If you currently employ promising workers under the UK’s graduate visa route, their permission to work in the UK will be time-limited. Planning ahead in advance of the expiry of their period of leave will ensure that you know what immigration requirements will need to be met if you wish to retain them as employees by sponsoring them under the skilled worker route. This way, you can avoid immigration issues and help to ensure you don’t lose valuable and established talent from within your workforce.
The following guide for employers and HR personnel looks at the rules relating to switching from the graduate route to skilled worker visas, including the procedural and eligibility criteria for both employers and employees, and the cost to both parties of making the switch.
Switching from the graduate route to skilled worker visa
The graduate route came into force in July 2021, providing international students with the opportunity to stay on and work in the UK for a period of at least 2 years, having successfully completed a qualifying course of study at bachelor’s degree level or above. As an unsponsored immigration route designed to retain high potential graduates from around the world — with the flexibility to work at any skill or salary level — many UK employers will already have taken advantage of this rich pool of international graduate talent.
Under the immigration rules, switching from the graduate route to skilled worker visas is possible from inside the UK by making an application to switch immigration categories. However, applicants must meet certain strict eligibility requirements, including being sponsored by a Home Office approved employer. It’s therefore important for both the employer and employee to understand these requirements, and to make the necessary arrangements prior to expiry of the applicant’s existing grant of leave, not least because the graduate visa is non-extendable.
A graduate visa holder can switch from this route into the skilled worker category at any stage, albeit prior to expiry of their current visa and provided they meet the relevant requirements. The process for switching from the graduate route to skilled worker visas is essentially twofold, potentially involving applications by both the employer and employee.
Below we look at the sponsorship and visa process to switch routes.
Applying for a sponsor licence
Even though UK employers don’t need a sponsor licence to hire a graduate visa holder, they must have permission to sponsor a migrant under the skilled worker route. This means that if you’re not currently approved to recruit a foreign national to work in the UK in a specific job role within an eligible skilled occupation, you’ll need to apply for a relevant licence.
To apply for permission to sponsor skilled migrant workers you’ll need to register your details with UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), complete an online application form and pay the relevant fee. You’ll need to appoint an authorising officer to manage your application, typically the most senior person in your business responsible for the recruitment of overseas nationals.
You’ll also need to nominate other key personnel within your application, including a key contact and level 1 user. The key contact will be the main point of contact with UKVI, whilst the level 1 user will be responsible for the day-to-day management of your licence using the Home Office sponsorship management system (SMS). You can appoint optional level 2 users once you’re granted a licence, although they’ll have fewer permissions than a level 1 user.
The key personnel roles can be filled by the same person or by different people, although they must be either paid members of staff or office holders. They must also be based working in the UK for most of the time, not be subject to any bankruptcy or debt relief restriction orders or undertakings, or have a history of non-compliance with sponsorship requirements.
Having completed the application form, you must print out the submission sheet, to be signed and dated by your authorising officer. You must email the signed submission sheet to UKVI, together with your supporting documents, within 5 working days. The processing times for sponsorship applications is around 8 weeks. Once you’ve received notification from UKVI, and assuming your application is successful, you’ll be able to assign Certificates of Sponsorship (CoS) to graduate visa holders to enable them to apply to switch into the skilled worker route.
Applying for a skilled worker visa
When applying to switch from a graduate visa to a skilled worker visa, an applicant will again need to complete an online application form and pay the relevant fee. The applicant will need to provide a passport or other travel document to establish their identity and nationality. They must also have a valid CoS issued by an approved UK sponsor no more than 3 months before the date of their application. This will provide them with a unique reference number which will allow them to apply for a sponsored work visa.
When applying from inside the UK, a visa decision will usually be made by UKVI within around 8 weeks. During this period, the applicant must not travel outside of either the UK, Ireland, the Channel Islands or Isle of Man until they’ve received their decision. If they do travel outside these areas, their application to switch visa categories will be treated as withdrawn.
Criteria to switch from the graduate route to skilled worker visa
There are strict criteria that must be met when applying for either a sponsorship licence or switching to a skilled worker visa. Below we look at the eligibility criteria for both:
Eligibility criteria for a sponsor licence
To be eligible to sponsor migrants under the skilled worker route, you must be able to show that you’re a genuine organisation operating lawfully in the UK, and that you’re suitable for sponsorship. In assessing your suitability, UKVI will consider if:
- you can offer genuine employment that meets the minimum skills and salary threshold under the skilled worker route
- you’re capable of carrying out your sponsorship duties, with adequate HR systems and practices in place, plus suitable key personnel to operate the SMS, to manage the sponsorship process and discharge your duties as a licensed sponsor
- you’re honest, dependable and reliable, where evidence of immigration violations or any relevant unspent criminal convictions relating to either your key personnel or those involved in the day-to-day running of your business could impact your application.
In support of your application, you must provide certain documentation to demonstrate that your business is genuine, and that you have a trading or operating presence within the UK, together with any additional documents as may be requested by UKVI. As part of its’ decision-making process, UKVI may also visit your place of business, either before or after a licence is granted, to make sure you’ll be able to meet your ongoing obligations as a UK sponsor.
Eligibility criteria for a skilled worker visa
To be eligible for a skilled worker visa, the applicant must be able to show that:
- they have a genuine offer of a job, evidenced by a valid CoS issued by a licensed sponsor
- that job is at the required skill level of RQF3 or equivalent and above within an eligible occupation code
- the job meets the minimum salary threshold of at least £26,200 or the ‘going rate’ for the job, whichever is the higher
- they can speak English at level B1 (intermediate).
The requirements for a skilled worker visa are assessed using a points-based system, where the applicant must accrue a total of 70 points to be granted leave to remain under this route. The English language requirement will be automatically met on the basis that the applicant has an academic degree taught in English. Further, the 20 points awarded for minimum salary are potentially ‘tradeable’ where the job pays less than this requirement. In these cases, the applicant may trade specific characteristics, such as holding a PhD qualification or having a job offer in a shortage occupation, against a lower salary.
The applicant will also be required to meet a maintenance requirement if, at the time that they apply to switch into the skilled worker route, they’ve been in the UK for less than 12 months. This will require proof of funds of at least £1,270 held for a 28-day period although, as their UK sponsor, you can certify that you will maintain and accommodate the applicant for at least that sum for the first month of their employment in their new job role.
How much does it cost to switch from the graduate route to skilled worker visa?
There are various costs involved in any plans to switch from the graduate route to skilled worker visas, both for you as the employer and for each applicant.
If you don’t currently hold a valid licence to sponsor skilled migrant workers, the cost of applying for sponsorship will depend on the size or status of your organisation. You’ll be eligible to pay a lower fee of £536 if you’re classed as a small or charitable sponsor. For medium or large sponsors, the licence application fee is £1476. You’ll also be liable to pay an Immigration Skills Charge — set at £364 for the first 12 months and £182 for each additional 6 months as a small or charitable employer, or £1000 and £500 respectively for a medium or large employer — typically with a fee of £199 for each sponsorship certificate you assign.
For the applicant, the costs comprise the visa application fee, ranging from £464 to £1408, depending on the length of visa and if their job is on the shortage occupation list. They may also have to pay an extra £19.20 to have their biometric information taken. Additionally, most applicants under this route will have to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) to gain access to the UK’s National Health Service. The IHS costs £624 per year of stay, and the full amount will need to be paid when they apply. This means that in addition to the application fee, the applicant will be liable to pay, for example, £1,872 for a 3-year skilled worker visa.
We are specialist UK immigration lawyers, with substantial experience and recognised expertise in advising employers on the UK sponsorship rules and retaining international talent through the Skilled Worker visa. For specialist immigration advice for your organisation, contact us.
Graduate Route to Skilled Worker Visa FAQs
Can you switch from graduate route to skilled worker?
A graduate visa holder can apply for a skilled worker visa provided they meet the relevant requirements, including the offer of a job in an eligible skilled occupation from a Home Office licensed sponsor that meets the applicable salary threshold.
Can we switch from ICT to skilled worker?
Provided they meet the eligibility criteria, intra-company transferees (ICT’s) can switch from within the UK to a skilled worker visa if they’re looking to settle in the UK permanently or transfer to another employer in a skilled role.
Can you switch from student visa to skilled worker?
It’s possible to switch to a skilled worker visa from a number of different types of visa, including the standard student visa, provided you have a genuine job offer from a UK sponsor that meets the skill and salary requirements.
What makes you a skilled worker?
Under the UK’s points-based immigration system, a skilled worker is someone who has permission to work in the UK in an eligible job with an approved employer meeting the minimum skill and salary thresholds.
Last updated: 9 March 2023