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The Government has wide discretion to ban foreign nationals from the UK if their presence is not considered “conducive to the public good”. This is on top of rules barring entry for specific kinds of misconduct, such as criminal convictions.

A visa ban can be ordered by the Home Secretary personally

Someone whose presence is not considered conducive to the public good can be “excluded” from the UK by personal decision of the Home Secretary. The circumstances in which this power can be used are not limited by legislation but guidance states it will normally involve serious issues such as national security, war crimes, corruption or extremism.

In 2005, the Home Office published an indicative list of “unacceptable behaviours” which can also lead to exclusion by the Home Secretary. These include expressing views which provoke, justify or glorify terrorist violence or foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK.

The power can be used whether or not the person’s nationality would normally allow them to travel to the UK visa-free. Those excluded can write to the Home Office to ask for the ban to be lifted. In most cases there is no formal right of appeal but someone affected could apply for judicial review.

Officials can also refuse entry over someone’s conduct, character or associations

Immigration officials are required to refuse visas or entry at the border if the person’s presence in the UK is not conducive to the public good “because of their conduct, character, associations or other reasons”. Potential reasons for refusal on this basis are similar to those for exclusion by the Home Secretary personally, but there are several additional grounds, such as anticipated incitement of public disorder.

As with exclusion by the Home Secretary, refusal for character reasons can be challenged by applying for judicial review, although the courts have held that the Home Office has broad discretion in this area.

Those banned include Islamist extremists, foreign politicians and famous musicians

In 2009, the Home Office “named and shamed” some people excluded from the UK for unacceptable behaviours. Government policy since 2010 has been not to routinely name those excluded or refused entry but cases sometimes come to light if people name themselves or the Government exceptionally decides to comment on the case.

Successive Governments have used visa bans against extremists and ‘hate preachers’, often with a focus on Islamists said to support terrorism or sectarian violence. High-profile examples include Dr Zakir Naik, excluded by Theresa May in 2010 under the unacceptable behaviours policy, and Hezbollah spokesman Dr Ibrahim Moussawi, refused a visa in 2009 over concerns that his presence would increase tension between British Jews and Muslims.

Ministers have stressed that visa bans are used against extremists of various persuasions. In 2013, Theresa May excluded Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer over anti-Muslim views. The Brown Government included far-right figures on its 2009 list of people banned, including Stephen Donald Black, founder of the US white supremacist website Stormfront.

Other known cases of visa bans include former Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, Iranian dissident Maryam Rajavi, rapper Snoop Dogg, Dutch politician Geert Wilders and religious leader Sun Myung Moon (although some were later overturned).

In total, successive Home Secretaries ordered the exclusion of 369 people from the UK between May 2010 and December 2022, according to annual reports on the use of anti-terrorism powers.

Related issues

This briefing does not cover powers to stop British people returning to the UK by taking away their citizenship or manage their return through a temporary exclusion order. It also does not cover travel bans arising from international sanctions applied by the Foreign Office or United Nations.

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