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When it says:

You can apply for a visa up to 3 months before your date of travel to the UK.

Source: gov.uk

Does it mean the latest I can apply for a visa is 3 months before the travel date, or the earliest I can apply for a visa is 3 months before the travel date?

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At the level of English language the statement is ambiguous. Ask whoever wrote it, if the answer matters to you. ELU cannot help. – FumbleFingers Jul 22 '14 at 12:30
If it is so and the sentence is ambiguous, it is also an answer for the OP and there is no need to give him -1. I have had a strong feeling that once somebody here just does not like a question (and without GIVING or maybe even having an objective reason) they give minus points. I am not happy about this. I find this question useful, even if a clear answer cannot be given. I as a non-native English speaker feel this as arrogant from you native speakers. – Honza Zidek Jul 22 '14 at 12:36
But at the level of language, the text is ambiguous, so the question is Off Topic Opinion-based. – FumbleFingers Jul 22 '14 at 12:44
As long as Usage in in the name of this site, I do not see this question as off-topic. This is Usage of the English Language, by none less than the government of the UK, and it is admittedly ambiguous. I don't see how a question about that would not be on-topic. – oerkelens Jul 22 '14 at 12:50
I am quite unhappy that the site seems to be turning into a kind of a snobbish arrogant native English club with members who reject questions just because they don't like them enough or because they consider them as too trivial. Without even bothering to state a clear reason - which makes their voting even more dubious. I am often completely confused why some questions are -1-ed or put on hold or closed, while they seem perfectly complying with the site policy. And an ambiguous text is not the same as an ambiguous question! I would expect at least this distinction from you "English seniors"! – Honza Zidek Jul 22 '14 at 13:37
up vote 6 down vote accepted

There are a number of ways in which the statement may be analysed.

You can apply for a visa up to 3 months before your date of travel to the UK.

The ambiguity is in the interpretation of up to: it could mean until or it could mean a maximum of.

You can apply for a visa until 3 months before your date of travel to the UK.
You can apply for a visa a maximum of 3 months before your date of travel to the UK.

In this case, up to should almost certainly have the second meaning. There's no point in applying for a visa years before you intend to travel, because your circumstances could change in the meantime. So the authority seeks to limit the possibility of changes by forcing you to apply fairly close to the date of travel.

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The British Government publishes processing times of up to 60 days, and the web page itself says "You should get a decision on your visa within 3 weeks," so it's certainly not three months to process an application. But I have flagged the ambiguity on that web page. – Andrew Leach Jul 23 '14 at 8:53
Holy crap! I was completely wrong: As Fumble pointed out in his comment link above. Sorry for the time waste! – Joe Blow Jul 23 '14 at 9:15

From a language point of view, this sentence can be parse in two ways:

1) You can apply for a visa up until a moment in time that is three months before your travel date.

2) You can apply during a period ranging from 0 to 3 months before your travel date.

Now, purely practical, the only interpretation that makes much sense in this context is the second one. Otherwise, nobody could apply for a visa unless they plan their trip more than three months in advance - and strict immigration rules may be one thing, but things like business trips (that stand to make the UK money indirectly) often come up on a shorter notice.

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downvoter, care to explain? – oerkelens Jul 22 '14 at 14:51
@JoeBlow nopes, but I'm in the EU. But I have some experience with immigration policies of several countries; and however big the bureaucratic workload, those policies are not designed to make ad-hoc travel impossible. Even from not-so-nice countries too much money flows in :P – oerkelens Jul 23 '14 at 9:05

Although from the language point of view the sentence may be ambiguous, I am pretty sure that in the given context the correct meaning intended by the immigration office is the second - you may first apply for the visa 3 months before your travel.

The sentence structure is like this:

  • up to 3 months = 0 to 3 months, but not more
  • up to 3 months before the date = 0 to 3 months before the date

enter image description here

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That is not necessarily the case. The other interpretation is perfectly valid, too, in which you can apply for a visa up until a point in time that is three months before the date of travel, but not after that. The phrasing is ambiguous. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 22 '14 at 12:34

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