The Principles of Immigration Sponsorship



In the United Kingdom, the sponsorship system acts as the framework that enables employers and educational institutions to lawfully bring non-UK residents into the country for work and study.

The system is designed to support the UK’s economic and educational sectors, while ensuring that immigration is managed in a way that is beneficial and secure for both the country and the migrants. However, for UK sponsors and visa applicants alike, the sponsorship rules can quickly become challenging to navigate. The sponsored visa routes are rigid, imposing strict eligibility criteria for applicants and extensive compliance obligations on sponsors.

In this guide, we set out the fundamental principles governing the UK’s sponsorship requirements under the relevant immigration and visa regulations. We also explore the roles and responsibilities that employers and educational institutions must adhere to as licensed sponsors to avoid Home Office enforcement action.

If you have a specific query about UK visa sponsorship, speak to our immigration experts for tailed advice.


Section A: Understanding Sponsorship in UK Immigration


In the context of UK immigration, sponsorship refers to the authorisation granted to a UK-based organisation, such as a business or educational institution, to employ or admit foreign nationals from overseas.

A sponsorship is essentially an assurance by the sponsor to the UK government that they accept responsibility for the foreign national individual while they are in the UK, ensuring that the migrant adheres to the terms of their visa.


1. Legal Framework Governing Sponsorship for Visas


The legal framework for visa sponsorship is outlined under the UK Points-Based System (PBS), which categorises applicants based on their qualifications, experience, and the reason for their move to the UK.

The framework requires organisations wishing to sponsor workers or students to obtain a sponsor licence. This involves proving that their operations are genuine, that they are solvent and capable of fulfilling their sponsorship duties.

The framework is enforced through a series of regulations and guidelines issued by the UK government, designed to control and monitor the flow of migrants entering the UK for work and study.


2. The Principles Underpinning the UK Sponsorship System


The concept of sponsorship within UK immigration law is fundamentally about delegating certain responsibilities for immigration control from the state to private organisations, such as businesses and educational institutions.

This approach relies on the principle of outsourcing the oversight of migrants to those who directly benefit from their skills and contributions—namely, their employers and educators.


a. Efficiency and Expertise

One of the primary reasons for outsourcing immigration responsibilities through sponsorship is to leverage the specific expertise and operational capacities of private entities. Businesses and educational institutions are often better equipped to assess the needs and qualifications of potential employees and students than government bodies. By allowing these entities to manage the selection and monitoring of their sponsored individuals, the process can be made more efficient and aligned with the economic and educational goals of the country.


b. Compliance and Control

Sponsorship also serves as a mechanism for ensuring compliance with immigration laws. By making sponsors responsible for monitoring their migrants, the government effectively extends its regulatory reach. Sponsors are required to ensure that migrants comply with the terms of their visas, such as adhering to work conditions, salary requirements, and study commitments. This reduces the burden on government resources and enhances compliance through direct oversight by sponsors with vested interests in maintaining their privileges to sponsor.


c. Risk Sharing

The sponsorship system distributes the risks associated with immigration. Sponsors are held accountable for failures in compliance, which can result in penalties, including the revocation of their sponsorship licence. This risk-sharing model incentivises sponsors to maintain rigorous internal checks and balances, ensuring that only qualified individuals are brought into the country and that these individuals adhere to their visa conditions.


d. Economic Alignment

Sponsorship aligns immigration with national and economic interests. By allowing only licensed sponsors to bring in foreign nationals, the system helps ensure that the migrants who enter the country are filling genuine vacancies and contributing to sectors where there is a clear need. This helps in managing economic demands effectively and ensures that immigration contributes positively to the national economy.


e. Security and Integrity

From a security standpoint, the sponsorship system helps maintain the integrity of national borders. Sponsors act as an additional layer of security by vetting potential migrants before they enter the country and continuously monitoring them as required by their sponsorship duties. This dual layer of checks—by both the sponsor and the immigration authorities—helps to mitigate the risk of illegal immigration and enhances the overall effectiveness of the immigration system.


f. Adaptability

Finally, the sponsorship system provides a framework that can adapt to changing economic and social conditions. Since the government can modify sponsorship requirements and processes in response to evolving needs, the system offers flexibility to respond to labour market changes, educational priorities, or diplomatic considerations.


3. The Role of the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) in Sponsorship


The UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) department is a division of the Home Office responsible for handling all visa applications and ensuring that immigration laws are adhered to.

UKVI plays a pivotal role in the sponsorship system, overseeing the application process for sponsor licences, ensuring compliance with immigration laws, and conducting inspections and audits to verify that sponsors uphold their responsibilities.

Sponsors must comply with several UKVI requirements, including:


a. Demonstrating their ability to offer genuine employment or study opportunities that meet the salary and skill level requirements set by the government.

b. Keeping accurate records of their sponsored employees or students, including their contact details and attendance records.

c. Reporting to UKVI any significant changes in their organisation’s status or their sponsored migrants’ status, such as cessation of employment or a migrant’s switch of immigration categories.

d. Ensuring that they do not endanger the UK’s immigration control by, for example, sponsoring individuals who pose a security risk or who are likely to abscond from their visa restrictions.


Section B: Evolution of the UK Sponsorship System


The concept of sponsorship within UK immigration did not emerge fully formed but has developed significantly over recent decades, particularly as the UK sought to manage its growing need for skilled migrants in a globalised economy. Initially, immigration control was almost entirely a function of the state, with entry mostly regulated directly by immigration officials without significant ongoing obligations placed on employers or educational institutions after entry.

The modern sponsorship system began to take shape with the introduction of the Points-Based System (PBS) in 2008. This was part of a broader overhaul aimed at making the immigration process more transparent and systematic, moving away from the more discretionary and opaque processes that had characterised the system previously.


1. Impact of the New Points-Based System on UK Sponsorship


The implementation of the PBS was a pivotal legislative change. It introduced Tier 2 and Tier 4 visas, covering skilled workers and students, respectively, which required sponsors to be licensed by the Home Office. This shifted significant responsibility to sponsors, requiring them to ensure that their foreign nationals complied with immigration laws.

The Tier 2 (General) Visa transformed the way skilled workers entered the UK, necessitating employers to prove that roles could only be filled by resident workers after seeking non-EU nationals. This was supported by the Resident Labour Market Test.

For educational institutions, the new Tier 4 (Student) visa rules meant rigorous reporting duties regarding student attendance and progress, ensuring that students complied with their visa conditions.

Further reforms to the PBS have been made post-Brexit, notably extending the rules to include EEA nationals coming to the UK and significantly impacting sponsorship rules. The introduction of the Skilled Worker visa in December 2020, which replaced the Tier 2 (General) visa, marked another significant evolution.

It broadened the types of jobs eligible for sponsorship and lowered salary and skill thresholds, reflecting the UK’s need to attract a wider pool of essential workers post-EU exit.


2. Evolution of the Sponsor Licensing System


Over time, the sponsor licence system has become more structured and demanding, with the Home Office introducing increasingly stringent requirements and compliance measures. This includes more detailed record-keeping, strict reporting requirements, and regular audits by UKVI.

The goal has been to ensure that sponsors are active partners in immigration enforcement, reducing the burden on government resources and increasing the system’s overall integrity.

The licensing process itself has evolved to become more rigorous, with potential sponsors needing to demonstrate not only that they are legitimate businesses or institutions but also that they have robust HR systems in place to monitor and report on their sponsored migrants.

The penalties for non-compliance have also become more severe, underscoring the critical role that sponsors play in the overall immigration ecosystem.


Section C: Sponsorship Licence Requirements


1. Who Needs a Sponsor Licence?


a. Employers

Any UK-based employer who wishes to hire non-resident workers from outside the UK needs a sponsor licence. This includes hiring skilled workers under the Skilled Worker visa.

Read more about the Skilled Worker Visa here >>


b. Educational Institutions

Universities, colleges, and schools that want to admit international students need a sponsor licence. This applies to those institutions looking to offer study opportunities to students from outside the UK and Ireland under the Student visa route, previously known as Tier 4.


2. Sponsor Licence Application Process


a. Eligibility Check

Before applying, the organisation must ensure it meets all eligibility requirements, including being a legitimate entity operating lawfully within the UK.


b. Documentation and Evidence

The organisation must provide evidence that it is capable of carrying out its sponsorship duties. This includes showing that it has systems in place to monitor sponsored employees or students.


c. Application Submission

Complete the online application form and pay the relevant fee. The fee varies depending on the size of the organisation and the type of licence required.


d. Compliance Visit

UKVI may conduct a pre-licence compliance visit to check the organisation’s premises and systems to ensure they meet the necessary standards.


3. Sponsor Licence Application Requirements


The requirements to apply for a UK sponsorship licence are set out in the Home Office’s “Workers and Temporary Workers: guidance for sponsors”. In short, the following criteria must be met and evidenced in the application:


a. The organisation is a genuine business operation that is actively trading or operating in the UK.

b. The organisation has effective systems in place to monitor sponsored employees and should not have any previous history of failing to carry out sponsorship duties.

c. The organisation’s nominated key personnel do not have any unspent criminal convictions like fraud or money laundering.

d. The organisation must not pose a threat to the integrity of the UK immigration system.


Our comprehensive guide to sponsor licence applications details the criteria to be met.


Section D: Sponsorship Compliance and Responsibilities


Once a sponsor licence is granted, the sponsoring organisation must adhere to a strict set of duties and responsibilities. Ensuring compliance with UK immigration laws is a critical responsibility for sponsors, and it involves a comprehensive set of duties and obligations.

Failure to comply with these obligations can result in penalties, including licence downgrading, suspension or revocation and potential civil penalties.


1. Sponsor Licence Duties


Sponsors play a pivotal role in the UK’s immigration system, acting as guarantors for the migrants they bring into the country. Their primary duties include:


a. Verification of Eligibility

Sponsors must ensure that all sponsored migrants are eligible for the visa under which they are being brought in. This includes verifying qualifications, professional skills, and, where applicable, the necessity of the role for business operations.


b. Accurate Information

Sponsors are required to provide accurate information to UKVI during the application process and throughout the duration of sponsorship.

Whether intentional or accidental, misrepresentation can lead to severe penalties for non-compliance. This makes staff training critical to ensure relevant personnel understand and are able to discharge their obligations on behalf of the organisation.


c. Compliance with the Law 

Sponsors must ensure that they and their sponsored migrants comply with all relevant UK laws, including immigration laws and employment laws.


d. Cooperation with UKVI

Sponsors must cooperate with UKVI, including allowing compliance visits and providing any information requested by UKVI as part of their monitoring duties.


2. Sponsorship Monitoring and Reporting Requirements


To ensure ongoing compliance, sponsors are required to implement and maintain systems that enable them to monitor and report on the activities and whereabouts of their migrants. At any one time, the sponsor’s SMS should be up to date with complete and accurate records relating to their sponsored workers.


a. Record Keeping

Sponsors must keep comprehensive records for each migrant, including copies of passport and right to work information, contact details, and a history of all work or study-related activities.


b. Reporting Changes

Sponsors must report any significant changes in a migrant’s status to UKVI within specified deadlines. Changes that must be reported include, but are not limited to, changes in employment or study status (e.g., early termination, change in job role, significant absences, discontinuation of studies); changes in personal information (e.g., change of address, changes in marital status); any suspicions or actual knowledge of a breach of visa conditions.


c. Compliance Checks

Sponsors are expected to conduct regular compliance checks and cooperate with UKVI during audits and inspections.


3. Penalties for Non-Compliance


Failure to comply with sponsorship duties can have severe repercussions for both the sponsor and the migrant.

For the sponsor, non-compliance can result in hefty fines and penalties, including financial sanctions.

In serious cases, a sponsor’s licence can be suspended or revoked, preventing them from sponsoring new migrants and impacting their current sponsored migrants.

Compliance failures can also lead to public censure and damage to the sponsor’s reputation, which can affect their business operations and future recruitment capabilities.

Sponsorship breaches can also impact sponsored workers. If the sponsor’s licence is revoked, the visas of sponsored migrants may also be curtailed, leading to the necessity to leave the UK unless they can secure another sponsor or switch to a different visa category.

Sponsored workers associated with non-compliant sponsors may also face scrutiny in future visa applications, potentially leading to rejection.


Section E: Case Studies


Our experience as sponsorship lawyers supporting UK employers is extensive, spanning sectors and company sizes. The following case studies illustrate some examples of how our UK immigration legal experts work with sponsor licence holders.


Case Study 1: Successful Sponsorship Practice in a Tech Company


A growing tech company in the UK sought to attract top talent in software engineering to maintain its competitive edge.

We worked with the company to audit its existing systems and procedures against the UK Home Office requirements. We identified multiple failings and shortcomings, and devised a plan with recommendations to bring the company up to the required standard. This involved implementing a new proprietary software tool to track and manage all sponsored employees with regular training for HR staff on immigration compliance duties and changes in immigration law.

The company applied for and obtained a sponsorship licence for the Skilled Worker visa category. It now sponsors a growing number of skilled workers, contributing significantly to their growth and innovation capabilities. The firm remains proactive in its compliance efforts and remains ‘match-fit’ should it be subject to an immigration audit.


Case Study 2: Care Sector Business-Critical Sponsor Licence Application Following Refusal


We were approached by this health and social care provider to secure a business-critical sponsor licence for a residential care home following a refused licence application by the Home Office due to compliance breaches.

Overseas care workers became critical for the provider following failed attempts to recruit workers in the UK but there were complications with their new sponsor licence application following previous compliance breaches.

DavidsonMorris were instructed to help the provider meet the required standards and evidence this within the new application/

We were able to secure the sponsor licence for the client by addressing each of the compliance concerns in detail. We continue to work with the provider with ongoing compliance support.


Section F: The Future of Sponsorship in UK Immigration


The future of sponsorship in UK immigration is set to evolve in response to various socio-economic and political pressures, including those arising from post-Brexit adjustments.


1. Trends Influencing Changes in Sponsorship Policies


a. Post-Brexit Adjustments

Since Brexit, the UK has experienced notable shortages in certain skilled sectors such as healthcare, engineering, and information technology. This trend is pushing for a relaxation in sponsorship requirements to attract necessary skills from outside the UK.

The new Immigration Salary List offers a route for those roles deemed to be suffering a shortage of skills, but this list may well expand to better meet the evolving needs of the UK labour market.


b. Technological Advancements

As the Home Office pursues its strategy to digitise the UK immigration system, we are likely to see advances in digital technology and data analytics leading to more streamlined and automated processes for sponsorship applications and compliance monitoring. This could reduce administrative burdens and improve the efficiency of the sponsorship system.


c. Political and Economic Pressures

Immigration is often a response to broader political and economic conditions. Changes in government, economic downturns, or international trade relations can significantly impact immigration policies, including sponsorship rules.


2. Potential Future Changes to the UK Sponsorship System


The future of sponsorship in UK immigration is poised to become more adaptive and responsive to global trends and domestic needs.

This can present risks in areas such as talent planning, for example if certain roles are no longer eligible for sponsorship, but also opportunities, such as when roles become open to sponsored workers.

Staying informed and agile will be key to navigating this evolving landscape, ensuring they can leverage opportunities and mitigate challenges as they arise.

Potential future changes could include:


a. Expansion of Eligible Roles and Sectors

Future legislation may broaden the definition of “skilled worker” or adjust the skill level and salary thresholds for eligible roles, potentially making it easier for more sectors to sponsor international workers.

This would benefit sponsors by providing a larger pool of potential candidates and aiding sectors struggling with domestic skills gaps.


b. Streamlining Sponsorship Processes

Potential legislative changes could further streamline the application and compliance processes for sponsors. This might involve more integrated IT systems, reducing the time and complexity involved in sponsoring a migrant.

Simplified processes could lower the barriers for smaller businesses to become sponsors, diversifying the economic benefits of international talent.


c. Enhanced Compliance and Monitoring

As part of maintaining a robust immigration control environment, future changes might include more sophisticated methods of compliance monitoring, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to flag potential non-compliance.

While this would ensure greater adherence to visa conditions, it could also increase the responsibility and scrutiny of sponsors.


d. Responsive Policy Adjustments

The UK government may adopt more dynamic, responsive adjustments to sponsorship policies to quickly address emerging economic needs or labour market shifts.

Sponsors and migrants could face a more fluctuating regulatory environment, requiring continuous adaptation and engagement with the latest immigration updates.


Section G: Summary


Sponsorship offers UK employers the advantage of accessing the global talent market by bringing essential workers into the country for specific types of roles. However, the ability to recruit internationally comes with a trade-off in the form of strict and onerous compliance obligations on the sponsoring employer.

Through the Uk sponsorship system, the government seeks to ensure that both employers and educational institutions play an active part in managing the lawful flow of migrants into the country.

Understanding these responsibilities is not merely a regulatory requirement but a fundamental aspect of contributing positively to the UK’s socio-economic landscape. Sponsors must ensure they are fully compliant with the immigration rules, which necessitates a robust understanding of their duties and the consequences of any lapses in their responsibilities.

Compliance is paramount, not only to avoid legal repercussions but also to maintain the integrity of the UK’s immigration controls. Sponsors are tasked with a significant responsibility to monitor and report on the activities and status of their migrants. This proactive engagement helps safeguard the sponsor’s ability to continue benefiting from global talent and upholds the standards of the UK’s immigration policy.

As the sponsorship system continues to evolve, particularly in response to post-Brexit changes and global workforce trends, it is increasingly important for sponsors to stay informed and adaptable.

Engaging actively with the latest developments in immigration law will equip sponsors to manage their roles effectively and continue to contribute to the UK’s reputation as a desirable cultural destination for international workers and students.

By embracing these responsibilities and ensuring compliance, sponsors not only protect their own interests but also contribute to the broader goal of creating a fair, effective, and efficient immigration system.

The future of UK immigration is dynamic, and those who participate as sponsors must ensure they are fully informed and actively compliant in undertaking their role within the system.


Section H: Frequently Asked Questions about UK Sponsorship


What is a sponsorship licence?

A sponsorship licence is the permission granted by the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) to an organisation, allowing it to sponsor non-UK resident foreign nationals to come to the UK for work or study. It is required for businesses wanting to employ skilled workers and educational institutions wishing to admit international students.


Who needs a sponsorship licence?

Any UK-based employer looking to hire foreign national skilled workers from outside the UK and any educational institution intending to offer courses to international students need a sponsorship licence.


How do I apply for a sponsorship licence?

To apply, you must submit an online application to UKVI, provide supporting documents that prove your business is legitimate and capable of meeting sponsorship duties, and pay the appropriate fee. A compliance visit from UKVI may also be required.


What are the responsibilities of a sponsor?

Sponsors are required to ensure that their sponsored migrants comply with UK immigration laws. This includes keeping accurate records, reporting significant changes in a migrant’s circumstances to UKVI, and ensuring that the sponsored positions are genuine and necessary.


What happens if I do not comply with my sponsorship duties?
Non-compliance can lead to a range of penalties, including fines, downgrading, suspension, or revocation of your sponsorship licence. Additionally, it could affect the immigration status of the migrants you sponsor.


Can a sponsorship licence be revoked?

Yes, a sponsorship licence can be revoked by UKVI if the sponsor fails to meet their responsibilities, such as failing to keep proper records, not reporting important changes, or engaging in fraudulent activities.


How long does it take to get a sponsorship licence?

The processing time can vary, but it typically takes around eight weeks from the time of application, provided all necessary documentation is correctly submitted and no further information or verification is needed.


Are there different types of sponsorship licences?

There are different types of sponsor licence, catering for different types of individuals being sponsored. The Worker Licence is the most general type and allows sponsorship for a wider range of skilled workers, while the Temporary Worker Licence is for sponsoring workers on a temporary basis, including some volunteer and job shadowing opportunities.


How can I ensure compliance with my sponsorship duties?

Regular training for your HR team, frequent audits of your sponsorship records, and staying updated with the latest immigration laws are effective ways to ensure compliance. Consulting with immigration experts or legal advisors is also advisable.


What is the role of UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) in the sponsorship process?

UKVI oversees the entire sponsorship system. They handle applications, enforce compliance checks, and ensure that sponsors and migrants adhere to UK immigration laws.


Section I: Glossary of UK Sponsorship Terms


Sponsorship Licence: A certification granted by the UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) to an employer or educational institution, allowing them to sponsor foreign nationals to come to the UK for work or study.


UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI): A division of the Home Office responsible for the UK’s visa system, including the application process, issuing visas, and ensuring compliance with immigration laws.


Points-Based System (PBS): A system used by the UK government to manage the flow of migrant workers and students. It assigns points for various criteria to determine eligibility for different types of visas.


Skilled Worker Visa: Replaced the Tier 2 (General) visa post-Brexit, allowing skilled workers to enter the UK if they have a job offer from an approved employer and meet certain criteria, including a minimum salary threshold.


Compliance Audit: An examination conducted by UKVI to ensure that sponsors are adhering to the immigration rules and their duties as sponsors.


Immigration Rules: The regulations set by the UK government that dictate who is allowed to enter or stay in the UK, on what basis, and for how long.


Visa Curtailment: The reduction of the period of validity of a visa, which can happen if a sponsor licence is revoked or if the migrant violates visa conditions.


HR System: Refers to the human resources management system that organisations use to track, manage, and report on employee data, including sponsored migrants, ensuring compliance with sponsorship duties.


Section J: Additional Links


UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) Official Website
Primary resource for all visa-related queries, including application processes, fees, and the latest immigration news.


Guide to the Points-Based System
Detailed information on the Points-Based System, which governs worker and student visas in the UK.


Sponsor a Skilled Worker
Information specifically for employers looking to sponsor skilled workers under the Skilled Worker visa.

Sponsorship Management System (SMS) Guide
A guide for current sponsors on how to manage their sponsorship duties using the Sponsorship Management System.


Global Business Mobility Visa Information
Information on the Global Business Mobility visa routes for businesses.


Scale-up Visa Guide
A resource for fast-growing businesses that need to employ skilled workers from outside the UK under the Scale-up visa.


UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA)
Provides information and support to international students and educational institutions on issues related to studying and living in the UK.


Office for International Students’ Affairs (OISA)
Advice and regulatory updates for institutions sponsoring international students.



Founder and Managing Director Anne Morris is a fully qualified solicitor and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

She is a recognised by Legal 500 and Chambers as a legal expert and delivers Board-level advice on business migration and compliance risk management as well as overseeing the firm’s development of new client propositions and delivery of cost and time efficient processing of applications.

Anne is an active public speaker, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

About DavidsonMorris

As employer solutions lawyers, DavidsonMorris offers a complete and cost-effective capability to meet employers’ needs across UK immigration and employment law, HR and global mobility.

Led by Anne Morris, one of the UK’s preeminent immigration lawyers, and with rankings in The Legal 500 and Chambers & Partners, we’re a multi-disciplinary team helping organisations to meet their people objectives, while reducing legal risk and nurturing workforce relations.

Legal Disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct at the time of writing, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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