If you are a UK employer looking to sponsor an overseas national to work for you in the UK, you will need to apply for a sponsor licence under the UK’s points-based system (PBS).
The ability to sponsor overseas workers can bring significant benefits to businesses, enabling organisations to access the pool of global talent and filling much-needed skills gaps. Still, obtaining a PBS licence can be a time-consuming and complex process.
In this guide for employers, we answer frequently asked questions on the UK PBS licence, from the different types of sponsor licence available to the requirements for points-based system sponsor licensing. We also look at the sponsor licence application process, how long it will take to get licence approval from UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) and the purpose of a pre-licence visit.
What is a PBS licence?
A PBS licence is the permission needed from UKVI to be able to recruit overseas nationals to work in the UK under certain sponsored immigration routes of the UK’s points-based immigration system.
The PBS licence is required to verify that the sponsoring employer agrees to meet all of the duties and obligations associated with sponsoring a migrant and that the worker will fill a genuine vacancy.
Under the points-based immigration system, migrant workers coming to the UK must meet a specific set of requirements for which they will score points, where visas are then awarded to those who gain the minimum number of points required.
For example, under the Skilled Worker route, a worker must be awarded 50 mandatory points for their sponsorship, proposed job offer and English language skills, together with 20 tradeable points for their proposed salary and other attributes. Similarly, under the Scale-up route, an applicant applying for entry clearance must be awarded a total of 70 points for their sponsorship, English language skills and a financial requirement.
In broad terms, the points-based system provides flexible arrangements for UK employers to recruit foreign workers through a number of different immigration routes, accessing people and talent from around the world, although employers will first need a PBS licence to hire most eligible employees from outside the UK. In addition to the Skilled Worker and Scale-up route, other sponsored routes for which a PBS or sponsor licence will be needed include the Minister of Religion and International Sportsperson routes, as well as any one of the Global Business Mobility (GBM) routes or any one of the Temporary Worker routes.
What are the different types of PBS licence?
Under the UK’s points-based immigration system, there are two main types of sponsor licence: the ‘Worker’ PBS licence and the ‘Temporary Worker’ PBS licence. The type of licence you need will depend on whether the workers you want to fill your jobs are skilled workers with short or long-term job offers, or skilled temporary workers. You can apply for a licence covering either tier or both.
The ‘Worker’ PBS licence will allow an approved sponsor to recruit overseas nationals in various different types of skilled employment in the UK, both in the short and long-term, or even on a permanent basis, depending on the immigration route in question. The ‘Worker’ PBS licence can be sub-categorised into the following four routes:
- Skilled Worker route: for workers to fill eligible skilled job roles in the UK
- Senior or Specialist Worker route: for existing employees working for a linked overseas business and transferring to a UK office, previously known as intra-company transferees and now one of five new work routes under the GBM umbrella
- Minister of Religion route: for workers undertaking roles within a faith community in the UK, such as a minister of religion, a missionary or a member of a religious order
- International Sportsperson route: for elite sportspeople and overseas sports coaches looking to work in the UK, on both a short or long-term basis.
The ‘Temporary Worker’ PBS licence will allow an approved sponsor to temporarily recruit migrant workers for specific types of temporary employment, including:
- Scale-up Worker route: for skilled migrant workers whose skillset and talent will help to ensure the continued growth of a fast-growing UK business
- Creative Worker route: for workers who will be undertaking employment in the UK within the creative sector, such as artists or entertainers
- Charity Worker route: for those undertaking unpaid voluntary work at a UK charity
- Religious Worker route: for those working in a religious organisation in the UK
- Government Authorised Exchange route: for those pursuing work experience in the UK, or undertaking a research project or training
- International Agreement route: for workers coming to do a job in the UK covered by international law, such as an employee of an overseas government
- Seasonal Worker route: for those coming to work within the UK’s poultry sector or horticulture sector, such as picking flowers, or fruit and vegetables
- Graduate Trainee (GBM) route: for an existing trainee working for a linked overseas business and transferring to a UK office as part of a graduate training programme
- Service Supplier (GBM) route: for foreign contractual service suppliers or self-employed independent professionals with a contract to provide services for a UK company
- UK Expansion Worker (GBM) route: for workers being sent to the UK to establish a new branch or subsidiary of an overseas business
- Secondment Worker (GBM) route: for workers transferring from overseas as part of a high-value contract and/or investment to work for a UK business.
Which type of PBS licence do you need?
The type of PBS licence that an organisation will need when recruiting a migrant worker will depend on the kind of work that the business is able to offer that worker, and whether or not it can meet the specific requirements of the immigration route in question. This means that before applying to be a sponsor, the prospective employer should check that the jobs they want to hire people for will meet the requirements for sponsoring work visas.
Taking the example of the Skilled Worker route, to sponsor an overseas national as a Skilled Worker, the employer’s organisation would first need to have in place a PBS licence on the Skilled Worker route. As such, the organisation must be able to offer genuine employment meeting the relevant route-specific skill-level and salary requirements for Skilled Workers. It is only once the prospective Skilled Worker has been granted a valid Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) by a licensed sponsor that they will be able to apply for a visa on this route. However, if the sponsor is unable to offer genuine employment meeting the relevant skill and salary requirements, the CoS will not be valid and the visa application will fail.
In some cases, the employer may want to apply for just a Worker licence. In others, they may decide to apply for both a Worker and Temporary Worker licence on different routes.
Is my organisation eligible for a PBS licence?
To be eligible for a PBS licence, your organisation will need to be both genuine and operating lawfully within the UK. You will be required to provide various documents in support of these criteria from what’s known as Appendix A of the guidance for sponsors.
Further, when submitting the application for a sponsorship licence, you will be required to nominate key personnel to undertake the duties and obligations required under the licence. These individuals must be honest, dependable and reliable, without any history of immigration violations or any unspent criminal convictions for a relevant offence.
You must also be able to show that the organisation has adequate human resource systems in place to meet the necessary sponsorship duties and obligations, for example, reporting any migrant activities.
What are the PBS licence requirements?
There are various requirements for a PBS licence, including both suitability and eligibility requirements, depending on the immigration route in question. In broad terms, an applicant will be approved for a PBS licence if it is an organisation trading lawfully in the UK that is not only able to offer genuine employment meeting any relevant route-specific requirements, but is capable of meeting its sponsorship responsibilities.
To be capable of meeting the relevant sponsorship responsibilities, UKVI will have regard to an organisation’s HR and recruitment practices, where appropriate systems must be in place to be able to effectively monitor sponsored workers. There must also be suitable people nominated to manage the sponsorship process within the business. This means that those responsible for the day-to-day running of the business, and any key personnel named in the sponsor licence application to deal with the sponsor’s duties, must not have any unspent convictions for immigration or certain criminal offences, such as fraud.
When it comes to eligibility and the route-specific requirements this will all come down to the immigration route on which a PBS licence is sought. For example, to be eligible to sponsor a Scale-up Worker, an organisation must meet the definition of a qualifying Scale-up sponsor. This can be achieved in one of two ways: under the standard pathway (where employment or turnover growth will be assessed on data already held with HMRC) or the endorsing body pathway (where an approved endorsing body must confirm that a less-established business will soon be able to demonstrate the necessary growth).
What is a certificate of sponsorship?
A certificate of sponsorship (CoS) is a unique reference number assigned by a sponsor to an overseas national who is applying for a UK sponsored work visa.
The PBS licence and any CoS assigned under it do not themselves automatically permit a foreign national to enter or work in the UK.
Having been granted a PBS licence, you use the SMS to assign a CoS to the candidate, who then uses this reference number to make their visa application to the Home Office.
How do you apply for a PBS licence?
You apply for a PBS licence on the Home Office’s Sponsorship Management System (SMS). While the process of completing the online application form is relatively straightforward, the challenges come with compiling the necessary information and supporting documentation. This evidence is required to show your organisation meets the various general and route-specific requirements to be approved by UKVI as a sponsor.
You will need at least four supporting documents from Appendix A, although in many cases you will also require additional documents depending on the PBS category that you seek the licence for. It is strongly advised to seek expert advice and assistance with compiling the sponsor licence documentation to avoid issues or delays with your application.
You must submit all the necessary documentation in support within a period of five days.
In the event that you are unable to provide the necessary documentation to support your application for a sponsor licence, or you meet the deadline to provide the supporting documentation, you risk your application being significantly delayed or even denied.
Equally, before applying for a PBS licence, in addition to checking that the proposed job roles that they want to hire people for in the UK will meet the requirements for sponsoring work visas, the prospective employer should also check that the people they want to hire will meet the requirements for coming to the UK for the purposes of this type of work.
To apply for a PBS licence, and having decided on the type of licence needed, the employer will need to decide on who will manage the sponsorship process within the business.
The application will need to include the names of those people appointed to do this, where the main tool they will be using is the sponsorship management system (SMS). These key personnel roles include an authorising officer (a senior and competent person responsible for the actions of staff and representatives using the SMS); a key contact (the main point of contact with UKVI); and a level 1 user (responsible for all day-to-day management of the PBS licence using the SMS). These roles can be filled by the same person or different people, and additional level 1 and level 2 users can be added if the application is approved.
How much does a PBS licence cost?
The cost of a UK sponsor licence can vary, depending on the type of licence sought, as well as the size and charitable status of the organisation in the context of ‘Worker’ sponsor licences.
The cost of applying for a PBS licence on one of the ‘Temporary Worker’ routes is £536. There will also be an additional fee of £21 to assign each CoS to a sponsored worker. The cost of applying for a PBS licence on a ‘Worker’ route ranges from £536 to £1,476, with an additional fee of £199 to assign each sponsored worker a sponsorship certificate.
You can also sign up for what’s known as the premium sponsor scheme to receive enhanced support with a dedicated account manager. The fees here can range up to £25,000.
Most sponsors are also liable to pay the Immigration Skills Charge when sponsoring an overseas national on either the Skilled Worker route, or the Senior or Specialist Worker route, ranging from between £362 to £1,000 for the first 12 months, plus an additional reduced fee of either £182 or £500 for every further 6-month period of sponsorship.
How long does it take to get a PBS licence?
The standard processing time for an application for a PBS licence is usually 8 weeks, and will start when UKVI receives the application and paperwork, although this can take longer if there are any queries about the information or paperwork submitted. This is why it is best to seek expert assistance, to help navigate the evidential pitfalls.
If the application is approved, the organisation will be added to the online register of sponsors, which provides a list of organisations licensed to sponsor workers on both the ‘Worker’ and ‘Temporary Worker’ routes. The employer will also then be eligible to assign CoS to prospective new recruits to enable them to apply for a visa on the relevant immigration route. The PBS licence will allow the employer to hire employees from anywhere in the world, provided these workers meet the route-specific requirements.
If the migrant worker is approved for a visa, the employer must ensure that they meet the various ongoing sponsorship duties, including reporting any changes and keeping accurate records for each worker they sponsor, otherwise risk having their licence revoked. However, it is worth noting that an organisation’s responsibilities as a Scale-up sponsor will automatically end after 6 months. As a partly sponsored/unsponsored route, a Scale-up worker can either move to another employer without the need for a new sponsorship certificate, or continue working for the same employer on an unsponsored basis.
What is the priority pre-licence service?
With sponsor licence applications taking on average 8 weeks to process, some employers may be looking for an expedited decision to be able to recruit and onboard sponsored workers in a shorter timeframe. It may be that the employer does not want to miss out on a valued candidate or that the UK-based vacancy needs to be filled urgently.
For such circumstances, the Home Office offers fast-tracked PBS licence application processing under its pre-licence priority service.
The service costs an additional fee of £500 for the licence application to be considered within 10 working days. The 10-working day period will begin from the date that UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) receives the signed submission sheet and copies of all required documentation, together with payment. This means that the end-to-end processing period from applying to UKVI for a sponsor licence and a migrant worker being approved for a visa will potentially be reduced by up to 6 weeks.
The priority service is not, however, available for applications relating to the Global Business Mobility Expansion Worker, Service Supplier and Secondment Worker visas, the Scale Up visa, and the Government Authorised Exchange, International Agreement and Seasonal Worker visas.
Employers request to use the priority service after they have submitted their licence application the SMS by emailing SponsorLicensingReplies@homeoffice.gov.uk to confirm submission of the complete application and all required supporting documentation as per Appendix A.
Note that only 30 slots are available each working day for the priority service.
How long does a PBS licence last?
A PBS licence, save except where it is revoked or surrendered, will be valid for a period of four years.
If you fail to fulfil your duties under the sponsorship licence it may be downgraded, suspended or revoked. If your licence is downgraded, from an “A” to a “B” rating, you will need to pay for an action plan to help recover your initial status.
To retain your status as a licenced sponsor, you will need to renew the licence before it expires. This involves making a renewal application.
How do you sponsor someone in a Shortage Occupation role?
The UK’s Shortage Occupation List specifies the roles for which the Home Office deems there to be a shortage of workers in the UK labour market. The purpose of the SOL is to enable UK employers to access the overseas labour market and hire from overseas to fill these critical vacancies.
Roles which are on the Shortage Occupation List benefit from reduced visa application fees and lower salary thresholds with the ability to ‘trade’ salary points in certain circumstances.
The list is subject to change, and sponsors must check the status of roles on the list at the time of assigning a CoS.
What are a PBS licence holder’s compliance duties?
Employers must meet certain ongoing compliance and management requirements under a sponsorship licence, mainly to ensure that the immigration system is not abused. In particular, sponsoring employers are required to comply with the following duties:
- Only assign certificates of sponsorship to workers when the job is suitable for sponsorship.
- Check that any migrant workers have the necessary skills, qualifications or professional accreditations to do their jobs, and keep copies of documents showing this.
- Keep up-to-date records of all migrant workers.
- Report certain employee activities to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) if your workers are not complying with the conditions of their visa, such as non-attendance at work.
- Carry out right to work checks on employees to ensure that they are entitled to be in the UK and undertake the job in question.
Who should you appoint as key personnel?
One of the fundamental, mandatory requirements on sponsor licence holders is to appoint and have in place key personnel at all times. These include:
- Authorising officer: must be a senior and competent individual within your organisation responsible for the actions of all members of staff or any representatives using the SMS. You must always have an AO in place for your licence to be valid.
- Key contact: the Home Office’s primary contact for your organisation. They must be appointed and added to your SMS when making your licence application.
- Level 1 User(s): responsible for the day-to-day operation and management of your organisation’s sponsor licence, including tasks such as assigning CoS and reporting changes.
Certain rules apply as to who you can appoint in each of the roles. For example, key personnel must:
- Be based in the UK while they are acting as key personnel
- Be of good character with no criminal convictions
- In most cases be a paid member of staff or office holder, with the following exceptions:
- UK-based legal representatives can fill any key personnel role except the role of Authorising Officer
- If you contract out some or all of your HR functions to an external organisation, you can appoint an employee of that organisation as a Level 1 or Level 2 user on your licence. You must still have at least one Level 1 user who is an employee or office holder of the licence-holding company.
Key personnel cannot be any of the following:
- A representative who is not based in the UK
- A contractor or consultant who is contracted for a specific project
- Subject to a Bankruptcy Restriction Order, or Undertaking
- Subject to a Debt Relief Restriction Order, or Undertaking
- Legally prohibited from being a company director
What is a pre-licence compliance visit?
In some cases, before making a decision on an application for a PBS licence, UKVI will carry out a pre-licence compliance visit. This is effectively an audit exercise to assess the nature and extent of the organisation’s HR and recruitment practices, where UKVI must be satisfied that the organisation will be capable of managing the sponsorship process and meeting its duties.
Only if the caseworkers are satisfied that the organisation is capable of meeting the compliance duties will a PBS licence application be granted.
During the compliance inspection, the UKVI representatives will have the authority to inspect HR documentation, assess your processes and interview relevant personnel to ensure compliance with your illegal working obligations and to confirm that your organisation does not pose a risk to immigration control. The inspectors will also want to verify that the sponsored roles meet the relevant requirements for skill and salary level. They will also look at how many CoS you have requested, and whether this is appropriate for your organisation’s needs.
We recommend carrying out a mock inspection as part of the sponsor licence application preparation, to ensure your organisation is ‘match-fit’ should the Home Office inform you that they will be attending your premises to carry out an assessment. This exercise will identify areas of non-compliance or risk which can be rectified to avoid issues with your licence application. a
If an employer is not subject to a pre-licence compliance inspection, we would usually advise they prepare for a compliance visit as part of any subsequent licence renewal application.
The provisions relating to PBS licences can be both complex and subject to change. By seeking expert legal advice from an immigration law specialist, you can feel confident that your application will not be subject to any unnecessary delay caused by errors or omissions.
As business immigration lawyers, DavidsonMorris can assist with your PBS licence application, with advice on supporting documentation and compliance with duties as a PBS licence holder.
For advice on PBS licence applications or sponsoring overseas workers, contact us.
PBS licence FAQs
What is a PBS migrant UK?
A PBS migrant is an overseas national who needs permission to come to the UK to work on any one of the points-based system (PBS) immigration routes, such as the Skilled Worker route or the Senior or Specialist Worker route.
What is the UK PBS?
The UK PBS refers to the UK’s points-based system for migrant workers to come to the UK to undertake paid or, in some cases, unpaid employment. In many cases, the worker will need to be sponsored under the points-based system.
How long does it take to get a sponsor licence?
The standard processing time for a sponsor licence application is usually 8 weeks, starting from when UKVI receives the application and paperwork, although this can take longer if there are any queries or concerns over the information or paperwork submitted.
How long does a sponsor licence last?
A sponsor licence will usually last for 4 years, although this may be cut short if it is surrendered or revoked before then. A licence can also be suspended if the sponsor has failed to meet its sponsorship duties.
Last updated: 30 June 2023