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Work Rights for Migrants with UK Visas

migrant workers' rights


Foreign nationals in the UK holding valid visas may be granted specific work rights, allowing them to be employed or self-employed, depending on their visa type. These rights are subject to certain restrictions and conditions, which vary based on the visa category.

Migrants must ensure they understand the relevant visa conditions to avoid legal complications or breaching the immigration rules or the terms of their status.


Section A: Types of UK Visas and Work Rights


The UK offers a variety of visas, each with specific work rights and conditions, designed to accommodate different categories of migrants:


a. Skilled Worker Visa is one of the most common work visas, aimed at skilled workers who have been offered a job by a UK employer with a valid sponsorship licence. Holders of this visa are allowed to work for their sponsoring employer in the job described in their certificate of sponsorship. They may also engage in supplementary employment under certain conditions. However, they must not access public funds, and any changes in employment must be reported and possibly approved by the Home Office.


b. Temporary Worker Visas cover several sub-categories, including the Youth Mobility Scheme, Creative Workers, Charity Workers, Religious Workers, and Government Authorised Exchanges. Each sub-category permits migrants to work in the UK for a limited period, often up to 12 or 24 months, in roles related to their visa type.

Restrictions typically include not taking permanent employment and adhering to specific job roles outlined in their visa application. They must also not access public funds and must work only for their sponsor unless stated otherwise.


c. Student Visas allow international students to work part-time during term time (usually up to 20 hours per week) and full-time during holidays. They can undertake work placements as part of their course. The key restrictions include not being able to engage in certain professions, such as professional sportsperson or entertainer, and ensuring that work does not interfere with their studies. Students must also not claim public funds.


d. Innovator Founder allows foreign nationals to establish innovative businesses in the UK. To qualify, applicants need endorsement from a UK-approved endorsing body, which assesses the business idea’s potential for growth and economic contribution. A credible business plan outlining the venture’s viability and scalability is also essential. Successful applicants receive an initial visa for two years, with the possibility of an extension for three more years and a path to settlement in the UK.


e. Family Visas allow individuals to join family members in the UK who are British citizens or settled persons. These visas often come with work rights, enabling holders to work either as employed or self-employed. However, the specific conditions may vary, and applicants must not access public funds and must comply with the conditions outlined in their visa.


f. Global Talent Visa is for individuals who are leaders or potential leaders in academia, research, arts, culture, and digital technology. This visa allows significant flexibility, permitting holders to work for employers, be self-employed, and even change jobs without needing to inform the Home Office. It is designed to attract top global talent to the UK, offering fewer restrictions compared to other visa types.


Section B: Employed Work Rights for Migrants


Employed work for migrants in the UK refers to working under a contract of employment for an employer. This includes receiving wages for services provided, being subject to the employer’s control and direction, and being integrated into the employer’s business.

Migrants who are legally employed in the UK have the same employment rights as resident workers, designed to protect them and ensure fair treatment. These rights include the entitlement to a written contract of employment that outlines job responsibilities, salary, working hours, and other terms of employment. Employers are required to provide this contract within two months of the start date.

Working hours for employed migrants are regulated by the Working Time Regulations, which typically limit the workweek to 48 hours, unless the employee opts out of this limit. Migrants are also entitled to rest breaks, daily rest periods of at least 11 consecutive hours, and a weekly rest period of 24 hours. Additionally, employees have the right to paid annual leave, usually a minimum of 28 days including public holidays.

Regarding minimum wage and salary expectations, employed migrants must receive at least the National Minimum Wage or the National Living Wage, depending on their age. As of 2024, the National Living Wage applies to workers aged 23 and over, while the National Minimum Wage rates vary for those under 23. Employers must ensure that wages are paid correctly and on time, and any deductions made from wages must be lawful and agreed upon in the employment contract.

Employment contracts and legal protections are fundamental aspects of employed work rights for migrants. The contract must detail the terms of employment, including job duties, pay, working hours, holiday entitlement, and notice periods. Migrants have the right to work in a safe and healthy environment, and employers are obligated to comply with health and safety laws to prevent workplace injuries and illnesses.

Migrants are also protected against discrimination based on race, nationality, religion, gender, age, disability, and other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. This ensures that they are treated fairly and have equal opportunities in the workplace. If a migrant believes they have been unfairly treated, they can seek redress through employment tribunals.

Migrants also have the right to join a trade union and participate in its activities, providing a collective voice to negotiate better working conditions, pay, and other employment terms. Trade unions can also offer support and representation in case of workplace disputes or grievances.


Section C: Self-Employed Work Rights for Migrants


Self-employed work for migrants in the UK involves running their own business, freelancing, or working as an independent contractor. Unlike employed work, self-employed individuals are not tied to a single employer and have greater control over their work, hours, and business operations.


1. Routes Permitting Self-Employment


Migrants in the UK can be self-employed under specific immigration categories, each with its own set of conditions and eligibility requirements. The primary visa categories that allow self-employment include:


a. Innovator Founder Visa: This visa is designed for individuals looking to operate a business in the UK. It is open to entrepreneurs with innovative, viable business ideas. There are no specific investment requirements, and the business idea must have been endorsed by an approved body.


b. Self-sponsorship: To self-sponsor under the Skilled Worker visa, the individual must establish a UK-based company capable of sponsoring them. The company must obtain a Sponsor Licence from the UK Home Office, demonstrating that it meets all the requirements for sponsoring skilled workers.


c. Global Talent Visa: This visa is aimed at individuals who are recognised leaders or potential leaders in fields such as academia, research, arts, and digital technology. Global Talent Visa holders have the flexibility to be self-employed, employed, or work as freelancers in their field of expertise.


d. Family Visa: Individuals on a Family Visa, which allows them to join a spouse, partner, or parent in the UK, can also engage in self-employment. They are free to start and run their own business without specific restrictions related to their visa category.


e. Scale-up Visa: After completing the initial six months of working for their sponsoring employer, scale-up visa holders gain the flexibility to become self-employed. This allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities while contributing to the UK’s economic growth.


f. UK Ancestry Visa: Individuals who can prove that one of their grandparents was born in the UK can apply for a UK Ancestry Visa. This visa allows them to work, including starting their own business, without restrictions on the type of employment.


g. Spouse/Partner Visa: Those on a Spouse or Partner Visa, which allows them to join their British or settled partner in the UK, can also be self-employed. There are no specific restrictions on the type of work they can engage in, offering significant flexibility.


2. Self-Employment Rules for Migrants


Self-employed migrants have the right to operate their own businesses and make independent decisions regarding their work. However, they must also adhere to various obligations to ensure their business is legally compliant and financially sound.

One of the primary requirements for self-employed migrants is business registration. They must register their business with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) as soon as they start trading. This can be done as a sole trader, in a business partnership, or as a limited company. Sole traders and partnerships must also inform HMRC if they employ staff or if their annual turnover exceeds the VAT threshold, requiring them to register for VAT.

Legal requirements for self-employed migrants include obtaining any necessary licenses or permits relevant to their business activity. This may involve health and safety regulations, trading standards, and sector-specific legislation. They must also ensure that they comply with the terms of their visa, which may include restrictions on the type of work they can undertake and the number of hours they can work.

Tax obligations are a significant aspect of self-employment. Self-employed migrants must keep accurate financial records of their business income and expenses and submit an annual Self Assessment tax return to HMRC. They are responsible for paying Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions (NICs) based on their profits. If their turnover exceeds the VAT threshold, they must also register for VAT and submit quarterly VAT returns. Additionally, they may need to make advance payments towards their tax bill, known as payments on account.

Financial responsibilities for self-employed migrants extend beyond tax obligations. They must manage their business finances, including invoicing clients, managing cash flow, and ensuring they have adequate funds to cover business expenses and liabilities. They may also need to secure business insurance to protect against risks such as public liability, professional indemnity, and employers’ liability if they hire staff.

Access to business support and resources is available to self-employed migrants to help them navigate the complexities of running a business. Various government and non-government organisations offer guidance, training, and financial support. The UK government provides resources through HMRC and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), including business helplines, online tools, and funding opportunities. Local enterprise partnerships and business hubs can also offer advice, mentoring, and networking opportunities.

Migrants can also benefit from industry-specific organisations and trade associations that provide support tailored to their sector. These organisations can offer valuable insights, professional development opportunities, and access to industry networks.


Section D: Visa-Specific Work Restrictions and Conditions


Migrants in the UK must adhere to the specific restrictions and conditions associated with their visas to maintain their legal status and work rights. These restrictions and conditions can significantly impact how they work and live in the UK.

Compliance with these visa conditions is crucial, as any breach can lead to visa curtailment, fines, or even deportation.


1. Skilled Worker Visa Restrictions


One of the primary restrictions is that Skilled Worker visa holders can only work for the employer that sponsored their visa. This means they must adhere to the job role and conditions outlined in their Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). Any changes to their employment, such as a new job role or employer, require a new CoS and visa application.

While skilled worker visa holders are generally allowed to take up supplementary employment, this is restricted to certain conditions. The additional work must be in the same profession and at the same level as their primary job, and it cannot exceed 20 hours per week. This supplementary employment should not interfere with their main job for which they were sponsored.

Skilled worker visa holders are also restricted from accessing public funds, meaning they cannot claim benefits such as Universal Credit, housing benefits, or tax credits.


2. Student Visa Restrictions


During term time, student visa holders are typically allowed to work up to 20 hours per week. This limit ensures that their studies remain the primary focus while still allowing them to gain part-time employment. During the holidays, students can work full-time, providing an opportunity to earn more and gain valuable work experience.

However, certain types of employment are prohibited for student visa holders. They are not allowed to engage in business or self-employment, work as professional sportspersons or entertainers, or take on a permanent full-time position.

Student visa holders must also comply with any work placement requirements specified by their course, ensuring these placements do not breach their visa conditions.


3. Scale Up visa


Scale-up visa holders in the UK enjoy a unique set of conditions tailored to high-growth companies seeking to attract skilled talent. Initially, scale-up visa holders must work for their sponsoring employer for the first six months of their visa.

During these six months, they must adhere to the job role specified in their Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) and cannot change employers or job roles without obtaining a new CoS and potentially a new visa.

After the initial six-month period, scale-up visa holders gain significantly more flexibility in their employment. They are permitted to switch jobs, become self-employed, or even engage in multiple job roles. This post-six-month flexibility is designed to retain talent within the UK while providing skilled workers the freedom to pursue varied career opportunities that contribute to the economy.

Despite this flexibility, scale-up visa holders are still restricted from accessing public funds, ensuring they are financially self-sufficient. They must also comply with all standard visa conditions, including maintaining a valid job offer and meeting the minimum salary requirements.


4. Family Visa Holders


Family visa holders in the UK, including those joining a spouse, partner, parent, or child, enjoy relatively fewer work restrictions compared to other visa categories. They have the right to work in the UK without any limitations on the number of hours or type of employment. This flexibility allows family visa holders to seek both part-time and full-time employment across various sectors.

Despite the freedom to work, family visa holders must adhere to general immigration rules. They are prohibited from accessing public funds, meaning they cannot claim benefits such as Universal Credit, housing benefits, or other forms of state assistance.

Additionally, while family visa holders can engage in both employed and self-employed work, they must ensure their activities comply with UK laws, including tax obligations and business regulations. Any changes in their personal circumstances, such as a breakdown of the relationship with their sponsor, can impact their visa status and work rights and must be notified to the UK Home Office promptly.


Section E: Work Rights Challenges


Migrants in the UK often face various challenges when exercising their work rights. Common issues include understanding complex immigration regulations, securing appropriate employment, dealing with potential discrimination, and ensuring compliance with visa conditions. Language barriers and unfamiliarity with the local job market can also further complicate these challenges.

Sadly, migrants may also encounter exploitation or unfair treatment by employers who take advantage of their vulnerable status.

To help migrants overcome these challenges, a range of resources and support services are available. These resources are designed to provide guidance, advocacy, and practical assistance to ensure that migrants can exercise their work rights and protect their legal status.

Migrant support organisations are dedicated to advocating for the rights and well-being of migrants. These organisations offer a variety of services, including legal advice, job placement assistance, language courses, and counselling. Organisations such as Migrant Help, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI), and the Refugee Council provide vital support to migrants, helping them navigate the complexities of living and working in the UK. These groups also work to raise awareness of migrant issues and advocate for policy changes to improve migrants’ rights and protections.

Legal advice services play a crucial role in supporting migrants. Free or low-cost legal advice is often available through organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Law Centres, which can provide initial guidance and help migrants understand their options.

Solicitors specialising in immigration law can also offer personalised advice on visa conditions, work rights, and compliance issues. They can assist with applications, appeals, and legal representation if a migrant faces issues such as unfair dismissal or visa breaches.

Government resources and helplines are also available to assist migrants with work-related challenges. The UK government provides comprehensive information on visa requirements, work rights, and employment regulations through official websites like GOV.UK. Migrants can access online guides, FAQs, and detailed instructions on various immigration and employment processes.

In addition, government helplines such as the Home Office’s immigration inquiry helpline and the HMRC helpline offer direct support for specific questions related to visa conditions, tax obligations, and other work-related issues.

For issues related to employment rights, migrants can contact ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), which provides free and impartial advice on workplace disputes, rights, and obligations. ACAS offers helplines, online resources, and mediation services to help resolve conflicts between employees and employers.


Section F: Debunking Common Myths About Migrants’ Right to Work in the UK


Myth 1: Migrants are not allowed to work in the UK.

Many migrants in the UK are legally permitted to work, either through specific work visas or through other visas that allow limited work, such as Student visas. Each visa comes with its own set of conditions and restrictions, but outright prohibition on work is rare for those legally residing in the UK with lawful status.


Myth 2: Migrants on student visas cannot work at all.

Student visa holders can work part-time during term time (up to 20 hours per week) and full-time during vacation periods. They can also engage in work placements as part of their courses. However, certain types of work, like being a professional sportsperson or entertainer, are not permitted.


Myth 3: All migrants have access to public funds.

Most migrants are restricted from accessing public funds, which includes various state benefits like Universal Credit, housing benefits, and tax credits. This restriction ensures that migrants are self-sufficient and do not rely on the UK’s welfare system.


Myth 4: Migrants working in the UK do not have the same employment rights as UK citizens.

Migrants working legally in the UK are entitled to the same employment rights as UK citizens. This includes rights to a written employment contract, minimum wage, safe working conditions, protection against discrimination, and the right to join a trade union.


Myth 5: Self-employed migrants do not need to register their business.

Self-employed migrants must register their business with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). They need to maintain proper financial records, comply with tax obligations, and may need to obtain specific licences depending on the nature of their business.


Myth 6: Migrants can work in any job they find while in the UK.

The type of work a migrant can do is often dictated by the conditions of their visa. For example, Skilled Worker visa holders must work in the job for which they were sponsored, while Temporary Worker visa holders are limited to specific types of temporary work. Breaching these conditions can lead to serious legal consequences, including deportation.


Myth 7: Migrants do not pay taxes in the UK.

Migrants working in the UK are required to pay taxes just like any other worker. This includes Income Tax and National Insurance Contributions. Self-employed migrants must also file annual tax returns and may need to pay VAT if their turnover exceeds the threshold.


Myth 8: Employers do not need to check the work rights of migrant employees.

Employers are legally required to check the work rights of all employees, including migrants, before they start working. Failure to do so can result in significant fines and other penalties for the employer.


Myth 9: Migrants cannot change their visa status to improve their work rights.

Migrants can often switch from one visa category to another, provided they meet the eligibility criteria. For example, a student may switch to a Skilled Worker visa if they secure a job offer from a licensed sponsor.


Myth 10: All migrants face the same work restrictions regardless of their visa type.

Work restrictions vary significantly depending on the type of visa a migrant holds. It is essential for migrants to understand the specific conditions attached to their visa to ensure compliance and avoid legal issues.


Section G: Summary


Breaching visa conditions can lead to legal repercussions, including visa revocation and deportation.

Understanding the specific work rights and restrictions tied to each visa type is vital for migrants to fully leverage their opportunities in the UK while remaining compliant with immigration laws. Numerous resources and support services are available to assist in ensuring compliance with immigration laws and optimising employment opportunities, or for personalised advice and support, take professional advice.


Section H: FAQs


What are the main types of UK visas that allow migrants to work?

Migrants can work in the UK under various visas, including the Skilled Worker visa, Health and Care Worker visa, Scale Up visa, Graduate route, Global Business Mobility visas, Temporary Worker visas and Student visas with limited work rights, Innovator Founder visa for entrepreneurs, and Family visas that allow joining settled family members. Each visa type has specific conditions and restrictions.


Can I work full-time while on a Student Visa in the UK?

Student Visa holders can work part-time, up to 20 hours per week, during term time and full-time during holiday periods. Certain types of employment, such as professional sportsperson or entertainer, are prohibited.


What are the common restrictions for migrants working in the UK?

Common restrictions include not accessing public funds, adhering to specific job roles and sectors as outlined in their visa conditions, and complying with the maximum work hours stipulated by their visa type.


How do I register my business if I am self-employed in the UK?

Self-employed migrants must register their business with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This can be done as a sole trader, in a business partnership, or as a limited company. Additional requirements may include obtaining relevant licences and complying with legal obligations.


What legal protections do employed migrants have in the UK?

Migrant workers have the same employment rights and entitlements as resident and British workers, such as the right to a written contract, fair wages (at least the National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage), safe working conditions, and protection against discrimination. They can join trade unions and seek redress through employment tribunals for unfair treatment.


What should I do if I face discrimination or unfair treatment at work?

Migrants should first try to resolve the issue with their employer. If that fails, they can seek help from ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), legal advisers, or migrant support organisations.


How can I ensure compliance with my visa conditions while working in the UK?

Migrants should thoroughly understand the conditions of their visa, such as work hour limits and prohibited job types. Regularly consulting government resources can help ensure compliance and avoid legal issues.


What resources are available to help me understand my work rights in the UK?

Various resources are available, including the GOV.UK website for official information, ACAS for employment rights advice, migrant support organisations like Migrant Help and JCWI, and legal advice services such as Citizens Advice Bureau and Law Centres.


Can I switch from a Student Visa to a work visa in the UK?

Yes, it is possible to switch from a Student Visa to a work visa if you meet the eligibility criteria, such as having a job offer from a licensed UK employer. The application must be made before the Student Visa expires.


What happens if I violate the conditions of my visa?

Breaching visa conditions can result in severe consequences, including visa curtailment, fines, and potential deportation. It can also negatively impact future visa applications.


Section I: Glossary of Terms


ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service): UK organisation providing free and impartial advice on workplace rights, rules, and best practices. ACAS helps resolve disputes between employees and employers.

Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS): A document issued by a licensed sponsor in the UK to a migrant worker detailing the job role and terms of employment, required for certain visa applications like the Skilled Worker visa.

Employment Tribunal: A legal body in the UK that resolves disputes between employers and employees over employment rights, such as unfair dismissal, discrimination, and wage disputes.

Equality Act 2010: A UK law that protects individuals from discrimination based on characteristics like age, gender, race, disability, religion, and sexual orientation.

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC): The UK government department responsible for collecting taxes, administering national insurance, and managing other financial and regulatory activities.

National Insurance Contributions (NICs): Payments made by workers and employers in the UK to fund state benefits like healthcare, pensions, and unemployment benefits.

National Minimum Wage/National Living Wage: The minimum hourly wage that workers in the UK are legally entitled to. The rates vary depending on the age of the worker and whether they are an apprentice.

Public Funds: State benefits and assistance in the UK that are generally not accessible to migrants, including Universal Credit, housing benefits, and tax credits.

Self Assessment: The process by which self-employed individuals in the UK report their income and calculate their tax obligations to HMRC.

Supplementary Employment: Additional work that a migrant can undertake alongside their primary job, under certain conditions and within specified limits, such as not exceeding a certain number of hours.

UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI): The division of the Home Office responsible for managing visa applications, immigration enforcement, and citizenship in the UK.

Visa Curtailment: The process by which the UK Home Office shortens the duration of a visa, often due to non-compliance with visa conditions, leading to the need for the visa holder to leave the UK or apply for a different visa.

Working Time Regulations: UK laws that govern the maximum number of hours an employee can work, ensuring rest breaks, daily rest periods, and paid annual leave.

Youth Mobility Scheme: Immigration route allowing young people from participating countries to live and work in the UK for up to two years.



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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