Italy 42%, in Spain 37%.

      Take a look at Asia.

      In Singapore the figure is 14.2%, Hong Kong 13% South Korea 15.5%

      Kixes. It is entirely not your fault, but your predicament is the product of a society where entrepreneurship is associated with greed. Businesses and individuals are taxed and regulated to the hilt, and successive governments have failed to maintain a balanced budget year after year. As a result the State owes £19,481 for every man, woman and child. That’s more than £43,137 for every person in employment. Every household will pay £1,902 this year (plenty to Beijing) just to cover the interest.

      People who want to invest, innovate and create simply will not invest in such a hostile debt -ridden environment. No investment = no jobs.

      The sorry consequence of this is a British jobs market where Cambridge University produced more bartenders and waiters than employed engineers last year and every minimum wage, zero hour contract stacking shelves in an Amazon warehouse attracts hundreds of graduate applications.

  2. Dave

    Hi there,

    Very sorry to hear about your predicament. It really is most unfortunate. My very sincerest best wishes to you both wherever you end up. I have a few suggestions. They may seem harsh, but I hope they can be of help.

    1.) The United Kingdom is still a place of opportunity. People flock here from all over the world. Sheer hard work and perseverance can do a great deal to get you over adversity. Do not give up. Fight. The median wage from full time employment is £26,800. Your husband is educated and intelligent. This can be done.

    2.) Since 2008, British people have suffered possibly one of the steepest falls in living standards in modern history. Decent quality employment is hard to come by and housing is expensive. 75% of British people want net migration to the UK to fall. By and large, they are not xenophobic – they just fear having to compete with more people for jobs and housing. They are not persuaded by the argument that high immigration will help to restore the economy of the past, where jobs were plentiful, and housing affordable. Most people are convinced that their children will be substantially poorer than they are.

    3.) I have gone through periods in my life that I found incredibly tough. I worked in boring and physically demanding positions that paid only a little over the minimum wage. I tutored schoolkids in the evenings to supplement my income. Things got better. Evaluate yourself. Reflect. Work. Work harder. Searching for a good job is a full time 9AM -11PM job.

    4.) I very much enjoy your writing. However, the economics of journalism are changing. Look at publications such as the Huffington Post. There are no shortage of talented people out there who are perfectly prepared to write for nothing. Expecting to get a paid position as a journalist without an absolutely impeccable publication record with top quality publications is a bit of a pipe dream. Anyone doing their best to work hard, even if they’re scrubbing toilets during the day and waiting tables at night is worthy of the highest respect.

    5.) My parents were immigrants. They came from a rural area where poverty was widespread and they could not find work. They came to the city, scrimped and saved, living in a single room with a shared bathroom and kitchen. Eventually, they got the money together for a deposit for the small apartment they grew up in. Scotland may be beautiful, but if you need work, you gotta move to where the work is.

    6.) There are a substantial number of young British people making a decent standard of living and standing on their feet teaching English in China / Japan / Korea. Your knowledge of the Chinese language would be a pretty good preparation for you two to start a business there. There is also plenty of demand. You could keep up the writing part time.



    1. Kirsten Han

      Thanks Dave for the comments and advice! We’re currently in Scotland because that’s where Calum’s family is. We did apply for some jobs in London but then had to give up when it became clear that we can’t afford to stay in London while looking for work at the moment.

      We are trying to keep our options open both in and out of the UK. It’s too late for me to get a job in the UK now with my visa running out in a little more than a month and it being incredibly unlikely to be renewed; companies are reluctant to sponsor work visas, especially when they have other candidates to choose from.

      In relation to your other comment, I don’t really have an issue with tax rates if the money goes towards making sure that people are provided for in terms of bare necessities like healthcare. I do disagree with the ideology of the current government, though, so eager to demonise anyone who might need some extra help while they aren’t particularly worried about huge tax dodgers like Amazon or Google.

      1. Dave

        Well I quite agree. I hate to see people living in poverty. I’ve known it myself as a young man. I know how tough it can be. I also do some voluntary work mentoring adults with intellectual disabilities to enter the workplace.

        Jobs are so few and far between, and having to compete with so many applicants is highly depressing for them.

        If taxation and regulation starts to deter people from creating jobs – then it does the poor and vulnerable no favours at all.

        I’ve seen far more poverty in France, than I’ve seen in South Korea – a country with a similar population/size (and a much lower tax take).


        Interesting read :)

  3. John

    1) Good luck, Kirsten! Congratulations on the ringing wedding bells

    2) BT, wow, I have to say, you’re one hell of an incisive commentator! With your contempt for “human rights,” impatience toward a young couple’s aspirations, and deft command of the language, you are the perfect candidate for any job in a reputable journalistic institution such as, say, the SPH!

    While I do not know you very well, I would nevertheless encourage you to pursue a career that allows you to publish petty criticism, perpetuate prejudices, deepen ignorance, and sour the human spirit! I think that will make you a very fulfilled, happy and kind individual who will, hopefully, mock a little less.

    With love,

  4. BT

    Kirsten, thanks for blocking me on FB – I was wondering what took you so long.

    But your excuse for doing so was pretty lame – getting bored and all that lame stuff. It gives that impression that you had run out of countervailing argument and desperately and shamefully resorted to silencing the other party’s voice.

    As for Calum, as I said, we will welcome him, DESPITE the fact that you recommended that we should be imposing an immigration quota.

    I highly doubt his past experience as a technician and his post-graduate would be treasured here, but at least MOM can give him a LTVP, in which case you should be thankful to the govt policy that permits such an arrangement even if he CANT find a job here AS WELL .

    As for yoruself, I higher doubt you will go far beyond some freelance engagements. Do try to prove me wrong. – it’s about time you understand the reality of life and come down closer to earth.

    PS. Frankly I doubt it’ll be long before he realizes that he can’t stand your arrogance and fallacious attitude.

      1. BT

        Of course!

        But for plainly pointing out that she is one of those ‘prominent bloggers’ who will vociferously criticise govt policies and propose measures that hopefully will not be applicable to her own case, ie. bringing in her husband (who seem not to have much ‘talent’) into the apparently ‘congested’ country.

        The reason is simple: she is desperate as her ambition of finding a job overseas has come to naught and has now BELATEDLY realized that the country whose govt policies she finds repugnant is actually not so bad after all compared to the real outside world.

        That’s the IRONY and pathetic situation Kirsten finds herself.

        But you don’t need an asshole to point that outl

  5. Dave

    Each year, Singapore rejects an average of 4,300 applications for permanent residence (PR) by foreign spouses of Singapore citizens.

    This represents about 50% of all applications.

  6. Cassidy

    I am a locally-born and bred Singaporean but my wife is not. I understand the difficulties you are facing because it is the same here in Singapore.

    It is all very deeply unfair unfortunately and I wish I could understand why any government would institute policies that would push its own citizens out of the country.

    I wish you the best of luck finding a place in the world. Unfortunately, for many bi-national couples it is a very hard road to hew.

    1. Kirsten

      Thank you for writing! I would be really interested in hearing of your experience in Singapore – we’re trying to settle here in Singapore and would love to hear what some couples have gone through.

      1. Cassidy

        Sigh… Well, I would say the main problem is that the system in Singapore is not very flexible and putting people in boxes is the only way they know how to operate. It can even get downright illogical.

        My wife is a degree holder with certification at what she does and she is very good at it, with more than a decade’s experience too. She is more than qualified in her field. But she is not in a profession that would get a salary that would allow her to get the E pass that would allow her to work, so our household is entirely dependent on my salary. Getting an S pass, although technically possible, is not probable for her, even though she is willing to work at any salary level offered.

        Ironically enough, the standards for getting an S pass to work seems to depend on the age and salary of the person applying. The younger the applicant is, the lower the salary threshold needed. The older, and more experienced, you are… you can see where this is going.

        The only solution is either get PR status or stay long enough that she would qualify for a ltvp+ pass. Until then, she does volunteer work with the time that she has.

        It is a source of annoyance for both of us that every time my wife has gone for an interview, that the first thing that gets asked is if she has a dependent’s pass. A dependent’s pass is one that is given to spouses of E or S pass holders and allows them to stay and work in Singapore without requiring a work pass. All that is required is a letter of consent from MOM. That’s right… Spouses of expats can live and work in Singapore while a spouse of a Singaporean is not able to. Anytime this situation is explained to anyone, we see the same look of disbelief that this is happening.

        I can understand why the system works as it does, the opaqueness of the bureaucracy allowing the government to change the tacks when it wants to and insulate itself against criticism. It’s still immensely unfair and alienating to have to go through basically being told that being a citizen does not allow my wife and I the same rights as someone who is simply here to work just because they can earn and spend more.

        (Apologies for the time it took to reply! I am not a frequent blog reader unfortunately. I stopped by your blog previously because I had read other things you had published on yahoo.)

        1. Kirsten

          Thanks for the reply!

          I get what you mean, the fact that expats can have their spouses on dependent’s pass while citizens have to jump through all these hoops is yet another mind-boggling part of the system.

          From what I understand you should already be eligible for LTVP or LTVP+? I believe that those visa categories were designed to help foreign spouses who have yet to get PR to stay in Singapore and work towards that. And there is a family scheme that allows for foreign spouses to go for PR. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that one gets PR…

          1. Cassidy

            She already has a ltvp. It allows her to stay but it has to be renewed every year. The ltvp+ is also applied for automatically with the ltvp application but it’s not usually given out from what we understand before three years, unless the couple has a child in Singapore. Of course, none of this is made clear. All you can do is fill out the paperwork and cross your fingers because no official guidelines exist for how an application is evaluated.

            There is never any guarantee of anything at all when it comes to these matters. There is a stunning lack of awareness of how it comes across when on one hand the government promotes families and increasing the number of citizens in the country, but on the other hand, makes it hard to do so, particularly when there is a growing large proportion of citizens getting married to foreign spouses.

            1. Kirsten

              The opaque-ness of the rules really do make it difficult. There’s no way of knowing how things will turn out, which in turn makes it very difficult for people to prepare themselves or make alternative plans.

              It’s also difficult that the LTVP does not allow the spouse to work, even if they can and are willing to. Saying this sometimes attracts criticism and accusations of hypocrisy (just see some of the comments above), but family migration is a whole different kettle of fish to economic migration. Spouses and children have very specific reasons to be in Singapore, and if we want to encourage family life then this is part of it too.

              1. Cassidy

                Agreed. Ignoring the reasons for migration is being tone-deaf to the realities of what is happening in the country and the world.

                And unfortunately, there is a surfeit of that particular kind of vociferous opinion on the internet that is simply not conducive to dialogue.


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