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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?

UK immigration laws derive from a number of different sources. In addition to numerous statutes and the ever-changing Immigration Rules, there are a huge number of statutory instruments, containing all kinds of procedural rules and regulations. This is in addition to Home Office issued guidance, plus a large volume of case law. These, together with relevant international and EU law that still applies post-Brexit, make up the body of immigration law in the UK, the result being a complicated patchwork of legislation.

However, at the heart of UK immigration law lies the Immigration Act 1971 (IA). The IA gives the Secretary of State for the Home Department (SSHD) the statutory power to lay rules regulating the entry into, and stay in the UK, of persons requiring leave. This includes different categories of entry and stay, and the duration and conditions of leave within those categories. These are known as the UK’s Immigration Rules. The Immigration Rules are not delegated legislation, but over the years have increasingly taken the form of mandatory requirements, rather than guidance to decision-makers on their use of discretion.

Statements of Changes to the Immigration Rules are subject to what is known as a negative resolution procedure, by which each statement of change is laid before Parliament and will take effect as set out in the statement. The Rules are updated on a regular basis, where all Statement of Changes can be found online at GOV.UK. As such, when assessing UK immigration laws, the UK’s Immigration Rules, together with any recent Statement of Changes, provide a useful starting point for those looking to come to or remain in the UK.

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

  • Nationality and Borders Act 2022 Introduced toreform the asylum system and tackle illegal entry into the UK.
  • 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 Introduced a new criminal offence of illegal working.
  • Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Act 2009
  • Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008
  • Tribunals, Courts and enforcement Act 2007
  • UK Borders Act 2007 Introduced biometric visas and established the UK Border Agency.
  • 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 Appeals 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 UK immigration law: where are we now? 

Following the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), the UK’s immigration system has been completely overhauled, not least to make provision for EEA and Swiss nationals who no longer automatically have freedom of movement to work, study, visit or live in the UK.

Free movement with the EU ended on 31 December 2020, although a transitional period lasted until 31 December 2021, before new arrangements for EEA and Swiss nationals fully came into effect. In this way, as from 1 January 2021, EU and non-EU citizens have been treated equally in the context of UK immigration laws, with the exception only of Irish citizens who have continued to enjoy the right to freely enter and reside in the UK.

However, one of the main changes to UK immigration laws has been to introduce the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS). The EUSS provided a basis, consistent with the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU — and with the citizens’ rights agreements reached with the other EEA countries and Switzerland — for EEA and Swiss nationals resident in the UK by the end of the transition period to apply for lawful immigration status for free. Those agreements now have effect through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, as amended by the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.

Incorporated into Appendix EU to the UK’s Immigration Rules, thousands of EEA and Swiss nationals, and their family members, have now been granted either settled or pre-settled status, depending on how long they had lived in the UK when they applied. The deadline for most applications was 30 June 2021, where the additional 6 months following the end of the transitional stage provided a grace period for those who were resident in the UK by the end of 2020, but were yet to apply for immigration status. Whilst it is still possible, in limited cases, for applicants to apply to the EUSS, most EEA and Swiss nationals will now be required to apply for a suitable visa to give them permission to enter or stay in the UK.


New routes under UK immigration laws

There are a number of immigration routes now open to both EEA and non-EEA nationals. These include various routes that were already in force prior to Brexit, that have either been revised or rebranded, as well as several brand new routes, many of which have been designed to attract the best and brightest to the UK to help build back the UK economy.

Below we look at some key examples of UK immigration laws in the context of coming to the UK to work or study, in each case referencing the section of the Immigration Rules which regulate the entry into, and stay in the UK, of those requiring leave. We also look at the new rules for EEA and Swiss nationals around visiting the UK.

For each example given, we highlight some of the key caseworker guidance provided by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), setting out how the Immigration Rules are to be interpreted and applied in practice. UKVI is the division of the Home Office responsible for the UK’s visa system, where it is UKVI caseworkers that make the day-to-day decisions on thousands of visa applications, as well as deciding applications from UK-based employers and educational institutions to be approved as sponsors of overseas workers and students.


Work routes

The Skilled Worker route is one of the primary sponsored immigration routes for migrant workers coming to the UK to undertake a skilled job role. Previously known as the Tier 2 visa route, the Skilled Worker visa was in place prior to Brexit, but has now been opened up to EEA and Swiss nationals. It has also been simplified and streamlined. This visa will allow an applicant to come to the UK to do an eligible job with a licensed sponsor, provided they have the offer of a job that meets the minimum skill and salary requirements for this route.

The rules and requirements for a Skilled Worker visa can be found under Appendix Skilled Worker to the UK’s Immigration Rules. Reference should also be made to the most recent UKVI ‘Skilled Worker’ caseworker guidance.

Similarly, the Senior or Specialist Worker visa has replaced the Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) visa, and allows both EEA and non-EEA nationals to work in an eligible job role at their employer’s UK branch. For those undertaking a graduate trainee programme at a UK branch of their overseas employer, they will now need to apply for a Graduate Trainee visa, which has replaced the Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) Graduate Trainee visa.

The rules and requirements relating to these new revised routes can be found under Appendix Global Business Mobility (GBM) routes. This part of the UK’s Immigration Rules also sets out other GBM routes, including GBM UK Expansion Worker, which replaces the Sole Representative route, as well as GBM Service Supplier, which replaces the former International Agreement route, and the brand new GBM Secondment Worker route.

Other new or revised routes include:

  • The Global Talent visa: introduced on 20 February 2020, replacing the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, this route allows leaders or potential leaders in the fields of arts and culture, academia or research and digital technology to work in the UK without sponsorship;
  • The Graduate visa: introduced on 1 July 2021, this visa route offers recent international graduates the flexibility to stay on in the UK and look for work;
  • The High Potential Individual visa: introduced on 30 May 2022, this visa is available to academically elite applicants who have been awarded a qualification by a top university;
  • The Scale-up visa: introduced on 22 August 2022, this allows the visa-holder to come to the UK to do an eligible job for a fast-growing UK business, whilst giving the visa-holder the flexibility to work for any employer after a period of just 6 months.

The rules and requirements relating to these immigration routes can be found under Appendix Global Talent, Appendix Graduate, Appendix High Potential Individual and Appendix Scale-up, with the relevant caseworker guidance.


Study routes

Prior to Brexit, there were two student visa routes available to foreign nationals. These remain in place, but with various revisions, and have now been opened up to EEA and Swiss nationals. These include the Student visa and the Child Student visa routes.

In broad terms, EEA and non-EEA nationals can apply for a Student visa to undertake a course of studies in the UK if they are aged 16 or over and have been offered a place on a suitable course by a licensed student sponsor. They must also be able to speak, read, write and understand English, and have enough money to pay for their course and support themselves in the UK, although the amount will vary depending on their circumstances.

An applicant can apply for a Child Student visa if they are aged between 4-17 years and they want to study at an independent school in the UK. However, they must have an unconditional offer of a place, and be able to show that they will have access to enough money to pay for their course and living costs. For students under 18, whether applying for a Student or Child Student visa, they will also need the consent of their parent or guardian.

The various different requirements that must be met under either of the two student routes can be found under Appendix Student and Appendix Child Student to the UK’s Immigration Rules.


Visitor routes

Prior to Brexit, all EEA and Swiss nationals enjoyed the right to travel freely to and from the UK, without restriction. However, even though freedom of movement has now come to an end, as non-visa nationals, EEA and Swiss nationals who want to visit the UK for less than 6 months can normally seek entry on their arrival in the UK. This essentially means that, in most cases, EEA and Swiss nationals will not be required to apply for a visa in advance of travel for the purposes of tourism, visiting friends and family, carrying out a business activity or even undertaking a short course of study.

Importantly, visa-free travel does not necessarily guarantee entry to the UK, where Border Force officials must still be satisfied that the intentions of anyone seeking entry are genuine and that they will leave the UK at the end of their trip. Equally, any overseas national, including EEA and Swiss nationals, looking to come to the UK for more than 6 months or for reasons not permitted under the visitor rules, will need to apply for a suitable visa.

The various different requirements that must be met under the Visitor route can be found under Appendix V: Visitor to the UK’s Immigration Rules.



The deadline to apply to the EUSS was 30 June 2021 for most EEA and Swiss nationals. However, applications are still being accepted if the applicant or their family are from the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein, and they or a family member were living in the UK by 31 December 2020. The applicant must also either:

  • meet one of the specific criteria for a later deadline to apply
  • have ‘reasonable grounds’ for not applying by 30 June 2021, for example, they had a serious illness or were the victim of domestic abuse.

Those with pre-settled status should apply for full status once they have attained their five years’ continuous residence.


Need assistance?

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 immigration and nationality applications to the Home Office. Contact us for advice on  your UK immigration matter.


UK Immigration laws FAQs

What is new immigration law in UK?

The UK’s Immigration Rules, which represent some of the most important pieces of legislation that make up UK immigration laws, are updated through Statements of Changes.

What are the requirements to immigrate to UK?

When relocating to the UK, the necessary requirements will depend on the immigration route under which permission is sought and the rules for that specific route. However, in most cases, you will need to satisfy a continuous residence requirement.

What is the new immigration law in UK 2022?

Various changes have been made to UK immigration laws throughout 2022, including the introduction of several new or rebranded immigration routes under the Global Business Mobility (GBM) umbrella, including the GBM Senior or Specialist Worker visa.

Can anyone emigrate to the UK?

Not everyone can emigrate permanently to the UK, where much will depend on whether or not an applicant can meet the eligibility requirements to live in the UK on a permanent basis. An applicant must also satisfy the various suitability requirements.

Last updated: 3 December 2022

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