In this offshore working guide, we set out the visa options and immigration rules for foreign nationals arriving directly into UK waters for the purposes of working.
What is offshore?
Offshore work in the UK refers to employment on any oil, gas, wind and other installations wholly at sea and fixed to the sea bed. The rules on working offshore in the UK depend on whether the worker will be working in the 12-mile area surrounding the UK, or on the UK continental shelf (UKCS).
The UKCS is a 200-mile area of waters surrounding the United Kingdom, which includes parts of the North Sea, the North Atlantic, the Irish Sea and the English Channel. The UK benefits from mineral rights over the UKCS, with sovereignty relating only to the exploitation of these resources.
The UKCS is not subject to UK immigration control, however, anyone looking to work offshore must ensure they comply with the relevant rules and ensure they have the appropriate permission to enter the UK and travel offshore to the UKCS for work.
The UKCS should not be confused with the 12-mile zone surrounding the UK, which is defined as ‘UK territorial waters’, where UK immigrations controls are applied as they are within the UK.
Individuals working in UK territorial waters or international waters will need to have a UK work visa, which, depending on the individual’s circumstances and eligibility, could include the Skilled Worker visa, Senior or Specialist Worker or a frontier worker permit.
Do you need a visa to work offshore on the UKCS?
Individuals seeking entry to the UK as offshore workers require authorisation for employment on the UKCS and, as a concession, they can be given leave to enter the UK so as to go offshore to carry out their work.
The rules on entry clearance depend on whether the worker is deemed a ‘visa national‘ or a ‘non-visa national’. Visa nationals are individuals who must have a visa for every entry to the UK, while non-visa nationals are not required to have a visa before they travel to the UK as a visitor.
Entry clearance in most cases is not mandatory for non-visa nationals, such as EU nationals, but they would require a transit visa.
Entry clearance would however be required if they intend to stay as offshore workers for more than six months, and if any part of the work will be onshore within the UK, permission will be required under the points-based system. Applicants transiting through the UK must demonstrate that they:
- are genuinely in transit to another country outside the common travel area, meaning the main purpose of their visit is to transit the UK and that the applicant is taking a reasonable transit route; and
- will not access public funds or medical treatment, work, or study in the UK; and
- genuinely intend and can leave the UK by 23:59 hours on the day after the day when they arrived or within 48 hours after their arrival where they hold a transit visit visa; and
- are assured entry to their country of destination and any other countries they are transiting on their way there.
Visa nationals do require entry clearance otherwise they will not be able to travel to the UK.
If visa nationals are intending to be rotating frequently in and out of the UK, they should apply for the Offshore Worker visa. The Offshore Worker visa does not require permission to work under the points-based system and is issued for 12 months each time, allowing the holder to live in the UK. It is also valid for multiple re-entries into the UK. It does not allow the holder to work in the UK or in UK territorial waters.
Leave to remain
In the majority of cases, offshore workers are employed for short periods on the UKCS and require entry into the UK for less than six months to go offshore before returning home for leave. However, some offshore workers may wish to base themselves, and their dependants, in the UK, for longer than six months. When this is the case, leave to remain may be granted as a concession to the Immigration Rules, under Appendix FM, normally for 12 months.
During this time, offshore worker and their dependants are allowed to base themselves in the UK while employed offshore on the UKCS. They must be employed on the UKCS and may not base themselves in the UK for offshore employment elsewhere.
To make use of the concession, offshore workers must provide written confirmation from their employer of the nature and duration of their employment, confirming that it is wholly and only offshore in the UKCS. They and their dependants must also provide documentary evidence satisfying the issuing officer that they can be maintained and accommodated without recourse to unauthorised employment or public funds.
For frequent or longer offshore work trips totalling more than 180 days in a rolling 12-month period, individuals should apply for the Offshore Worker visa.
Switching visa categories
Individuals already in the UK on a different visa route are permitted to make an application to switch into the Offshore Work route, provided they meet the eligibility criteria.
Indefinite leave to remain
Offshore workers and their dependants would not ordinarily be eligible to apply for UK ILR, on the grounds that their original permission to enter or remain in the UK was in a category that does not lead to settlement. However, the individual may qualify for ILR via a different route. Taking professional advice can help to assess your wider circumstances and eligibility for settlement under alternative categories or concessions.
Working offshore without disembarking in the UK
Under the provisions of the Immigration Act 1971 (IA 1971), a person arriving by ship or aircraft is deemed not to enter the UK unless and until they disembark. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 amends IA 1971 to close that loophole for offshore workers that never disembark at landmass, making the position more stark.
When implemented, this will mean individuals arriving in UK waters for the purposes of working in those waters will be deemed to have entered the UK when they start working, despite not having disembarked at landmass. Those working in UK waters will need permission to do so, irrespective of duration—in the same way those working on the UK landmass do.
It will be an offence to employ migrants in UK territorial waters where they do not have permission to work.
Offshore wind workers concession now closed
The Offshore Wind Workers concession ended on 30 April 2023. It allowed the employment of foreign workers who are joining vessels engaged in either the construction and maintenance of offshore wind projects in UK territorial waters.
Workers were required to leave the UK by 30 April 2023 and apply for entry clearance before returning to the UK for work.
Offshore workers’ duty to notify Home Office of arrival into, and departure from, UK waters
Offshore workers, or their sponsors if they have one, are now required to notify the UK Secretary of State of their arrival into UK waters and when they depart.
The Immigration (Offshore Worker Notification and Exemption from Control (Amendment)) Regulations 2023 took effect from 12 April 2023.
Under the rules, the worker, or their sponsor, must inform the Home Office when the individual arrives in UK waters at the start of the job and when they leave UK waters at the end of the job.
Temporary authorised absences, such as annual leave or absences relating to the employment, do not need to be reported.
Notification is also not required when an offshore worker goes through UK immigration control before they arrive in UK waters. However, in these circumstances, if the worker is sponsored, the sponsor must continue to comply with their record keeping duties by recording the date of entry.
How to notify the Home Office: sponsored workers
Sponsors will be required to report the event to the Home Office via the online Sponsorship Management System (SMS), however, this functionality is not yet live.
In the meantime, sponsors are required to make the notifications by email to email@example.com, by providing:
- Sponsor registration identification number
- CoS reference number of the offshore worker
- Offshore worker’s name, date of birth and nationality
- Name of the ship or vessel where they will be based
- Date they entered or exited UK waters
Notifications have to be made no earlier than the day the offshore worker arrives in the United Kingdom and no later than 10 working days beginning on the day after arrival; and no earlier than the day on which the offshore worker leaves the United Kingdom and no later than 10 working days beginning on the day after the offshore worker has left the United Kingdom.
How to notify the Home Office: unsponsored workers
Unsponsored offshore workers are responsible for notifying the Home Office of their arrival into and departure from UK waters.
They are required to inform the Home Office on each occasion that they arrive into and leave UK waters either by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or by post to:
Economic Migration Unit
PO Box 3468
The notification should provide the following information:
- Date of birth
- Date of entering or exiting UK waters
- Activity being undertaken in UK waters
- Immigration route they are relying on to enter or leave UK waters
- Vessel or ship name
The notification must be made no earlier than the date they arrived into or left UK waters, and no later than 10 working days after the date they arrived into or left UK waters.
Failure by the offshore worker to notify the Home Office in the correct way can result in their permission being cancelled and any future Home Office applications to enter or remain in the UK being refused.
Oil installation workers
An oil installation is an oil rig fixed, permanently or temporarily, to the sea-bed in the UKCS zone. Vessels which service installations, taking supplies and staff to and from an installation, are not installations. The crew on these service vessels do not, therefore, fall under the offshore concession. They may, however, qualify as joining ship crew if the vessel spends the majority of its time outside UK waters.
A ship, including one engaged in oil or renewable energy activities, does not qualify as an oil installation. Similarly, a seismic vessel is not an oil installation.
Shore leave rules for offshore workers
Subject to normal visa requirements, offshore workers are allowed to live in the UK during their shore leave. Their dependants are also, exceptionally, allowed to base themselves in the UK.
Are offshore workers subject to the same rules as seafearing crew?
Offshore workers are not subject to the same immigration rules as crew joining a ship. Offshore workers are not seafaring ‘crew’ as defined in the Immigration Act 1971, and are not dealt with in accordance with the provisions for seafaring crew. Offshore workers do not benefit from the shore leave and visa waiver concessions afforded to crew in accordance with law, policy and international conventions such as ILO108 (International Labour Organisation).
DavidsonMorris are experienced immigration advisers to businesses in the energy sector. With over 25 years’ experience in the industry, we understand the challenges of recruiting and mobilising international talent to meet your UK and UKCS-based labour and skills needs. For support with any aspect of corporate immigration, global mobility and Home Office applications, contact us.
Offshore work visa FAQs
What is required to work offshore UK?
Provided you are not working onshore or within UK territorial waters, offshore workers do not have to seek permission for their employment. Entry clearance is mandatory for visa nationals and only mandatory for non-visa nationals if the worker intends to stay as an offshore worker for more than six months.
How many days can you work offshore UK?
In most cases, offshore work is limited to 21 days. Operators usually require offshore workers to sped 7 days onshore before going offshore again to work.
Last updated: 15 August 2023