Indefinite Leave to Remain or ILR is effectively permanent residency of the United Kingdom. It means you can settle permanently in the United Kingdom without any immigration controls. It is the last step before Citizenship. Any children that you have after having ILR status are automatically British Citizens. When indefinite leave is granted to persons outside the United Kingdom it is known as indefinite leave to enter (ILE). If you want to apply for a British passport you'll need to spend a year on ILR before you can apply for British citizenship. Once you have citizenship getting a passport is easy.
Most sponsored workers will get it after 5 years on a Tier 2 Work Permit or a Tier 1 Highly Skilled Work Permit. You can work freely, study, and live throughout the United Kingdom. From the Border Agency "Indefinite leave to remain (ILR) is an immigration status granted to a person who does not hold right of abode in the United Kingdom, but who has been admitted to the UK without any time limit on his or her stay and who is free to take up employment or study, without restriction.".
This means that with ILR you can work freely and you can also spend periods outside the UK without losing your status - although after 2 years outside the UK it gets harder. You are better to spend another year and get the passport, because having to reapply for ILR is expensive and time consuming.
Possibly the best bit of advice you'll get about ILR processing is to do it in person if you can. Its months quicker and much less stressful. Being without your passport for months on end is never a good thing!
1) You need to have been in the UK for at least 5 years under one of the following approved immigration categories (note these are all visa classes which lead to settlement):
- Tier 1 or Tier 2 Visa (Tier 1 PSW is excluded)
- work permit holder
- representative of an overseas newspaper, news agency or broadcasting organisation
- private servant in a diplomatic household
- domestic worker in a private household
- overseas government employee
- minister of religion, missionary or member of a religious order
- airport-based operational staff of an overseas-owned airline
- self-employed lawyer
- writer, composer or artist
- UK ancestry
2) You'll need to demonstrate good knowledge of the English language and UK life by passing the "Life in the UK" test.
3) A completed form SET(O) and supporting documents
4) You'll need to pay £1051 application fee (£1426 if you apply in person at a public enquiry office) for yourself. £788 each for your partner and any dependents (£1163 if applying in person). Note the fees for partners / dependents are significantly higher if they aren't included in your original application, so make sure to submit all the forms together.
You need to fill in Form SET(O) and submit it to the UK Border Agency. Make sure you send in original documents where possible or certified copies. We recommend including a separate sheet of paper which notes each original document you have supplied. If you are in a hurry or have deep pockets then you can get your ILR through same day processing by booking an appointment at a public enquiry office and paying a higher fee. This is generally recommended for Tier 2 visa holders who travel frequently - because processing times for ILR are vague and you will be without your passport whilst your application is being processed.
You must lodge your application before your current visa runs out. You can lodge your application 4 weeks before you meet the qualifying time. So if you are on a Tier 2 work permit you can submit your application after 4 years and 48 weeks in the UK. Make sure you aren't planning any trips for a few months, unless you book same day priority processing, because you have to send in your passport and the UKBA keep hold of it until your application is processed.
There are 2 ways to get processed: either submitting a postal application which takes 2-6 months (the UKBA proudly states that 95% of postal applications are processed within 6 months!) or the in-person processing at a public enquiry office which is processed within the same day (90% of in-person applications are resolved on the same day). Because the processing times are so different it puts the fee disparity in a different light which is covered in the next point.
In-person costs almost £400 more for each applicant. It requires making an appointment to visit one of the inconveniently located public enquiry offices in Belfast, Cardiff, Croydon, Glasgow, Liverpool, Sheffield and Solihull. Assuming that you are able to secure an appointment (note they release new appointments between midnight and 6am). They don't accept cash or cheques - you can only pay by debit card, credit card or using a bank draft / postal order. If your documentation isn't in perfect order your application will get delayed. The appointment itself takes at least 2 and a half hours, not including the travel time. And yet we still recommend doing an in-person application.
Not having your passport for 6 months is a major pain. You can't travel overseas and they recommend you don't even book any future trips until your application is finished processing. When I submitted my application for Indefinite Leave back in 2006 I had a trip to Cuba booked 5 months after submission. As the trip approached with no progress in my application I contacted the UKBA only to find they had lost my passport!
As long as you submit your ILR application whilst you still have a valid visa status in the UK, your visa status will continue for as long as your Indefinite Leave to Remain application is still being processed. So even if your current visa is due to expire you can stay in the UK until you get approved for ILR. All conditions of your current visa status remain the same (so if you're on a Tier 2 you can still work).