Well, there's no reason that sometime in the future, near or far, once schools, providers, staff, and students & workers are acclimated to and more familiar with the new system it won't seem easy and streamlined.
But for the time being? It's something of a mess.
For example, here's the explanation the UK Border Agency provides in a publication titled UKBA Student Visas: Step By Step Guide for US Passport Holders (pdf):
Steps to entering the UK as a (Non-PBS) Student Visitor
As a short-term student entering the UK, you may enter without a visa. However, you must be prepared to show the Immigration Officer at the airport (or other port of entry) that you have been accepted on a course of study by:
a) An Accredited Educational Institution
b) An institution that holds a Tier 4 Sponsor Licence, or
c) US Institution of Higher Education which is delivering only part of its program in the UK and holds its own national accreditation and awards degrees equivalent to those in the UK (eg study abroad programmes). In order to meet the requirements of being an overseas Higher Education Institution offering programmes at an equivalent of a UK degree, the institution should be recognised by NARIC.
You will do this by showing an original letter from that institution which confirms that it meets one of the requirements above, provides details about you, that you will be enrolled in classes and will include details regarding the start and end date of the course.
· You will be asked to show the Immigration Officer that you will have the necessary funds to pay for your course fees and support yourself for the entire period you intend to stay in the UK. This can be in the form of scholarship, grant or other financial aid award letters as well as bank statements in your name which are dated no more than one calendar month before you arrive in the UK.
· You will demonstrate your willingness to leave the UK once your course of study is complete by showing return tickets or an itinerary with your name and information on them.
· You must present a valid US Passport that will not expire while you are in the UK.
· You will receive a student visitor stamp/endorsement in your passport when you present your documents.
· If you travel outside the UK during your course of study, show the Immigration Officer your Student Visitor stamp/endorsement (code 5N) and the institution letter when re-entering the UK.
· Students arriving in the UK through Ireland should actively seek out an Immigration official upon arrival in the UK to ensure that their passport is stamped with the student endorsement.
Holy smokes!! And this doesn't even address whether or not to apply for a Tier 4 (General) Student Visa. Notice the nuance -- enter as a "Student Visitor" or on a "Student Visa".
The UKBA does have available a visa wizard which is a great concept. Unfortunately, the "explanation" of the yes/no determination are links to a host of web documents about the various possible visas you could be entering under. Not the best possible solution (the language and intricacy of the new system is mind-numbing; and discouraging) but it is a start.
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