Has there been any recent changes to before when you should apply?
There have been no changes in that part of the system for a long time, like going back to the 1990's. Here's a recap of how it works...
An entry clearance (of any sort, including the Standard Visitor Visa) has five dates of interest...
- preferred travel date (an indicative field on the application)
- application date (when the fee clears)
- issue date (when the entry clearance is created)
- start date (when the person can arrive in the UK)
- end date ('expiry date' or when the person must be out of the UK)
Whenever possible they like to set the 'start date' at the applicant's 'preferred travel date', but the 'preferred travel date' is indicative only and is not binding by either the ECO or the applicant.
The maximum amount of time between the 'application date' and the 'issue date' is 90 days, or in other words, they have up to 90 days to reach a decision (or else the higher ups at Marsham Street get involved). This performance requirement is part of an agreement between UKVI and Parliament.
The maximum amount of time between the 'issue date' and the 'start date' is three months. This restriction is a matter of policy and does not appear in the rules, however Paragraphs 31 and 31A of the rules provide some flexibility.
The maximum amount of time between the 'start date' and 'end date' is six months, for the Standard Visitor Visa, this restriction is laid down in Appendix V of the rules and again some flexibility is provided by Paragraphs 31 and 31A of the rules.
Did my friend get really lucky here?
Define 'lucky'. The earliest a person can apply for entry clearance starting in July is 2 April. Given that we are now in March, your friend either...
- mixed up the UK dating convention of DAY/MONTH/YEAR when reading the
'start date'; or
- received a discretionary exception; or
- got involved in a genuine mistake made by the consular assistants
We don't know which of these happened, and it's not important unless there is something of major significance. People are supposed to check over their entry clearance carefully and fix important mistakes and obvious mistakes (like the wrong name or wrong photo), but your friend has no obligation to interpret policy or understand arcane details. They can just say "...hey! Do I look like a lawyer?..."
because they give you 6 months from day granted and if your travel
period falls in between the 6 months, they will grant visa?
'Preferred travel dates' are indicative only, and according to the paragraphs listed above UKVI (and the Border Force) enjoys some discretionary latitude. They also make mistakes that a person can benefit from (or get upset about).