Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa – A Hidden Gem for Start-Ups


Despite the UK Government’s widespread tightening of immigration policies, the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa criteria have been relaxed for tech start-ups.

Since billion dollar internet companies can theoretically be based anywhere, it’s vital the UK offers an attractive proposition for start-ups. Countries like Australia, Canada and Chile have already recognised the tax revenue on offer and relaxed their own immigration rules for start-up companies to set up there.

While take up was initially low of the visa opportunities exclusively available to UK tech companies and start-ups, Tech City UK figures from 2016 show a fourfold surge in applications.

What is the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, and how can start-ups make use of it to meet their talent needs?

Limited applications

Of the 2000 Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas granted each year, 200 of the first 1000 are reserved for the tech industry . To put that in context, there are about 50,000 Tier 2 visas granted.

The remaining 1000 places are unallocated and are available to any Designated Competent Body once it has used its allocated places. The Designated Competent Body for the tech sector is Tech Nation. Priority will be given based on the date of application.

The tech sector argues this figure falls far short of what is needed, yet the Government has reported that the limit has never come close to being reached.

On 22 January 2016, it was reported that Tech Nation had received only 37 applications since the previous April. Twenty-eight had been endorsed.

So it appears there is room for more start-ups to take advantage of this relatively relaxed visa option.

How the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa works

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, as the name suggests, is aimed at those who are considered to be exceptionally talented individuals outside of the EEA, in fields of science, humanities, engineering, the arts and digital technology.

The Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Arts Council England and Tech City UK are mandated to identify and endorse ‘exceptional talent’ in each of these areas.

Visas are granted for a maximum of five years, after which an applicant can apply for settlement.

On this visa, a person may be employed or self employed, work for any employer and take up employment in any sector at any level. Although, if they wish to extend leave or apply for settlement, they will need to demonstrate that they have worked in their field of speciality.

Dependants can also accompany the applicant if they meet the relevant requirements.

Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa Application Process

There is a two-stage application process. First, apply to Tech City for endorsement. Then make an application to the Home Office for a visa.

Stage 1 – Endorsement Criteria

Mandatory Criteria (must meet at least one of two):

  • A proven track record of innovation working in the digital technology sector as director or founder of a digital technology sector company, or an employee working in a new digital field or concept; or
  • Proof of recognition for work outside of your immediate occupation that has contributed to the advancement of the sector (e.g. by mentoring, advising, teaching or participating in clubs and societies).

Qualifying Criteria (must meet at least two of four):

  • Significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contribution in the digital technology sector as either an entrepreneur, director, or founder of a digital technology company;
  • Recognised as a world leading talent in the digital technology sector;
  • Undergone continuous learning / mastery of new digital skills (commercial or technical) throughout your career;
  • Demonstrated exceptional ability in the field by making academic contributions through research (e.g. journals or awards).

If an applicant cannot meet the qualifying and/or mandatory criteria, but has evidence demonstrating potential to do so in the future, they can apply as a candidate with exceptional promise.

If an applicant disagrees with a decision to refuse endorsement, there is a review process in place.

Fast Track Applications

There are also opportunities to fast track applications where:

  1. Applicants are planning to make a contribution in Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Sunderland.
  2. Applicants have specific skills that are particularly in need in the UK.
  3. Applicants are part of a team of five or more (this allows UK start-ups to poach entire teams from abroad. Each of the individuals in the team must qualify in their own right).

It may also be possible to make an application for endorsement through the Royal Academy of Engineering for engineers with ICT or electronic skills.

Stage 2 – Immigration Application

After receiving endorsement, the Home Office must consider whether there are any general grounds for refusal.

Interestingly, the usual requirements of maintenance and sufficient English language do not apply to this visa.

Given the small number of applicants, the high endorsement rate and the relaxed criteria for those with “potential”, this visa offers a genuine opportunity for UK start-ups to recruit talent from abroad.

In an industry filled with innovative people, it surely won’t be long before this little known visa becomes oversubscribed.

If you have a query about the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa, please get in touch.


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 500and 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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