Arriving in the UK for the first time in 2021

2 September 2021

It’s that time of the year again where UCL and other universities across the UK gear up to welcome fresher and returning students to London. Hear from Malaysian undergraduate, Sherwen about her journey to the UK.


Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, coming to the UK from overseas seems to be an additionally daunting task with the fast-evolving situation and ever-changing travel rules and regulations. With the start of a new academic year ahead, I believe almost all of you would have mixed feelings about coming to the UK, regardless of whether you are arriving for the first time or returning after the summer break.

In this article, I will share some of my personal experience about planning to arrive in the UK for the first time in my life before concluding about how I personally feel about coming back to the UK. It goes all the way back to August 2020, getting all excited about A-Levels Results Day and securing a place to study at UCL, but the question comes: should I plan to go to the UK in the first term or delay my arrival to January 2021? Well, it was many sleepless nights for me as I got myself in a dilemma. To make the most out of the several years of UK university life, I should definitely arrive as soon as I can. However, fear of the COVID-19 situation held me back from going to the UK. After weighing up the pros and cons of both options, I decided to start my visa application in September 2020 with 31st October 2020 being the tentative date of me arriving in the UK. My visa vignette came back in early October 2020 so I got almost everything ready from winter down jacket to toiletries and clothing and was all prepared to go to the UK. Just before when I was about to book a flight, a new variant of the COVID-19 virus (now known as the Alpha variant) emerged in the UK, daily cases went up significantly. My travel plans got affected eventually as I was defeated by the fear of the situation of the pandemic.

I officially started my first year with UCL at home, watching pre-recorded lectures and attending online tutorials. Online learning was not too bad unlike what most people expected and my overall learning experience throughout the term was quite enjoyable despite missing out on the face-to-face interactions with lecturers, tutors and course mates. After a busy yet enjoyable first term, I started to think about going to the UK in January 2021 since my visa is going to expire in that month. I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of my seniors who were friendly and patient enough to answer my regular “How’s life in London/UK?” messages which gave me an idea about their day-to-day life in the UK during the worsening pandemic situation in winter and the lockdown period. After listening to their experiences, it got me thinking: if they can overcome the fear and live there despite the pandemic, I should be able to do so as well! Just when I was about to break through my fears, a UK national lockdown was announced on 4 January 2021 so there goes my plan again. 

I submitted my visa vignette transfer application in early March 2021. Guess what, the earliest available biometric enrolment appointment was two weeks later! Knowing how costly visa application is and it being a long and complicated process, this time around I decided I should delay no more to get myself to the UK as soon as possible to avoid another round of visa vignette transfer due to an expired 90 days vignette. Right after Term 2 concluded, it was really a busy 2 weeks period for me as I had to start packing and preparing all the necessary travel documents while having to prepare for Term 3 exams at the same time. Finally (yes finally!), I travelled from Malaysia to the UK on 15 April 2021 after multiple times of change in travel plans.

Into the fourth month being in the UK, my conclusion is that there is never a best time to come to the UK. If you are waiting for the pandemic to be over and life to be completely back to normal before you come here, you never know how long it will take. So do not hesitate about coming to the UK especially now that universities are trying their best to bring everything back to normal and have face-to-face classes. Besides that, one good reason for coming as soon as you can is to have more time to settle down, get used to the day-to-day life here in the UK and to sort out essential things like BRP collection, opening a bank account, registering with a GP before you start to get extremely busy with your studies. Eventually, perhaps you could consider coping with the pandemic situation to be part of your student life in the UK. But with all of that being said, one important thing to keep in mind is to always take the necessary precautionary steps, get vaccinated as soon as you can to avoid the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Stay safe, stay healthy and look forward to seeing many of you at UCL!

By Sherwen Kang, MSci Mathematics and Statistical Science