For UK-based employers looking to recruit migrant workers, there are various different visa options available under the UK’s Immigration Rules. Although there is no actual ‘general work visa’ – one which covers every scenario when it comes to hiring an overseas national – the skilled worker visa is one of the most commonly-used visa routes in the UK for employing talent from across the world to fill a wide range of skilled vacancies.
In this guide, we look at how to hire an overseas national under the skilled worker route, including the eligibility requirements, what this route allows and how much this costs, not to mention the all-important sponsorship requirement for employers. We also provide an overview of alternative types of UK work visas, including those visas for which no sponsorship is required to those specifically designed for short-term hires.
Is there a general UK work visa?
Under the current UK immigration rules, there is no general work visa route. The UK system offers a range of visas catering for different types of workers and work, as we explain in this guide.
The most commonly used type of UK work visa used to recruit overseas nationals is the skilled worker visa. This is a sponsored immigration route which will allow an overseas national to apply for permission to work in the UK, provided they meet the relevant route-specific requirements. These include the offer of a job within an eligible skilled occupation from a licensed sponsor that meets the applicable salary threshold. As such, the process of hiring an overseas national on the skilled worker route is twofold, requiring the following applications from both the employer and employee:
- the employer’s application for a skilled worker sponsor licence
- the employee’s application for a skilled worker visa.
Employer’s application for a sponsor licence
Before an overseas national with the offer of a skilled job role in the UK can apply for a visa to work in that role, any UK business looking to recruit an overseas national under the skilled worker route must first have in place a Home Office-approved sponsor licence. As such, if an employer is not currently licensed to hire a skilled migrant worker, they will first need to apply for permission to sponsor their prospective new recruit.
To apply for permission to sponsor a skilled migrant worker, the employer will need to register its organisation’s details with UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), complete an online application and pay the appropriate fee. They will also need to appoint an authorising officer to manage their sponsor licence application. This will need to be a senior and competent person within the business who will be responsible for the recruitment of migrant workers, together with a key contact to liaise with UKVI and a level 1 user to access the Home Office online sponsorship management system once a licence is granted.
To be eligible for a skilled worker sponsor licence, UKVI must be satisfied that the employer runs a genuine organisation operating lawfully in the UK, and that the employer’s business is suitable for sponsorship. In assessing suitability, UKVI will consider if the organisation is able to offer genuine employment meeting the minimum skill and salary thresholds under the skilled worker route. It will also take into account if the employer is honest, dependable and reliable, and capable of carrying out its sponsorship duties. Sponsor duties include:
- Reporting duties: Sponsor licence holders are required to submit specific information or events to the Home Office through the SMS within specific time frames.
- Record-keeping duties: Sponsors are responsible for maintaining records for each worker they support.
- Complying with Immigration Rules: Respecting all requirements of the Worker and Temporary Worker Sponsor Guidance and UK immigration laws.
- Complying with UK laws: Sponsor licence holders have a responsibility to abide by UK law generally (other than immigration law).
- Acting in public good: All sponsors have a duty to conduct in a way that is compatible with core values and does not harm the greater benefit of society by refraining from behaviour or actions that are not beneficial to society.
The employer will need to submit a number of detailed documents as evidence that it meets the requirements.
The Home Office has the discretion to make a pre-licence compliance visit before determining a licence application. This entails attending the sponsor licence applicant’s premises and inspecting personnel documentation and HR records. The accuracy and completeness of the information you supply on your sponsor licence application may be checked by the Home Office. You must make sure that the documents and files listed in Appendix D of the sponsor guidance are readily available.
The licence applicant must work with the officers and grant access to any locations under their control to any of their representatives. In addition, the Home Office might confirm with HMRC that you are paying your employees fairly. To make sure you are complying with your duty to stop illegal working, the Home Office may also check on the immigration status of other foreign employees.
The cost of applying for a sponsor licence will depend on the employer’s size or status. For small and charitable sponsors, the application fee will be £536, with a higher fee of £1476 for medium or large sponsors. Employers will also be liable to pay an Immigration Skills Charge of £364 for the first 12 months for small or charitable sponsors, or £1000 for medium or large sponsors, plus £182 or £500 respectively for each additional 6 months. The point at which the employer assigns a certificate of sponsorship (CoS), following the grant of the licence to sponsor a migrant worker, there will be an additional fee of £199.
Employee’s application for a skilled worker visa
To apply for a skilled worker visa, the new recruit will need to satisfy a number of eligibility criteria, including having been assigned a valid CoS as proof of a genuine job offer with a licensed UK sponsor. The job role must fall within an eligible occupation code, with the required skill level of at least RQF3. The role must also meet the minimum salary threshold of £25,600 or the going rate for the job in question, whichever is higher.
Finally, the applicant must meet the English language and financial requirements.
The English language requirement
Under the English language requirement, where required, the applicant has to prove knowledge of English when applying by either:
- Passing an approved English language test with at least CEFR level B1 in reading, writing, speaking and listening, or
- Having an academic qualification that was taught in English and is recognised by UK NARIC as being equivalent to a UK bachelor’s degree, master’s degree or PhD. UK NARIC is the designated national agency for the recognition and comparison of international qualifications and skills.
Nationals from certain, majority English-speaking countries, such as Australia, New Zealand or America, will not need to prove knowledge of English.
The maintenance requirement
Under the maintenance requirement, applicants will need to prove they have had £1,270 in their bank account for a period of 28 days before applying for the skilled worker visa. This is to show that they can support themselves financially upon arrival in the UK.
Applicants will not need to prove personal savings if they have a fully approved A-rated sponsor who can guarantee that they will cover their costs for the first month following their arrival in the UK. This must be confirmed by the sponsor on the CoS.
Applying for the skilled worker visa
To apply for a skilled worker visa, the migrant worker will need to complete an online application and submit their supporting documentation, including the following:
- A current passport or other travel document to prove they can travel
- Expired passports or travel documents to show their travel history
- Proof of knowledge of English, where applicable
- Proof of personal savings, where applicable
- Tuberculosis test results if from a listed country
- A criminal record certificate from any country they have lived in for 12 months or more in the last 10 years where they are planning to work with vulnerable people.
Applicants may also need to provide additional documentation in support of their application depending on their circumstances. As such, it is always best to seek expert legal advice to ensure that any visa application is not unnecessarily delayed by failing to provide the correct documents.
The applicant will also be required to enrol their biometric information, where required, and pay the relevant fee. The application fee can range from £479 to £1423, depending on whether a worker is applying from outside the UK or making an application to switch from a different visa route from inside the UK, as well as the length of visa sought. The fee can also vary if the job role is on the shortage occupation list.
Additional costs when applying for a skilled worker visa can include a £19.20 fee for the applicant to enrol their biometric information, if applicable, together with payment of an annual Immigration Health Surcharge to gain access to the UK’s NHS set at £624 per year.
However, on the grant a skilled worker visa, the successful visa-holder will have permission to work in the UK for a period of up to 5 years. Provided they continue to meet the relevant requirements, they can also apply to extend their stay as many times as they like, with the possibility of applying to settle after meeting a 5-year continuous residence requirement.
UK work visa options
In addition to the skilled worker visa, there are various other types of general work visas, all potentially allowing UK employers to take advantage of a rich pool of overseas talent to help fill their skills gaps. Below we set out a brief summary of some of these key work visas, including the basic requirements, what each route allows and how much each visa will cost:
The graduate visa
At a cost of £715, plus the annual healthcare surcharge of £624 per year of stay, the graduate route will allow recent overseas graduates, having successfully completed a UK course of study at bachelor’s degree level or above, to undertake work in the UK for at least 2 years.
This is an unsponsored immigration route designed to retain international graduate talent, with the flexibility for these individuals to work at any skill or salary level. Shortly prior to expiry of their graduate visa, and provided they are in a suitably skilled and well-salaried job role, a graduate worker can also apply to switch to the skilled worker visa, ensuring that employers do not lose valuable and integrated talent from within their workforce.
The high potential individual visa
As another unsponsored work route, the high potential individual (HPI) visa will again give the visa-holder permission to undertake any type of work in the UK for at least 2 years. To apply, an applicant must have been awarded a qualification by a top global university during the last 5 years. The list of eligible universities is based on rankings from around the world. Although UK universities are not eligible, an overseas graduate already in the UK on a student visa may instead be able to apply for the graduate visa described above.
The cost for a HPI visa is again £715, plus the annual £624 healthcare surcharge, although the applicant will be required to pay an additional £210, or £252 if applying to switch from inside the UK, for Ecctis to check that their international qualification is valid. If applying for a HPI visa from outside the UK, the applicant will also need to show proof of funds of at least £1,270 and, in either case, meet an English language requirement to level B1 CEFR.
The health and care worker visa
The health & care worker visa will allow healthcare professionals to work in an eligible job role with either the NHS, an NHS service provider or within the adult social care sector for up to 5 years. The health and care worker visa is essentially a sub-category of the more general work visa under the skilled worker route, specifically aimed at qualified doctors, nurses and allied health or adult social care professionals trained to a recognised standard.
To apply for this type of visa, as with a skilled worker visa, the applicant must have the offer of an eligible job role from a UK licensed sponsor that pays a minimum salary level, although this is set at just £20,480 per year or the ‘going rate’ for the job in question. They must also be able to meet an English language requirement to at least level B1 CEFR and show that they can support themselves on arrival in the UK if applying from overseas.
The cost of applying for a health and care worker visa is £247 if the worker will be in the UK for up to 3 years and £479 if they will be working in the UK for more than 3 years. These fees are the same whether the worker is applying from inside or outside the UK.
The scale-up visa
The scale-up visa will allow a migrant worker to come to the UK to do an eligible job for a fast-growing UK business paying a minimum salary of £33,000 per year.
As a sponsored route, an employer must be an eligible scale-up business and licensed to sponsor this category of worker, although sponsorship will only last for 6 months. As the visa-holder will be granted a scale-up visa for a period of 2 years, they have the flexibility to leave their sponsored job role after just 6 months, to work in an unsponsored role for someone else, although they must continue to meet the minimum earnings requirement. The applicant must also meet an English language and financial requirement.
To apply for a scale-up visa, the cost is £715, plus the annual healthcare surcharge.
The global business mobility visas
There are various different visa options available under the global business mobility (GBM) umbrella, aimed at overseas businesses looking to establish or expand their business in the UK. To obtain any one of the GBM visas, the applicant will need to be sponsored by an approved licence-holder, authorised to sponsor the specific sub-category of worker. These categories include senior or specialist workers, graduate trainees, UK expansion workers, service suppliers and secondment workers, each with their own route-specific requirements.
Depending on the sub-category, the length of leave granted under a GBM visa can vary. However, with the exception of the senior or specialist worker route, which replaces the intra-company transfer route under the previous rules for staff to work in a UK branch or subsidiary of their overseas employer, the fee to apply for a GBM visa is just £259. For the senior or specialist worker visa, the fee can range from between £625 to £1,423, subject to the length of stay, and whether the application is made from inside or outside the UK.
The temporary worker visas
The UK’s temporary worker routes are specifically designed to recruit various types of overseas workers in a variety of different roles. These include creative workers, charity workers, government authorised exchange workers, international agreement workers, religious workers and seasonal workers. Depending on the category of visa sought, the applicant may be allowed to stay in the UK for up to 2 years, although seasonal workers will not be granted a visa for more than 6 months. Still, any UK business looking to recruit a temporary worker, even on a short-term basis, will need an approved sponsor licence.
There are various route-specific requirements for each temporary worker category, although the same application fee of £259 applies to each. For those applicants looking to stay in the UK for more than 6 months, they will also be liable to pay the healthcare surcharge.
The fee to apply for a temporary worker sponsor licence is just £536, regardless of the size or status of the employer’s business, with a reduced fee of £21 to assign an CoS to a new temporary worker. These reduced sponsor licence and CoS fees also apply under each of the GBM routes, with the exception of the senior or specialist worker route, for which the sponsorship fees match those under the skilled worker route.
How long does it take to get a UK work visa?
The earliest workers can apply for a skilled worker visa is 3 months before they are due to start work in the UK, as stated on the certificate of sponsorship.
When applying from outside the UK, applicants should get a decision on their skilled worker visa within 3 weeks of attending their appointment at the visa application centre. If the application is not straightforward and more information is needed before a decision can be made, the applicant should be informed within the standard timescales for the visa.
Applicants are advised that UKVI continues to experience delays in application processing.
As UK immigration law specialists, we can assist if you have any queries about hiring and sponsoring non-UK workers and the visa routes available to overseas workers. Speak to our experts today for advice.
General Work Visa FAQs
What is a general work visa?
When applying for a UK work visa, you will need to apply for the right type of visa, meeting route-specific requirements based on your circumstances, where there is strictly no such thing as a general work visa.
How do you get a UK general work permit?
It is not possible to apply for a UK general work permit, where you will need to choose from a number of different immigration routes and meet specific criteria, eg, the offer of a qualifying job as a skilled worker.
What is general visa UK?
The UK’s Immigration Rules offer a number of different immigration routes for overseas nationals looking to come to the UK to live, work, study or simply visit. Unfortunately, there is no general visa that covers all of these scenarios.
Last updated: 30 December 2022