How can I move to the UK for work?

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Coming to work in the UK as a foreign national employee has become more straightforward in recent years.

Previously, employers would have to show that they had tried to recruit someone locally before looking to fill a role with someone from abroad.

Plus, the role being filled had to be at a graduate level, meaning that you couldn’t get a job which was deemed low (or even medium) skilled.

And there used to be a cap on the total number of overseas workers that could be recruited.

Now there is no requirement for employers to try and hire from the local workforce first, and the cap has been abolished.

The skill level is now lower, meaning that bricklayers and driving instructors are eligible, not just doctors and dentists.

So if you want to move to the UK to work, what is the process?

What role could you fill?

The first step is to identify what role you could fill when coming to work in the UK.

As mentioned above, the list of eligible occupations has expanded significantly in recent years, but you still can’t be sponsored under the route to work as a farm labourer, or in a bar.

You can check the qualifying list here. If your exact job title is not listed don’t worry: you can use this tool to try and identify what the Home Office would consider to be the closest code.

And as long as that code is on the approved list, and your role is considered within that code, it should qualify.

Finding a sponsor

The next step is to find a business or employer that has a vacancy for your qualifying role, and who is both willing and able to sponsor you. This is the tricky bit.

In order to be able to sponsor you, an employer needs a licence from the Home Office. And even if they have the licence, an employer may still prefer to avoid having to sponsor a worker from abroad given the cost and additional complexity of the process.

You can check if a particular company has a licence on the register.

If you find a prospective employer in the UK who are interested in sponsoring your, but they do not already have a licence, it is likely that they will have questions for you.

Information for your prospective sponsor

If you have found an employer in the UK who wants to hire you for an eligible role, it is likely that they will ask the following questions

  • What is the process to get a licence
  • How much will sponsorship cost
  • What is the overall timeline

It is helpful to arm yourself with the following information in advance of these inevitable questions in discussing possible sponsorship.

What is the process to get a licence?

In outline, it involves an online application, and then the provision of certain documents confirming the genuineness of the business, with a decision usually provided in 8 weeks.

The prospective employer will need to make an online application to the UK Home Office via its ancient portal, providing certain information about the business and about the role they wish to sponsor.

By making the application, the prospective employer is confirming that it has systems in place to be able to comply with all of its sponsor obligations (e.g. to notify the Home Office if you do a runner and stop coming into work).

After the online application, the employer will need to then send supporting evidence (currently sent by email) confirming it is a genuine business (e.g. most recent bank account statement, lease etc).

The Home Office will then usually make a decision within 8 weeks (priority services are available for decisions in a week). There is also the possibility of an audit – where the Home Office visits the premises – although these are fairly rare.

If the licence is granted, the employer will then have access to the Sponsor Management System, where they can obtain a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) to "assign" to you, and which you would need to make your application.

Note that this is a very high-level overview. Part of the difficulty in persuading – especially small – employers to make a sponsor licence application is that the intimidating quantity of guidance the Home Office expects sponsors to comply with.

But the process of applying for the licence itself is relatively straightforward, especially for more mature businesses.

How much will it cost?

For the prospective sponsor, the costs they will need to be aware of include the £536 fee for the licence application (for large businesses the fee is £1476).

If you can access the priority service, then there is an additional £500 fee to pay. This shortens the expected waiting time from 8 weeks to 1 week.

The other main set of fees for the employer to bear in mind on their side is the Immigration Skills Charge, which is a charge levied at the point of issuing the CoS (which you need for the visa).

This is a per year fee depending on the length of sponsorship (£364 for small companies, and £1000 for large ones). So if you agree sponsorship for 5 years, then the fee a small company will pay is £1,820.

So without expedition, and based on 5 years sponsorship, the cost on the employer side of the process itself is going to be around £2,500.

Note that this doesn’t include your visa fees, or hiring a lawyer to help with the process.

You will also have to have a conversation – the earlier in the process the better – about salary expectations.

This is because, depending on the role and your profile, the employer will have to pay a certain minimum salary in line with the sponsorship rules. The minimum salaries are listed in the relevant appendix next to the relevant role code.

Note that the minimum salary is due to increase significantly in April 2024 to £38,700. If the employer was not planning on paying this salary, then this is likely to be the biggest hurdle to sponsorship.

What is the overall timeline?

Once a business has decided to apply for a licence, it can take some time to gather the relevant supporting evidence and complete the forms: 4 weeks would be a realistic timeframe, although it can be done much quicker than this.

On the basis that the application for the licence is approved, a sponsor can then access their Sponsor Management System (SMS) in order to apply for a Certificate of Sponsorship (the thing you need for your visa), and this process would not usually take more than a week. If/when granted, it can be assigned to you instantly.

Based on this timeline, and added to the time it takes for licence to be decided without expedition (8 weeks), you are looking at a timeline of around 3 months between the time an employer agrees to sponsor you to being able to make your visa application.

Note that with expedition this process is possible in around 3 weeks.

Making the Skilled Worker application

Once you have your Certificate of Sponsorship you can make your Skilled Worker application.

This involves completing an online form, paying the relevant fees, and either attending a biometrics appointment or, increasingly, providing your biometric information via an online process without physically having to attend any location.

Even though it is online, you generally need to make the application in a country where you are a national or hold permission to stay/residence (beyond just visit visa status).

How much does it cost?

The costs of the visa application fee depend on a number of factors, including how long you will be staying, whether the position you are being sponsored for is in shortage and on the Shortage Occupation List, and whether you are inside or outside of the UK.

In addition to the visa application fee, you will need to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge, which is £624 per year of your sponsorship (and shortly rising to a quite insane £1,035 per year of sponsorship for adults).

This means that if you are being sponsored for a 5-year period, you will pay £5,175 in Immigration Health Surcharge fees alone in order to make the application, and not including the application fee (which would typically be around £1,500).

There are other fees you may have to pay if, for example, you want an expedited decision, or a biometric appointment at a particular time.

How long does it take?

The standard out-of-country visa application processing time is about 3 weeks from when you complete the application process.

However, the process can be expedited, and next day priority decisions are available (for a fee).

How long can I stay for?

The length of your stay will be dictated by the length of your sponsorship (which will be stated on your CoS, as issued by your sponsor (see above)).

At the end of your period of sponsorship, you can apply to extend permission to stay as a Skilled Worker if you have an offer of continued or other sponsorship (either from your current sponsor, or from another sponsor).

Once you have spent 5 years in the route, you would usually be eligible to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) (meaning that there would no longer be any restriction on your right to remain in the UK).

Normally, after spending a year in the UK with ILR, and subject to meeting other criteria, you would be eligible to apply for British citizenship.

Can I bring my family?

If you have dependants (e.g. a partner, or children), then they can apply for dependant visas.

Note that any dependants will also have to pay application fees, and Immigration Health Surcharge fees. These are all payable at the point of application.

And this means that if you are applying with even one or two dependants, the initial costs of the application can really rack up.

What can I do once in the UK?

The Skilled Worker visa is not a work permit in the sense that it does not give you a general right to work in the UK: it is tied to the employer, and does not give you permission to work for anyone else.

There are some very limited exceptions around supplementary and secondary employment, but broadly you shouldn’t make plans to be working for anyone else if in the UK on a Skilled Worker visa.

What if I lose my sponsored employment?

If your employment is ended by a sponsor then you will have some time to either find another sponsor, or to leave the UK.

How much time will depend on your individual circumstances, but it would be unusual to have fewer than 2.5 months to find an alternate sponsor.

*This post is intended to provide general background on the relevant issues and does not constitute legal advice. The law (and fee rates) may have changed since the date this article was published. You should always take legal advice relating to your individual circumstances.