A Quick Overview-- three terms to become familiar with:
Student Visitor Without Visa
Tier 4 (General) Student Visa
Student Visitor Visa
If you are a US citizen who plans to study in the UK for less than 6 months and you have no intention to work or intern you may enter the UK as a STUDENT VISITOR WITHOUT VISA. Entering the UK as a student visitor without visa and not with a Tier 4 Student Visa is considered to be the more appropriate route for those students who are going only going for less than 6 months and not working/interning. For those students who meet the above criteria but who are not US citizens you will need to see if you are considered as a 'visa national' and if so, then you will need to apply for pre-authorization as a STUDENT VISITOR WITH VISA. For more information on eligibility, please see: http://www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk/visas-immigration/studying/
If you do intend to work (ex. those students doing a semester long internship program) then you do need to apply for the TIER 4 (GENERAL) STUDENT VISA (PBS Tier 4 General Student Visa VAF 9) which requires a visa application to be submitted and prior entry clearance prior to departure.
It is not possible to change your visa after your arrival. But our view at Brockport is that when a student is sure that he or she does not want to work, and will not want to extend their program, it is a waste of time and money for them to seek the Tier 4 Student Visa.
How do you enter the UK as a student visitor?
If you are a US citizen, simply ask for it when you arrive at Heathrow Airport, or another UK point of entry. Apart from your passport, all you need is a letter from the university that you will be studying at in the UK confirming an offer on a course (unconditional offer letter which you should have 3-4 weeks prior to departure and different than the first acceptance letter that you received from Brockport), proof of your intention to depart the UK at the end of your study (round-trip ticket) and evidence that you have enough money to finance your stay in the UK. That can be a loan approval, or a personal financial statement supported by bank evidence. You should provide proof of support for the total cost of your program (receipt that tuition is paid for) plus the current maintenance recommendations. Should your accomodation cost be covered in the cost of your program (this varies for Brockport programs and can be determined by looking at your official budget sheet that was included with your Brockport offer letter), then you can deduct that sum from required monthly maintenance fees. Entering as a Student Visitor without visa does not cost anything.
Please note: Do not book a flight which connects through the Republic of Ireland. You will not be able to obtain proper immigration clearances if you travel to the United Kingdom through the Republic of Ireland. Failure to secure the proper passport stamp may affect your ability to remain in the country for the duration of your time abroad or cause you difficulty when you try to exit the UK at the conclusion of your program.
Can you travel in and out of the UK as a Student Visitor without visa?
Yes. Officially any type of visitor visa is single entry, so when you leave the country and return during the course of the semester you need to request the student visitor stamp again when you come back. But all that means is that you need to take the same documentation (your passport, the letter from the UK university, proof of round trip ticket and financial evidence) whenever you leave the country, and show it when you return to the UK.
You must apply for a Tier 4 (General) Student Visa if you are participating on an internship, you intend to work, intern or volunteer while studying abroad, or you are studying in the UK for more than six months. The UK Border Agency sometimes refers to Tier 4 (General) Students as 'adult students', in its documents.