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 between £610 and £1408, and will be dictated by the applicant’s circumstances. This fee will be reduced by £55 for most EEA nationals. The fee will be lower 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.
Global Business Mobility visa
Launched on 11 April 2022, the Global Business Mobility route has five sub-categories of visas designed for different types of workers.
Whilst none of these routes lead to settlement, they allow for workers with specific expertise to be deployed to the UK with greater flexibility and agility, to support specific projects or commercial needs.
The Senior or Specialist worker visa replaces the ICT visa, allowing senior and specialist workers to move swiftly and with ease between the UK and international offices. Candidates have to currently be working for the sponsor overseas and have worked outside the UK for the sponsor for a continuous period of at least 12 months unless classed as a high earner.
The Graduate Trainee visa is for companies in the UK with overseas operations that have graduates undertaking training who need specialised training to gain the experience of a work placement in the UK that is leading to a specialised role or senior management position. This route can help enhance overseas companies’ existing graduate trainee programmes by allowing their trainees to gain experience within UK operations, enhancing relations between overseas operations.
The UK Expansion Worker visa has replaced the Sole Representative Business visa, allowing overseas companies to deploy multiple representatives to the UK to establish and expand UK-based operations.
The Service Suppliers visa is for contractual service suppliers and self-employed independent professionals based overseas. This route will be useful when companies are engaging specialist contractors in highly niche areas or on project-specific requirements.
The fifth subcategory under the GBM route is the Secondment Workers visa, which is a brand new route for workers being seconded to the UK as part of a high value contract or investment by overseas employers.
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.
High Potential Individual route
The High Potential Individual Route aims to attract international graduates to the UK, and has the potential to open up graduate recruitment programmes to non-UK graduates. Opening on 30 May 2022, the visa allows international graduates from certain high calibre, overseas universities to come to the UK without a job offer or a UK degree, provided they meet the eligibility requirements, such as obtaining their degree within the previous 5 years.
Visa holders can stay for a period of 2 years, or 3 years where the applicant holds a qualification equivalent to a UK PhD. As with the Graduate route, this visa is short term but allows holders to switch into a longer term worker route, such as the Skilled Worker visa, where they meet the visa requirements.
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 an 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 from outside the UK for a Start-Up visa is £363 and the Innovator visa is £1021, while applications to switch from another visa inside the UK to the Start Up route is £493 and the Innovator route is £1277, 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.
Temporary Worker visas
In addition to the various unsponsored and long-term sponsored work routes, there are also a number of short-term sponsored UK work visa.
There are six Temporary Worker routes for which an overseas national can be sponsored to come to the UK: Creative Worker visa; Charity Worker visa; Religious Worker visa; Government Authorised Exchange Worker visa; International Agreement Worker visa; and the Seasonal Worker visa. 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 High Potential Individual visa, the Graduate route and Global Talent visas, although various other route-specific requirements must still be met.
Last updated: 2 January 2023