Under current rules, if you’re looking to come to the UK set up your own business, you should apply for the Innovator Founder visa. If you want to set up UK-based operations for an overseas company, you would apply for the UK Expansion Worker visa.
In this guide, we look at both business visa options, including endorsement and application guidance.
Is there a UK entrepreneur visa?
UK visa options for entrepreneurs have been subject to many changes in recent years. Following the closure of the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa, Innovator visa and Start up visa, the primary route for non-UK nationals to set up a business is the Innovator Founder visa.
Depending on your circumstances, other routes may be available. For example, if you are an international student in the UK, you may be eligible for the Graduate route which allows you to remain in the UK temporarily after you have completed your studies, during which time you can work for yourself. You may also consider self-sponsorship under the Skilled Worker route. If you already have a dependant visa, you can start your own business in the UK, but your permission to live and work in the UK will remain conditional on the main visa holder’s permission to be in the UK.
UK Innovator Founder visa
The innovator founder route replaces the previous innovator and start-up routes, in this way introducing several favourable changes to attract overseas entrepreneurial talent to the UK. These changes include removal of the £50,000 minimum investment requirement and relaxation of the secondary employment rules to help entrepreneurs support themselves in the early days.
However, there are still various strict eligibility requirements that must be met, as set out under Appendix Innovator Founder of the UK’s Immigration Rules, not least the requirement to secure a written endorsement from an approved endorsing body.
The list of Home Office approved endorsing bodies can be found online at GOV.UK. These organisations are perceived to be far better placed than Home Office caseworkers to identify innovative business ideas and to assess the viability of those ideas. It is these organisations who will look in detail at the applicant’s business plan in the context of what that person can contribute by way of skills, knowledge, experience and market awareness.
Essentially, under the new business criteria, the applicant must show that their business idea is:
- innovative: the applicant must have created an original business plan, one which meets either new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage
- viable: the business plan put forward by the applicant must be both realistic and achievable based on the resources available to the applicant, where the applicant must have the requisite skills and knowledge, as well as experience and market awareness to be able to successfully run their new business in the UK
- scalable: finally, the applicant must be able to show evidence of planning, with potential for job creation in the UK, as well as growth into both national and international markets.
In addition to the endorsement criteria, there are various other eligibility requirements that must be met to be approved for an innovator founder visa, including:
- an English language requirement, and
- a financial requirement.
English language requirement
Under Appendix English Language of the UK’s Immigration Rules, the applicant must be able to speak, read, write and understand English to a minimum level. Specifically, they must be able to show their English language ability on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in all four components — speaking, reading, writing and listening — of at least level B2. An applicant will meet the English language requirement if:
- they have already met the requirement at the requisite level in a previous successful application for a visa from UKVI
- they are a national of a majority English-speaking country including, for example, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America
- they have an academic qualification awarded in the UK, including a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or doctorate or, alternatively, an equivalent degree or degree-level qualification taught in a university/college in either Ireland or a majority English-speaking country, except in Canada, or that was taught or researched in English
- they have a GCSE or A level in either English language or literature, or the Scottish equivalent, awarded by a recognised regulated awarding body following education undertaken in a UK-based school which started while aged under 18
- they have passed an approved English language test to the required level with an approved test provider in the 2-year period prior to the date of their application.
In addition to the English language requirement, the applicant must have sufficient funds to be able to support themselves on arrival in the UK. They will meet the financial requirement for the innovator founder route if they have at least £1,270 in their bank.
However, under Appendix Finance of the Immigration Rules, the applicant must show that they have held the requisite level of funds for 28 days in a row before they apply for entry clearance or to switch to an innovator founder visa if they have lived in the UK for a period of less than a year. An applicant cannot use any overdraft facility for this purpose, nor can they use any money to support themselves from their investment funds for the business.
If an applicant is applying for permission to stay and has already been in the UK with lawful permission for at least 12 months on the date that they apply for an innovator founder visa, they will meet the financial requirement and, as such, will not be required to show funds.
Innovator founder endorsement
As an endorsed work route, an applicant for an innovator founder visa must first apply for an endorsement prior to applying for their visa. In broad terms, an applicant can apply for an innovator founder visa if they want to set up and run an innovative business in the UK and the idea for their business venture has been endorsed by an approved body, also known as an endorsing body. This means that all applicants seeking endorsement must produce a comprehensive and persuasive business plan to demonstrate to their endorsing body that the idea for their proposed UK business is innovative, viable and scalable.
The business plan will provide the basis upon which an informed assessment can be made as to whether a business venture is eligible for endorsement. This represents the key document in establishing the ‘innovative’ requirement, where the applicant must have an original business plan, one which meets either new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage. The business plan must also show how the proposed business is both viable and scalable. Importantly, it is the strength of this plan that will typically mean the difference between a successful or unsuccessful endorsement application.
In addition to the business plan, the applicant will be expected to produce other detailed documentation to show that they meet the relevant requirements, including evidence of funding. Importantly, even though there is no longer any £50,000 minimum investment requirement, the applicant will still need to prove to their endorsing body that they have enough funds to make their business viable and where this money has come from. This is because, in addition to assessing the applicant’s business idea, the endorsing body must also undertake a due diligence assessment to determine if this source of wealth is legitimate.
Having submitted their business plan and documentation to a suitable endorsing body, and provided the endorsing body is satisfied that both the applicant and their business idea are potentially fit for endorsement, the applicant will usually be invited to an interview.
The organisations that can issue endorsements for innovator founder visas include Envestors Ltd, UK Endorsing Services, Innovator International and the Global Entrepreneurs Programme. Before contacting an endorsing body, an applicant should consider the information provided on each respective website to identify the organisation which is likely to be best suited to assess their proposed business idea. When a prospective applicant makes initial contact with an endorsing body, that organisation will explain their endorsement process and provide the necessary resources to allow them to apply.
The cost of securing an endorsement from an endorsing body is £1,000, exclusive of VAT. If an application for endorsement is successful, the applicant will receive a written letter of endorsement which they can then use to process their innovator founder visa application.
Applying for an innovator founder visa
To apply for an innovator founder visa, an application must be made online to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), the department of the Home Office responsible for making visa decisions. An applicant can apply for entry clearance from overseas or switch into this visa category from another route from inside the UK. The applicant’s partner and any dependant children can also apply to accompany or follow to join them to the UK, if they are eligible.
As part of the application process, the applicant will need to prove their identity and provide detailed documentation to show that they meet all of the relevant requirements for an innovator founder visa. This will include a unique endorsement reference number, together with evidence that they meet both the English language and financial requirements, not to mention having a valid passport. The reference number will enable the UKVI caseworker dealing with the application to access the endorsement letter online.
The applicant may be required to attend an appointment, either overseas or in the UK, to enrol their biometric information, including a scan of their fingerprints and a photo of their face. They will be told if they need to schedule an appointment when they apply. However, if an applicant is required to attend an appointment, this can also be used to provide their supporting documentation, rather than uploading their visa documents online.
The cost to apply for an innovator founder visa is £1,191 from overseas or £1,486 to switch from another visa route in the UK. The applicant will also be liable to pay the healthcare surcharge as part of their visa application. This is an annual fee to enable a successful visa-holder to access the UK’s National Health Service. The visa fees are the same for each dependant applying to join or accompany the principal applicant or primary visa-holder under the innovator founder route.
Extending an innovator founder visa
An entrepreneur can stay in the UK for 3 years if either they come to the UK on an innovator founder visa or switch to this visa from another route, although the visa-holder must meet with their endorsing body after both 12 months and 24 months to show that they are making adequate progress with their business. It is essential that the visa-holder complies with this requirement, otherwise risk revocation of their entrepreneur visa.
If the visa-holder would like to stay in the UK for more than 3 years to continue to run their business, they can apply to UKVI to extend their stay prior to expiry of their existing visa, although they must re-apply with a new endorsement. There is no limit on the number of times that an entrepreneur can extend their innovator founder visa although, on each occasion, they will need a new endorsement letter. The cost to apply for an extension of stay in the UK under the innovator founder route is £1,486, although the applicant will also need to pay for their repeat endorsement at a cost of £1,000, exclusive of VAT.
Innovator visa to ILR
Having lived in the UK on the innovator founder route for 3 years, the visa-holder may also be eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain (ILR), provided they have not spent any more than 180 days outside the UK in any 12-month period. This is known as the continuous residence requirement. Additionally, the applicant will need an endorsement that shows they have met the requirements for growing their UK business.
To be endorsed for settlement, the applicant will need to show, for example, they have had £50,000 of investment spent on developing the business ‘and’ that they have created the equivalent of 10 full-time jobs that have existed for 12 months. Equally, they could show that they have doubled the number of customers in the last 3 years, with higher than average numbers than for similar businesses, and made £1 million revenue in the last year.
The cost of applying for ILR under the innovator founder route is £2,404 for each person applying. However, this will enable an entrepreneur to settle permanently in the UK.
UK Expansion Worker route
The UK Expansion Worker visa is to help owners of an overseas business that has not yet started trading in the UK to set up a UK branch. This will allow you to send either senior or specialist workers to the UK to help you establish a commercial presence. This is one of a number of routes under the Global Business Mobility (GBM) umbrella.
Businesses can sponsor up to five people under the Expansion Worker visa, but these must each meet the requirements and be genuinely needed to establish the UK presence.
Expansion worker requirements
To be eligible for a GBM visa under the Expansion Worker route, the applicant must have worked for your overseas business as either a senior manager or specialist employee for at least 12 months.
As a sponsored route, the UK business ‘receiving’ the visa worker must secure a UK Expansion Worker visa sponsor licence from the Home Office. The application must evidence that the entity has an existing presence in the UK, has qualifying links to an overseas business from which it will receive workers and have suitable key personnel to manage the sponsor licence and meet the compliance duties.
With the sponsor licence in place, the sponsor must issue the worker with a valid Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS), setting out the minimum skill and salary requirements for their prospective role in the UK. This means that you must have in place a sponsorship licence approved by the UK Home Office to sponsor under this route.
To be eligible to sponsor under the UK Expansion Worker visa, the overseas employer cannot already be trading in the UK, but they have to show they already have a ‘UK footprint’. Evidence of a UK footprint could include evidence of business premises in the UK through a lease or purchase agreement or evidence that the entity has been registered in the UK as either an overseas company branch, or a new company that is a subsidiary of an overseas linked business, through Companies House.
The UK Expansion Worker visa can only be used to move into the UK market by expanding an existing overseas business. It cannot be used to set up a new business venture in a new line of work. The UK based business must be owned in full by the overseas business or at least part of the same legal entity such as a branch.
The Home Office will require sight of the business’ expansion plan as proof that the visa applicant personnel is needed in the UK to implement the expansion plan and that the business is capable of successfully expanding into the UK.
The Home Office will also consider the credibility of the overseas trading business, requiring evidence that it has been trading for the three years previous to the submission of the sponsor licence application through documents such as Corporate business bank statements for the full period of 3 years, audited accounts.
Expansion worker application process
The cost of applying for a UK Expansion Worker visa is £298, from either overseas or within the UK. The visa applicant will also be liable to pay the healthcare surcharge and, where applicable, must have funds of at least £1,270 to show that they can support themselves. As the sponsor of a UK Expansion Worker, you will be required to pay a £25 fee to issue an CoS, while the cost of applying for a Home Office approved sponsorship licence will be £536.
If the application for a UK Expansion Worker visa is successful, your UK representative will be granted a visa for a period of just 12 months, although this can be extended for a further 12 months. However, the maximum permitted length of stay on this visa is 2 years. This GBM route will not provide the visa-holder with a path to settlement in the UK, although they may be eligible to apply for leave to remain under a different immigration route.
It may be possible in some circumstances for an overseas national to self sponsor themselves for a UK Skilled Worker visa.
While there is currently no dedicated self sponsorship visa for the UK, it may be possible to establish or invest in a UK-based business and, having been approved by the UK Home Office for a suitable licence, arrange for your business to sponsor you for a Skilled Worker visa.
Since self sponsorship is not a mainstream immigration route in the UK, it is strongly advised that you seek the advice of an immigration specialist who can evaluate your case, as well as assist you and your business with your respective sponsor licence and visa applications.
As an overseas entrepreneur looking to start a UK business, or an overseas business owner looking to establish a commercial presence in the UK, expert advice from an immigration specialist can help ensure you have explored all options for an entrepreneur visa for the UK to inform your decision on the best available route in your particular circumstances.
DavidsonMorris are UK business immigration specialists. We advise entrepreneurs on visa routes to pursue UK-based business opportunities, providing expert application support and guidance on the complex evidential requirements to maximise your chances of a successful outcome. Contact us for advice.
Entrepreneur visa UK FAQs
What is an entrepreneur visa in UK?
The UK's entrepreneur visa is the Innovator Founder route for overseas nationals looking to set up an innovative new business in the UK.
How much is entrepreneur visa UK?
The cost to apply for a UK entrepreneur visa, also referred to as the innovator founder visa, is £1,191 for applications made from outside the UK, or £1,486 for applications made in the UK. There is also an additional £1,000 fee (excluding VAT) to secure an endorsement from an approved body prior to applying.
Is entrepreneur visa still valid in UK?
The innovator and start-up visas have been replaced by the innovator founder route. For those entrepreneurs still holding a valid visa under a predecessor route, they can apply to extend under the new route instead.
Can I stay in the UK if I own a business?
You may be able to stay in the UK on the basis of owning a business. However, under the innovator founder route, there are strict criteria that must be met, including having your business venture endorsed by an approved body.
Last updated: 11 November 2023