When new Immigration Rules were introduced in 2012, one of the most controversial additions was the minimum income requirement for British/settled spouses hoping to sponsor their foreign partners. The required salary was set at £18,600 per annum, significantly higher than the national minimum wage, freezing many applicants out of the process. In addition, the introduction of a minimum earning threshold meant that the UK's Immigration Rules were moving away from similar provisions applicable to EU nationals under free movement. In short, from 2012 it has been harder to sponsor your spouse if you are British than if you are from elsewhere in the EU.
Not surprisingly, there has been repeated criticism and challenge of the £18,600 minimum income figure. News articles highlighting the difficulties experienced by families are relatively common, and it has been noted that women can be disadvantaged by the arbitrary figure as they are less likely to earn a higher wage and more likely to work part-time. Similarly, young people working in the gig economy face difficulties meeting evidential thresholds. In 2017 the Supreme Court gave judgment in the case of MM (Lebanon), an action brought by several different families all seeking to challenge the legality of the Home Office approach. The Supreme Court ruled that the minimum £18,600 requirement was lawful, but that the Home Office was overly restrictive when considering the sources of income on which a family might rely (third-party support from extended family should not be excluded, for example). While this led to Home Office guidance offering a more relaxed approach to meeting the minimum income level, the earnings threshold remains a major obstacle to many who seek a UK visa.
Is the requirement always £18,600?
If you are in employment, then this figure is most likely going to be the amount you need to earn. The length of time you have spent with your current employer will then determine whether you will require specified evidence over 6 months or 12.
If you are self-employed, £18,600 must be your net income (pre-tax profit) from your activities. Due to the nature of reporting as a self-employed person, you will need much more evidence than someone in employment. At least 1 full tax years' evidence of income is required, in addition to updated evidence relevant to the date of application. For this reason, a sponsor must be self-employed for at least 1 full year before they can consider sponsoring their partner.
Things become trickier when the sponsor works for their own company, or for a family business. In these scenarios, regardless of whether the legal reality is that the sponsor is a standard employee, much more evidence will be required. Full evidence of company income (eg tax documents and accounts) will be needed for the last financial year, as well as bank statements and other proof of wages to the sponsor, such as payslips. This evidence must then all be updated to be relevant to the date of application, so the Home Office takes an invasive approach to small family businesses which can be to the displeasure of those not directly involved in the visa application.
Where the sponsor is relying on non-employment income, such as rental income from properties, the required figure remains at £18,600 (gross amount of cash income may be counted, where the correct tax has been paid on that income). Evidence of 12 months' income will always be required, along with other relevant documents (eg proof of ownership of the tenanted properties).
A sponsor fortunate enough to rely on cash savings must have a great deal more than the £18,600 minimum. As the requirement is to show income of £18,600 per year, an applicant using cash savings must show this amount is available for the full duration of the visa (2.5 years). This means a minimum savings level of £46,500 plus a base level of savings of £16,000, taking the overall figure to £62,500. That amount will need to have been held in personal bank accounts for at least 6 months prior to the application.
What if the sponsor doesn't earn the required amount?
Where the rules cannot be easily satisfied, applicants have a few options.
Some forms of income can be combined together to meet the £18,600 requirement. For example, a salaried employee earning £18,000 per year cannot meet the threshold relying on wages alone, but they can combine their income with savings to 'top up' the rest. This is not always an easy solution, however. Even where – like here – the amount needed in savings is just £600 per year (£1,500 across the duration of the visa), the £16,000 base level of savings is always applicable. In our example, the sponsor would require £17,500 savings to combine with their £18,000 annual income, which often is not achievable.
If the combination of income does not benefit the applicant, reliance on post-MM Home Office guidance might be of assistance. This would allow, for example, reliance on an offer of financial support from other family members. This guidance is not easy to rely upon; the Home Office will only consider departing from the standard requirements where there is a compelling need to do so. While British children separated from their parent might tip the balance for an applicant, a straightforward separation from a romantic partner will seldom be sufficient.
For those applying inside the UK, there are provisions within the Immigration Rules to waive the minimum income requirement where there are exceptional circumstances, such as British children in the immediate family unit, or insurmountable obstacles to the couple living together outside the UK (eg the foreign partner is from a particularly dangerous country). These exceptions are not open to those applying from outside the UK however, leaving many families separated until the £18,600 requirements can be satisfied in full.