Guide to UK Business Visas for Non-EEA Citizens


What are the UK Business Visas for Non-EEA Citizens?

With application errors leading to delays, rejections, lost fees, and missed opportunities, it has never been more important for non-EU citizens to select the most appropriate route of entry for their circumstances, whether that is to work, invest or build a business in the UK.

Start up visa

Designed for business owners starting up their first business in the UK, the Start Up visa is open to graduates and non-graduates with a business idea that is endorsed by an approved body for the key criteria of:

  • Innovation: You have a genuine, original business plan that meets new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage.
  • Viability: You have, or are actively developing, the necessary skills, knowledge, experience and market awareness to successfully run the business.
  • Scalability: There is evidence of structured planning and of potential for job creation and growth into national markets.
  • Commitment: The endorsing body must be ‘reasonably satisfied’ you will spend the majority of your working time in the UK on developing your business – although you are permitted under the guidelines to work outside your business.

Read more about the Start Up visa.

Innovator route 

While the start up visa is for first-time business owners, the innovator visa is for experienced business people to come to the UK to establish a business. The application is in two parts: the endorsement stage, where you apply to a Home Office approved body for formal endorsement of your business idea, and only with endorsement can you apply for the visa. The key criteria for the route are:

  1. Endorsement by a relevant business sponsor. Applicants will be required to apply for and secure endorsement by a business sponsor, who will assess applicants’ business ideas for their innovation, viability and scalability. Regular contact is to be maintained with the endorsing body at the 6, 12 and 24 month marks.
  2. £50,000 investment in the business from any legitimate source, reduced from £200,000 for most applicants in the current Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) category). This investment is waived if the applicant is switching from the Start-Up visa.
  3. Satisfy the English language requirement, to Level B2.

Read more about the Innovator visa.

Tier 1 Investor Visa

A Tier 1 Investor visa allows holders to invest £2,000,000 or more in UK government bonds, share capital or loan capital in active and trading UK registered companies.

Investor visa holders are permitted to work, study or engage in business activities in the UK.

You are not however allowed to invest in companies mainly engaged in property investment, property management or property development, work as a professional sportsperson or sports coach, or claim UK public funds.

You are eligible to apply for a Tier 1 Investor visa if you satisfy the following criteria:

  • You want to invest £2,000,000 or more in the UK.
  • You are from outside the EEA and Switzerland.
  • You are at least 16 years old.

As part of your application you will need to demonstrate:

  • The money for investment belongs either to you, your spouse or civil partner.
  • The funds must be held in one or more regulated financial institutions.
  • The funds are available to be transferred to and invested in the UK.

Entry into the UK under a Tier 1 Investor visa is for a maximum of three years and four months. You can apply to extend this visa for another two years.

You can apply to settle permanently in the UK after two years if you invest £10 million, after three years if you invest £5 million, or after five years if you invest £2 million.

Any dependent family members that you bring with you must wait five years before they are eligible for settlement.

Read more about the Tier 1 Investor visa.

Tier 1 Exceptional Talent

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa is designed to enable ‘exceptionally talented’ individuals from outside of the EEA to gain preferred entry to the UK.

The visa specifically covers talent from science, humanities, engineering, the arts, and tech and digital. Applicants must be endorsed as ‘exceptional in their field’ by the relevant sector organisation (for example The Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Arts Council England and Tech City UK).

Holders of the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa can either be self-employed, or work for any employer in any sector at any level.

Dependants can also accompany the applicant if they meet the relevant requirements.

There is a two-stage application process for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa. First, apply to the relevant organisation for endorsement; second, make an application to UKVI for the visa.

Applicants must meet mandatory criteria for endorsement, including:

  • A proven track record of innovation working in one of the specified sectors as director or founder of a  company, or an employee working in a new field or concept; or
  • Proof of recognition for work outside of your immediate occupation that has contributed to the advancement of the sector (e.g. by mentoring, advising, teaching or participating in clubs and societies).

Applicants must also meet at least two of four qualifying criteria:

  • Significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contribution in the digital technology sector as either an entrepreneur, director, or founder of a digital technology company;
  • Recognised as a world leading talent in the digital technology sector;
  • Undergone continuous learning / mastery of new digital skills (commercial or technical) throughout your career;
  • Demonstrated exceptional ability in the field by making academic contributions through research (e.g. journals or awards).

If an applicant cannot meet the qualifying and/or mandatory criteria, but has evidence demonstrating potential to do so in the future, they can apply as a ‘candidate with exceptional promise’.

Fast-track applications are also available where:

  1. Applicants are planning to make a contribution in Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Sunderland.
  2. Applicants have specific skills that are particularly in need in the UK.
  3. Applicants are part of a team of five or more.

Once endorsed, an application should then be made to the Home Office, who will consider whether there are any general grounds for refusal.

The usual requirements of maintenance and sufficient English language do not apply to this visa.

The visa is granted for a maximum of five years, after which an applicant can apply for settlement. Note however that to extend leave or apply for settlement, applicants will need to demonstrate they have worked in their field of speciality during their stay.

Tier 2 Visa

The Tier 2 visa provides temporary permission to non-EU citizens to work in the UK and fill temporary gaps in the domestic labour market.

The Tier 2 process can however seem highly involved for both employer and employee.

Employers must first apply for and maintain a Sponsor Licence.

Individuals are eligible to apply for a Tier 2 (General) visa provided they:

  • Have a confirmed offer of employment from a licensed UK employer (the ‘sponsor’).
  • Have a valid Certificate of Sponsorship.
  • Score 70 points under the points based system.

Applicants must demonstrate:

  • Suitability for the role
  • Their certificate of sponsorship reference number
  • An ‘appropriate’ salary for the role
  • The required level of English – usually at least CEFR level B1 or an academic qualification that was taught in English and is recognised by UK NARIC as being equivalent to a UK Bachelor’s degree
  • The required savings for you and any dependants if your fully approved (A’ rated) sponsor is not certifying maintenance

Once your Certificate of Sponsorship is received, you can apply for entry clearance to the UK from your home country.

Note that it is only for vacancies included on the Tier 2 Shortage Occupation List, will employers not need to demonstrate that a Resident Labour Market test has been carried out i.e. advertising the vacancy for 28 days and documenting the recruitment process as per Home Office guidelines to confirm that there are no suitable resident workers for the role.

Because the Tier 2 (General) visa can lead to Indefinite Leave to Remain, the category also makes provision for the spouses, partners and any dependent children to immigrate to the UK at the same time as the main Tier 2 applicant.

Read more about the Tier 2 visa.

Standard Visitor Visa

The Standard Visitor visa is issued outside the UK to non-EEA citizens who are subject to immigration control and require a visa to enter the UK, which includes visits for business-related purposes.

For example, visitor visa applicants will have to show as part of their application that they will be undertaking permissable business activity during their visit. Applicants will be required to comply with specific visa conditions during their stay. Breach of their conditions can compromise permission to stay or return.

Standard Visitor visas are valid for up to 6 months (or 180 days) per visit, but holders may re-enter the UK multiple times during this period, which may satisfy employer requirements of an assignee.

Applications can be made up to three months before the intended date of travel.

Applicants must also demonstrate within their application that they intend to stay for no longer than 6 months, and that they intend to leave the UK by the end of the visa period.

If a business visitor visa was granted for less than six months, the holder apply for an extension up to the maximum of six months.

Visitors must also show that they can fund themselves – and any dependants – without recourse to public funds; typically through financial support from their employer or spouse.

If an applicant needs to visit the UK regularly over a longer period, there are longer term visas available which last 2, 5 or 10 years, allowing the holder to stay for a maximum of 6 months on each visit.

Read more about the Standard Visitor visa for business.

Representative of an Overseas Business visa

The Representative of an Overseas Business visa allows a representative of an overseas company to set up a branch or subsidiary in the UK.

It also allows an employee of an overseas newspaper, news agency or broadcasting organisation permission to come to the UK on long-term assignment.

Under the Representative of an Overseas Business visa, individuals are permitted to work for their employer, full time. You are not however permitted to work for another company or on a self-employed basis, or stay in the UK if the sole representative status is ended by your employer.

To be eligible, applicants must:

  • Apply from outside the EEA
  • Have access to sufficient funds to support – there is no access to public funds
  • Meet the English requirement

Sole representatives in the UK must:

  • Be recruited and employed outside the UK by a company whose headquarters and principal place of business are outside the UK
  • Have extensive related industry experience and knowledge
  • Hold a senior position within the company (but not be a major shareholder) and have full authority to make decisions on its behalf
  • Intend to establish the company’s first commercial presence in the UK, eg a registered branch or a wholly owned subsidiary

You may also be eligible if the company has a legal entity in the UK that doesn’t employ staff or transact business.

Applicants can replace a previous sole representative a company has been working to establish a UK branch or subsidiary, but it is not yet set up.

Successful applicants can come to the UK for an initial period of 3 years, and have the ability to apply to extend the visa for another 2 years.

Holders are able to bring dependants to the UK. They can become eligible to apply to settle in the UK after 5 years.

Do you need advice on a UK Business Visa for a Non-EEA Citizen?

It is more important than ever for overseas talent to select the most appropriate route of entry for their specific circumstances.

Application processes across the board are rigorous, and costly. To avoid delays or incurring lost fees, seek advice to select the most appropriate visa and for guidance with your application.

We are highly experienced immigration legal advisers. Our team of immigration solicitors and former Home Office personnel have exceptional understanding of UKVI protocol and decision-making criteria. Speak to us for effective support throughout your visa application process.


Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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