In light of current labour shortages in the UK, and as new ways to earn money emerge, the risk of breaching visa conditions is a growing concern for student visa holders.
As an international student in the UK, working while studying offers you the chance to earn money, gain experience, improve language skills and meet people. But with so much opportunity in the UK, you’ll also need to take care that you don’t break the conditions of your visa.
After all your hard work and investment in securing a visa and your place at a UK university, it’s not worth the risk of getting caught working more hours than you should or doing the kind of work you’re not allowed to do.
The Home Office can deport you and can refuse your future immigration applications. Your employer is also likely to face illegal working penalties and your university is under a duty to notify the Home Office of any international students who have breached their work conditions.
Can you work on a student visa?
Your permission to work in the UK will depend on the type of visa you have.
If your student visa is for a part-time course, you won’t generally have permission to work in the UK, either on a paid or unpaid basis.
If you have a valid UK student visa for a full-time degree course, you’ll be allowed to work while you study, but restrictions apply to the number of hours you can work and the type of work you can do.
Working hour limits
During university term time, full-time international students are limited to working for a maximum of 20 hours per week. Term time dates are set by your university. A working week is a seven-day period starting on a Monday and running through to Sunday.
Outside of term time, during university vacations, there are no limits on the number of hours you can work, meaning you are allowed to work full-time.
The UK is currently experiencing record numbers of job vacancies. Employers in many industries popular with student workers – such as restaurants and shops – are finding they are short-staffed due to COVID ‘pingdemic’ absences, or they’re struggling to fill jobs because of the post-Brexit exodus of EU workers.
While this makes it easier for students to find a job, you’ll need to make sure you don’t breach your visa conditions by working more hours than you are allowed.
It may feel like you are helping out your manager by putting in a couple of extra shifts, but if this takes the number of hours you’ve worked over your maximum weekly limit, you’ll be in breach of your visa conditions.
To avoid exceeding the limit, it’s best to keep a record of the hours you work each day.
Beware also that while there is no restriction on the amount of money you can earn, anything perceived as too high during term time may raise suspicion that you are working more hours than the maximum threshold.
It’s also important to note that since your student visa is temporary, you can only be employed on a temporary contract and cannot be taken on a permanent basis.
Restrictions on the type of work you can do
Any kind of work you undertake while present in the UK has to be permitted under the Home Office’s student visa guidance. Put simply, you’re not allowed to be employed on a permanent basis, be self-employed or to undertake “business activity” during your study visa period.
‘Business activity’ is a broad term, and while the Home Office guidance gives some indication and examples of what is prohibited, such as setting up your own company or becoming a company director in the UK, there are increasing numbers of grey areas as new ways to earn money emerge.
Changes in the employment market mean more and more people are earning money in less traditional ways. In the so-called ‘gig economy’, employers such as Deliveroo ordinarily hire workers on a self-employed basis. Self-employment, however, is not allowed for international students. Be sure to confirm your employment status with an employer before considering taking on this kind of role.
Freelancing will also be off-limits while you are present in the UK under a student visa, since you are not allowed to run a business, regardless of whether this is online or offline. This means you couldn’t operate on a freelance or consultancy basis – even if you have clients based in your home country – as this is the same as being self-employed.
If, however, you are employed by a UK or non-UK employer, and are working remotely from the UK, any work you undertake while you are in the UK on a student visa must not exceed the 20-hour limit during term time.
If you want to raise some spare cash, you are allowed to sell unwanted items on the likes of Ebay, but if this becomes a trading enterprise for profit, you would become self-employed, which is not allowed.
Likewise, you are not allowed to set up a business while on a student visa. However, if you have plans to remain in the UK after your studies by starting a new business under the start up route, you can carry out certain preliminary activities such as researching and putting together your business plan, but you could not start to trade.
Work placements & unpaid work
International students are allowed to undertake a work placement that meets the conditions of being an ‘integrated and assessed’ part of their course that is generally no longer than 50% of the total course length.
You can also work as a Students’ Union sabbatical officer or as a doctor or dentist in training or under the doctorate extension scheme after study.
International students are not permitted to be employed as a professional sportsperson or as an entertainer, unless the work comes within a work placement exemption.
Students can volunteer while in the UK, but can only undertake voluntary work if their visa allows. Students, therefore, have to interpret the Home Office guidance and its distinction between volunteering and voluntary work. For example, volunteering typically relates to activity for charities and voluntary organisations, and volunteers also generally don’t have any contractual obligations to carry out any work.
If you do not have permission to work under your student visa, you cannot undertake voluntary work. If you do have permission to work, the usual rules on the maximum weekly term-time threshold continue to apply to voluntary work.
Getting the right balance
Studying in the UK brings considerable opportunity, but international students have to balance this by following their strict visa conditions.
Be sure to familiarise yourself with the rules and Home Office guidance, and if you are unsure about any kind of work activity, take advice from a professional immigration adviser or your university’s immigration office.
Last updated: 15 October 2021