Non-UK residents require permission to work in the UK. In most cases, this means applying for a UK work visa.
There are many different work visa routes available, focused mainly on skilled workers, entrepreneurs, investors and specific schemes designed to attract certain profiles of workers. Importantly, there is no general work visa or permit for casual or low-skilled employment.
The first step then is to select the most appropriate category, ensuring eligibility and understanding the application process, costs and leadtimes.
In this guide, we summarise the main UK work visas, setting out who each visa is aimed at, how long the visa lasts, what this allows, the main eligibility requirements, the cost of applying, and whether a particular route will provide the visa-holder with a path to settlement.
Do you need a visa to work in the UK?
Under the UK’s points-based system, there are various immigration routes, both short and long-term, under which an overseas national can apply for leave to enter or remain in the UK for the purpose of work. Following the end of free movement between the UK and the EU, with the exception of Irish citizens, all EEA and non-EEA nationals who are not settled workers or do not otherwise have permission to undertake work in the UK will need a visa.
Skilled Worker visa
The Skilled Worker visa is a sponsored UK work visa designed for migrant workers to work in a specific job within an eligible skilled occupation for a Home Office-approved employer. The Skilled Worker visa replaces the previous Tier 2 (General) visa under the old rules.
The cost of applying under the Skilled Worker route ranges from £610 to £1,408, depending on the applicant’s circumstances, although the fee will be reduced by £55 for most EEA nationals. This will be lower still if the job is on the shortage occupation list. Applicants will also need to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge.
In most cases, when recruiting a skilled migrant worker, the sponsoring organisation must pay an Immigration Skills Charge. The amount payable is based on its size or status, and the length of employment as set out in the sponsorship certificate. For small or charitable sponsors the cost is £364 for the first 12 months and £182 for each additional 6 months. For medium or large sponsors the cost is £1,000, plus £500 for every 6 months thereafter.
To qualify for a Skilled Worker visa, the applicant must have a genuine job offer from a UK licensed sponsor that meets the minimum salary and skill requirements. The salary and skills threshold has been lowered under the new rules, making it easier for UK businesses to recruit skilled migrant workers, although a certificate of sponsorship from an employer licensed on this route is still a mandatory requirement. The applicant must also have sufficient funds to support themselves on their arrival in the UK and be able to speak English to a set standard.
A successful applicant will be granted a Skilled Worker visa for up to 5 years. There’s no limit on how many times this visa can be extended, provided the applicant continues to meet the relevant requirements under this route. A Skilled Worker who has held permission under this route for a period of 5 years can also apply to settle in the UK on a permanent basis.
Intra-Company transfer visa
The Intra-Company visa is a sponsored UK work visa designed for established workers being transferred by their overseas employer to do a skilled job for a linked employer in the UK or, alternatively, for those being transferred to undertake a role in the UK as part of a structured graduate training programme. These two Intra-Company routes replace the Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) Long-Term Staff and Graduate Trainee routes under the old rules.
The cost of applying for an Intra-Company visa ranges from £610 to £1,408, reduced to £482 for graduate trainees, with a further £55 reduction for those from eligible countries. The applicant will also have to pay the healthcare surcharge for each year of their stay, and the UK employer will usually be liable to pay the Immigration Skills Charge, unless sponsoring someone under the Intra-Company Graduate Trainee category.
The Intra-Company routes enable multinational companies to move their workers between subsidiary branches, although the applicant must still be assigned a certificate of sponsorship from a linked Home Office-approved UK employer for a role meeting the minimum skill and salary requirements. With the exception of high earners, applicants must have worked for their overseas employer for a minimum period of time before applying. They must also meet a financial maintenance requirement, but won’t need to prove their knowledge of English.
The length of time someone can stay in the UK on an Intra-Company visa depends on which sub-category they’re applying under and how long their employer is sponsoring them for. This visa can be extended, subject to a maximum total stay of up to 5 years in any 6-year period for established transferees or 9 years in any 10 year period for high earners. The Intra-Company routes are therefore not routes to settlement in the UK, although visa-holders may be eligible to switch into the Skilled Worker route if they meet the relevant requirements.
Sole representative visa
Companies that are not already trading in the UK or do not have a base here will not be eligible to sponsor migrant workers for a work visa. Any non-UK business looking to establish a UK-based entity, branch or presence would need to deploy a key member of their personnel under the Sole Representative route if they are to remain in the UK for more than 6 months.
If the plan is for the worker to be in the UK for a short term stay of up to 6 months, the worker may be able to enter as a business visitor, but it is advisable to confirm that the planned activities are permissible under the visitor visa rules before travel.
For stays of longer than 6 months, the Sole Representative visa would be appropriate, to allow the worker to carry out the work required to establish the UK-based business.
Health and Care Worker visa
The Health and Care Worker visa is a sponsored UK work visa designed for overseas medical professionals to work in an eligible job role with the NHS or NHS supplier, or within the adult social care sector. This visa forms a sub-category of the Skilled Worker route, but offers significantly reduced fees to encourage overseas healthcare professionals to work in the UK.
The cost of applying for a Health and Care Worker visa, from either inside or outside the UK, is either £232 or £464, depending on the length of stay, with a £55 reduction for most European nationals. The Immigration Skills Charge still applies for sponsoring employers, but eligible applicants will be exempt from having to pay the healthcare surcharge.
To qualify for a Health and Care Worker visa, the applicant must be either a qualified doctor, nurse, or health or adult social care professional who will be working in an eligible occupation for a UK licensed employer that meets the minimum salary requirements. Applicants must also meet a financial maintenance and English language requirement.
As with any Skilled Worker visa, there’s no maximum length of stay under a Health and Care Worker visa, where applicants may be granted up to 5 years’ leave at a time. Successful visa-holders can also apply for indefinite leave to remain after a period of 5 years.
The Graduate visa is an unsponsored UK work visa designed for overseas students who have been awarded their degree to stay on in the UK to work, or look for work, for at least 2 years. This time is extended to 3 years for doctoral students. The cost of applying for a Graduate visa is £700, with the £55 reduction for eligible applicants. The applicant will also need to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge, but there are no employer-associated costs here.
To qualify for a Graduate visa, the applicant must have successfully completed a degree at at least undergraduate level, or one of the limited professional qualifications, with a suitable higher education provider. They must also have studied in the UK for a minimum period of time, and still be in the UK with valid leave under their Student visa when they apply.
The route was introduced under the UK’s points-based system in 2021 to help those who have successfully completed their course of studies to gain work experience in the UK. It will also give UK employers the opportunity to benefit from a rich pool of international graduate talent. As an unsponsored route, applicants will not need a job offer from a UK employer to apply for this visa, and they can work in a job at any skill or salary level. Graduate visa-holders will be able to work flexibly, switch jobs, work for themselves and undertake voluntary work.
The graduate visa cannot be extended beyond the initial 2 or 3-year grant of leave, although the visa-holder may be able to switch to a different visa, such as the Skilled Worker visa, provided they meet the relevant requirements. This will then provide a path to settlement.
Global Talent visa
The Global Talent visa is an unsponsored UK work visa designed for leaders or potential leaders in the fields of academia, research, arts and culture, or digital technology. The cost of applying for this visa is £608, reduced by £55 where applicable, plus the healthcare surcharge.
To qualify for a Global Talent visa, an applicant must either have successfully applied for an endorsement to prove that they’re a leader or potential leader in their specialist field, or have won an eligible award, in which case they can bypass the endorsement stage.
The Global Talent visa allows the most highly-skilled migrants to come to the UK for up to 5 years at a time, with the flexibility to undertake a range of activities without being tied to a specific sponsor. In this way, the UK can benefit from their unique knowledge and skills.
It also offers fast-track pathways and unlimited extensions, together with an accelerated route to settlement. Depending on the field of work, the Global Talent visa-holder may be able to apply to settle permanently in the UK after just 3 years.
Start-Up & Innovator visas
The Start-up visa is a unsponsored UK work visa designed for those wanting to set up their first business in the UK, but who need to work to support themselves while developing their ideas. The Innovator visa is for experienced entrepreneurs with industry experience and at least £50,000 funding, who can dedicate their time to their business venture, or those moving from the Start-up visa who are progressing their venture and have day-to-day involvement.
The cost of applying for a Start-Up/Innovator visa is £363/£1,021 from outside the UK, and £493/£1,277 to switch from another visa inside the UK, with a £55 reduction for eligible European applicants. Visa applicants will also have to pay the healthcare surcharge.
For both the Start-Up and Innovator visas, the applicant must be endorsed by an authorised body that’s either a UK higher education provider or a business with a track record of supporting UK-based entrepreneurs. The endorsing bodies will assess each application to ensure that the business or business idea is innovative, viable and scalable. Applicants must also meet both a financial maintenance and English language requirement.
A successful applicant under the Start-Up route will be allowed to stay in the UK for 2 years, and although this cannot be extended, they may be eligible to switch to the Innovator visa. The Innovator visa is granted for a period of 3 years, with no limit on how many times this can be extended. An application for settlement can be made after 3 years.
Tier 1 Investor visa
The Tier 1 Investor visa is an unsponsored UK work visa designed for those wanting to invest £2,000,000 or more in the UK. The cost of applying for this visa is £1,623, plus the annual healthcare surcharge for each year of stay.
To qualify for this visa, applicants must show they have a minimum of £2 million investment funds held in at least one regulated financial institution which they’re able to freely invest.
Under the Tier 1 Investor route, successful applicants can come to the UK for a maximum of 3 years and 4 months, although they can apply to extend their visa by an extra 2 years. The visa-holder can also apply to settle in the UK after 5 years, with an accelerated path to settlement for those who invest even greater sums of money in the UK.
T5 Temporary Worker visa
In addition to the various unsponsored and long-term sponsored work routes, there are also a number of short-term sponsored UK work visas. The T5 Temporary Worker visas are designed to enable successful applicants to come to the UK in a variety of short-term roles to help satisfy cultural, charitable, religious or international objectives, and for meeting seasonal employment needs in the UK’s edible horticultural sector.
The cost of applying for a T5 UK work visa is £244, but with a £55 reduction where applicable, plus the healthcare surcharge for stays of more than 6 months.
There are six Temporary Worker routes for which an overseas national can be sponsored to come to the UK: Creative or Sporting Worker; Charity Worker; Religious Worker; Government Authorised Exchange Worker; International Agreement Worker; and Seasonal Worker. In all cases, the applicant will require a valid certificate of sponsorship from a UK licensed sponsor. They must also meet a financial maintenance requirement, together with various other route-specific requirements. If successful, what the visa holder can and cannot do will depend on the particular route in question, with maximum lengths of stay of between 6 months and 2 years.
There’s also an additional unsponsored short-term route, known as the Youth Mobility Scheme. This is a cultural exchange scheme that provides young people aged between 18 and 30 from participating countries with a chance to experience life in the UK for up to 2 years. This route doesn’t require the applicant to have an offer of a job, but they will need to satisfy a much higher financial requirement to show that they can support themselves whilst in the UK.
Even if an applicant meets all of the eligibility requirements for a UK work visa, they can still be refused permission to either enter or stay in the UK under the general grounds for refusal. By seeking expert advice before applying for a visa, or prior to recruiting an overseas national on a sponsored work route, this can help to maximise the prospects of a successful outcome.
DavidsonMorris are UK immigration specialists. We support employers, entrepreneurs, investors, workers and their families with all types of UK visas, settlement and nationality applications. For advice on UK work visa options, contact us.
UK work visa FAQs
How do you get a work visa for the UK?
To get a UK work visa, you will need to apply online, pay the application fee plus any healthcare surcharge, and submit your supporting documents. You may also need to attend an appointment to give your biometric information.
Is it difficult to get a UK work visa?
Some UK work visas are more difficult to obtain than others, with different route-specific requirements. In many cases, the applicant will need to have the offer of a job meeting minimum skill and salary requirements from a licensed sponsor.
How much money is required for work visa in UK?
The amount of money required for a UK work visa will vary, depending on the visa type and the applicant’s circumstances. Applicants may also need to pay an Immigration Health Surcharge and meet a financial maintenance requirement.
Can I apply for UK work visa without job offer?
There are a number of UK work visas which do not require a job offer from a UK licensed sponsor, including the Graduate and Global Talent visas, although various other strict route-specific requirements must still be met.
Last updated: 28 August 2021