The UK welcomes hundreds of thousands of talented and high potential overseas students to universities, further education and English language colleges every year, creating a rich pool of international graduate talent from which employers can recruit the best and the brightest. But for UK employers, hiring international graduates has not always been straightforward in immigration terms.
This changed in July 2021 when the UK’s new Graduate Route opened, allowing employers a way to recruit recent international graduates on a temporary basis without the need to invest in the employment sponsorship process.
The following guide for employers looks at the brand new graduate route under the UK’s Immigration Rules, and what this means for UK organisations hiring international talent. We also look at the specific requirements under the graduate visa route, how much it costs to apply for a graduate visa and how long the application processing takes.
What is the new graduate immigration route?
The graduate route is a new immigration route providing international students who have been awarded their degree the opportunity to stay in the UK to work, or look for work, at any skill or salary level for a period of two years, and three years for any doctoral students.
The graduate route is an unsponsored route. This means individuals do not need a job offer from a UK employer to apply for a visa under this route, nor do they need to be offered work with any minimum skill or salary requirement. If granted a visa, they will be able to work flexibly, switch jobs and gain work experience across a wide range of UK businesses.
What does the graduate route allow?
A graduate visa gives the visa holder permission to stay in the UK for at least two years after successfully completing a course of study in the UK. With a graduate visa, an individual can look for work, work in most jobs, work for themselves and undertake voluntary work.
The partner and children of the graduate visa holder may also be able to apply to stay in the UK as dependants if they’re eligible, although the applicant will not be allowed to bring any new dependants. Any dependant already in the UK as a student dependant may apply as the dependant of a graduate when the graduate makes their application.
The graduate route is non-extendable. If a graduate visa holder wants to stay longer in the UK, they cannot extend their visa under this route, but they may be eligible to switch to a different visa route, for example, the skilled worker route, which is also a route to settlement.
What does the graduate visa mean for UK employers’ graduate recruitment?
Employers do not need a Home Office sponsor licence to hire someone with a graduate visa. The ability to hire someone under this route is also not subject to any minimum skill level or salary threshold. This means it’s never been easier to hire from the rich pool of international graduate talent coming from UK higher education providers.
Last year, the UK hosted over half a million international students from all over the world, many of whom have undertaken higher-level qualifications such as Master’s and PhDs in business and STEM subjects. This will provide UK employers with an important source of highly skilled workers to fill vital skills gaps in areas such as engineering and IT.
Even absent crucial skills gaps, including international graduates in the recruitment mix could still make good business sense for UK employers. Organisations with an inclusive and diverse workforce often benefit from increased innovation and creativity, the ability to outperform competitors on profitability, and an enhanced employer brand. The language abilities and knowledge of international graduates can also be harnessed to grow exports and develop links with important trading partners for the UK, such as the EU, the USA, China or India.
Although permission to stay in the UK under the graduate route cannot be extended, this shouldn’t deter employers from using this route to recruit international graduates applying for work from the UK, even if the post is permanent. A graduate visa holder can switch from this route to the skilled worker route at any stage, provided they meet the relevant requirements. The unsponsored graduate route will enable UK employers to try out their new international hire before committing to sponsorship or incurring the expense associated with sponsorship.
The graduate visa can also be useful for employers looking for a relatively quick and cost-effective way of meeting their recruitment needs around short-term projects, or where some level of flexibility is needed if they’re not yet sure of longer term requirements.
What are the requirements to hire under the graduate route?
The graduate route is for students in the UK who want to find a job having successfully completed an eligible course of study under the rules at UK bachelor’s degree-level or above.
To hire under the graduate route, an employer does not need to be a UK sponsor, or offer the graduate a job meeting certain skill or salary requirements. Equally, the applicant will not be required to show funds or finance, nor will they need to demonstrate any English language ability, as they will have already satisfied this requirement by successfully completing their degree or other relevant qualification at a UK university.
However, an international graduate wanting to apply for work from the UK under this route must be in the UK and have a valid student visa at the time of application. This means that an application must be made before their existing visa expires, unless one of the exceptions for overstaying applies or they’ve been granted a period of exceptional assurance and they’ve not overstayed that period. In either case, the period of overstaying will be disregarded.
The applicant will also need to satisfy the following graduate visa eligibility requirements:
- the successful completion requirement
- the qualification requirement
- the study in the UK requirement.
The successful completion requirement
The graduate route is available to any international student who has successfully completed a degree at undergraduate level or above or, alternatively, one of the limited number of professional qualifications at degree level or above. The course of study must have been with a Home Office licensed higher education provider with a track record of compliance.
The applicant must have completed the qualification that was named on the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) associated with their student visa, or following a change of course which was allowed without applying for further permission.
The course of study must have been completed during the applicant’s last grant of permission to study on the student route and, by the date of application, the student sponsor must have notified the UK Home Office that the applicant has successfully completed their studies.
The qualification requirement
The applicant will satisfy the qualification requirement if they’ve successfully completed a course of study for which they’ve been or will be awarded a UK bachelor’s or postgraduate degree, such as a UK masters degree, or a UK PhD or other doctoral qualification.
A gradate of any one of a number of professional courses can also apply for a graduate visa. These include validated law conversion courses, the qualifying vocational courses for solicitors and barristers, the postgraduate course for teachers, and any other professional course leading to eligibility for a job regulated by UK law or a UK public authority, for example, medical doctors, nurses, architects, lawyers and teachers.
The study in the UK requirement
The applicant will need to have studied in the UK for a minimum period of time. This is called the ‘relevant period’. If the course was for 12 months or less, they must have studied the whole course in the UK, and for a course of more than 12 months, the relevant period of study in the UK is at least 12 months. However, specific concessions have been agreed due to COVID-19.
For applicants who have been studying online in their home country due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, they may still be able to apply for a graduate visa, provided they return to the UK to make their application and meet the other requirements of the route.
How much are graduate visa applications?
The cost of applying for a graduate visa is set at £700, regardless of whether the applicant is applying under either the two or three-year graduate immigration route, although a £55 reduction will be made for those from most European countries.
The applicant will also need to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) as part of their application. This will give them access to the UK’s National Health Service on generally the same basis as a UK permanent resident. The IHS costs £624 per year, 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 £1,248 for a 2-year graduate visa and £1,872 for a 3-year visa.
Any dependants of the primary applicant will be required to pay a separate and full application fee of £700, as well as the healthcare surcharge.
Employers do not have to pay any costs towards the graduate visa, unless they choose to make a contribution to cover the application costs for their new hire. The Immigration Skills Charge payable under the skilled worker or intra-company transfer routes does not apply under the new graduate immigration route.
How long is graduate visa application processing?
An application for a graduate visa must be made online. The applicant will need the Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) number from their current visa to apply. They must also prove their identity and, in some cases, provide other documents in support.
A decision should be made on a graduate visa application within 8 weeks, although the processing times for applications can vary depending on how the individual has applied. For the majority of applicants the process will be entirely digital, using the ‘UK Immigration ID Check’ app to verify their identity. If they proved their identity using the app, the processing time starts when their documents are uploaded.
Those unable to use the ID app will need to attend a UK Visas and Citizenship Application Services centre (UKVCAS) to complete their application. They will be told how to book this when they apply. If they attend a UKVCAS centre, the processing time starts after this date.
If the graduate visa application is successful, the applicant will be granted an eVisa. They may also be issued with a Biometric Residence Permit (BRP) for use when travelling in and out of the UK. The graduate visa will start from the day the application is approved and not from expiry of their student visa. The graduate visa can be viewed online by the visa holder, although they can also generate a share code with their new employer providing time-limited access to relevant data to prove their right to work in the UK.
As a UK employer hiring an international graduate under the new graduate route, even though you will not need a sponsor licence you must still conduct a right to work check before allowing your new recruit to start working for you.
DavidsonMorris are experienced business immigration advisers, working with UK employers to support international recruitment programmes. For specialist guidance on recruiting and employing international graduates under the UK’s graduate route, contact us.
UK Graduate Route FAQs
What is a graduate route?
The graduate route is an unsponsored work route under the UK’s Immigration Rules designed for international students who have been awarded their degree to work at any skill level in the UK for a period of at least two years.
What is the graduate immigration route?
The graduate immigration route is for overseas students in the UK who want to work, or look for work, once they've successfully completed an eligible course of study at UK bachelor’s degree-level or above.
Who is eligible for the UK graduate immigration route?
An individual will be eligible for a visa under the graduate immigration route if they’ve successfully completed a course in the UK of at least degree level and they still have a valid student visa at the date of application.
Can I study on a graduate route visa?
Study is permitted on a graduate visa, although you cannot study any course which could be sponsored under the student route. If a course of study is eligible for a student visa, you can extend your student visa instead.
Last updated: Spetemebr 2021