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UK Immigration Laws Overview

UK immigration laws determine who can enter the UK, who can stay and what they are permitted to do while they are here. This body of law is vast, disparate, complex and subject to frequent change.

In addition to the legislation, UK immigration legal framework is further defined by extensive rules and guidance documents, which further compound the myriad of sources that govern UK immigration.


What are the UK’s immigration laws?

The current body of law comprises the Immigration Rules, extensive case law as well as primary legislation:

  • Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Act 2020 Abolishes EU free movement at the end of the Brexit transition period (31 December 2020), making way for the UK’s new points-based immigration system
  • Immigration Act 2016 Introduced substantial changes in illegal migration rules and punitive measures for those in breach
  • Immigration Act 2014
  • Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009
  • Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008
  • Tribunals, Courts and enforcement Act 2007
  • UK Borders Act 2007
  • Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 Introduced the five-tier points system for awarding entry visas with limited rights of appeal. The act also introduced fines against employers for each illegal employee.
  • Asylum and Immigration (etc) Act 2004 Introduced the current, single form of appeal.
  • Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 The first English test and citizenship exam for immigrants.
  • Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • Special Immigration Appeals Commission Act 1997
  • Asylum and Immigration Act 1993 It became a criminal offence to employ anyone unless they had permission to live and work in the UK.
  • Immigration Act 1988 Ensured people with freedom of movement in the European Community did not need leave to enter or remain in the UK.
  • British Nationality Act 1981 The law on the acquisition of British nationality by birth, adoption, descent, registration and naturalisation.
  • Immigration Act 1971 Currently this is the primary statute dealing with rules on migration. Commonwealth citizens lost their automatic right to remain in the UK, meaning they faced the same restrictions as those from elsewhere.
  • Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1968
  • British Nationality Act 1948
  • British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914
  • Aliens Act 1905


The net effect is that it has become increasingly difficult for applicants to understand the rules and their options, and to navigate the Home Office’s system of procedures.

But against this backdrop, life goes on – people move, marry, migrate. Companies need to recruit migrant workers, since the UK labour market continues to suffer shortages across sectors and skills.

And yet, rather than offering UK plc a framework in which to access much-needed talent for wider economic benefit, the UK immigration rules in their present form fail in many ways to enable UK employers to meet recruitment and talent needs.


Post-Brexit changes in UK immigration laws

Prior to the end of EU free movement, the UK immigration system operated along two strands, with EU nationals and their dependants subject to different rules than non-EEA citizens.

From 1 January 20201, all non-UK residents will require permission to come to the UK to live, work or study. Fundamentally the new system is based on two premises:

  • Removing immigration preference based on nationality – as EU free movement ends.
  • Focus visa eligibility on skills-based criteria


To gain entry into the UK, foreign nationals must first have been granted leave to enter or remain under the relevant provisions of the UK Immigration Rules. In many cases, particularly for those looking to work in the UK under a sponsored skilled worker visa, this will require the individual to meet the relevant eligibility requirements for the specific route they are applying for.

The reforms will require UK employers to hold a valid sponsorship licence for permission to hire migrant workers from 1 January 2021.

EU nationals already resident in the UK by 31 December 2020 will not be subject to the new rules, provided they have registered for EU settled status by 30 June 2021.

Under the new rules, companies will continue to have to meet the strict prevention of illegal working duties, to check and verify the lawful status of all employees to be in and to work in the UK or face severe Home Office penalties. In effect, employers are by law required to act as frontline immigration enforcement.

DavidsonMorris are specialists in UK immigration. We are a team of immigration solicitors and legal experts dedicated to UK immigration law. We work with businesses and individuals to help understand their immigration options and support with making any necessary applications to the Home Office. Contact us for advice on  your UK immigration matter.


Last updated: 30 October 2020 

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