Skilled Worker visas and sponsor licences: A guide for employers

Last Updated: 26 October 2021

British citizens and Irish citizens can work in the UK without restriction. The same goes for people with pre-settled status or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme, as well as other people who have indefinite leave to remain. Almost everyone else needs a visa.
 

In most cases, a foreign national coming to work in the UK needs a Skilled Worker visa sponsored by a UK employer with a sponsor licence.

Employers who are not familiar with the UK immigration system often have questions about Skilled Worker visas and sponsor licences. Here are some answers. 

Please note that the questions and answers on this page are for general information only and must not be used as a substitute for legal advice. You should always take legal advice which is tailored to your specific circumstances. Contact a member of the immigration team for more information.

Getting started
 

We don’t know anything about getting visas for foreign workers. Where do we start?

The most popular type of work visa is the Skilled Worker visa.  This visa requires sponsorship, meaning that the person has to have a job offer from a UK employer with a sponsor licence.

Some other types of work visa – for instance a Global Talent visa or Youth Mobility Scheme visa – don’t require a sponsor. This means that the person can apply for the visa without getting an employer involved in the process. In most cases these visas aren’t appropriate so the person needs a Skilled Worker visa instead.

 

How do we get a sponsor licence?

You apply to the Home Office for a sponsor licence.

The application process involves filling in an online application form and emailing copies of various documents to the Home Office.

It takes up to 8 weeks for the application to be processed – or longer if the Home Office decides to carry out a compliance visit. Compliance visits are rare, but they are more likely for businesses in certain sectors and for start-ups.

When the sponsor licence has been granted you will have access to the online Sponsor Management System, which will allow you to request certificates of sponsorship for the people you want to sponsor.

A sponsor licence is granted for four years and can be renewed.

The sponsor licence application process is usually straightforward but the system is underpinned by complicated sponsor guidance. You need to understand this guidance in detail or take advice from an immigration lawyer or OISC-regulated immigration adviser who does.

There are sponsor duties which come with the licence. You must make sure that you will be able to comply with these duties before you apply.

You will need to have certain key personnel in place, including an authorising officer who will be responsible for compliance.

 

Can we handle the process by ourselves?

You can handle everything by yourselves, including applying for the sponsor licence, managing the licence and helping your employees with their sponsored work visa applications.

But you should only do this if you are prepared to spend a lot of time reading and understanding the Home Office guidance, and keeping up to date with frequent policy changes.

If you rely on common sense and skim-reading the Home Office’s sponsor guidance you are likely to run into serious trouble. The guidance is complicated and not always clear. The same is true of immigration law as a whole. It looks easy because a simplified version of the rules is set out on the main pages of the gov.uk website, but there is a mass of constantly-changing policy alongside this which you need to understand.

If you decide to handle sponsorship processes by yourselves you need to bear in mind two main risks.

The first is that you may get confused or make a mistake, which could lead to an application being delayed or refused. Visa costs are high so a mistake can be expensive.

The second risk is that you inadvertently breach your sponsor duties – for instance by assigning the wrong type of certificate of sponsorship to someone or failing to report a change in circumstances. If this happens and the Home Office finds out about it your sponsor licence could be revoked.  

And if the Home Office believes that you have been employing people illegally – even if this was by mistake – you will receive civil penalties of up to £20,000 per illegal worker.

Think hard before deciding to go it alone.

 

Skilled Worker visas
 

What is a Skilled Worker visa?

The Skilled Worker visa is the main type of sponsored work visa. It has replaced the Tier 2 (General) visa category.

There are four main requirements for a Skilled Worker visa:

  1. The applicant must have a job offer from a licensed sponsor.
  2. The job must be at the required skill level (see section 5).
  3. The salary must be at the required level (see section 6).
  4. The applicant must satisfy an English language requirement (see section 10).

The employer uses its sponsor licence to create a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) for the person they want to employ (see section 9). The person uses the CoS to apply for a Skilled Worker visa.

The visa is valid for up to 5 years at a time and can be extended. After 5 years in the UK the person can apply for settlement (indefinite leave to remain) if they have not spent too much time outside the UK and they meet various other requirements.

 

What sorts of jobs qualify for a Skilled Worker visa?

To qualify for a Skilled Worker visa the job has to fall into an occupation code which the Home Office views as being at or above Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) level 3. Roughly speaking this means that the job must require the equivalent of A-levels.

An occupation code (also known as a standard occupational classification code or SOC code) is a 4-digit code from a classification system developed by the Office for National Statistics.

The Home Office decides which occupation codes qualify for a Skilled Worker visa based on advice from its Migration Advisory Committee. The Home Office publishes a list of the eligible occupation codes for a Skilled Worker visa.

Many technical occupations which would not have qualified for a Tier 2 (General) visa under the old system qualify for a Skilled Worker visa: IT user support technicians, electricians and plumbers for instance. Many more office jobs also qualify, such as office managers and sales executives. Estate agents, shopkeepers, ticket inspectors, gardeners, chefs, fitness instructors and teaching assistants are also in.

The most junior office jobs do not qualify for a Skilled Worker visa: receptionists, administrative assistants and cashiers for instance. Waiters, hairdressers and retail assistants also do not qualify. The list of ineligible occupation codes is in Table 5 of Appendix Skilled Occupations.

In many cases the boundary between the jobs which do and don’t qualify for a Skilled Worker visa appears arbitrary. PAs and massage therapists qualify for a Skilled Worker visa but legal secretaries and care workers do not.

The Home Office looks closely at applications for borderline jobs so it is important to think carefully about which occupation code is the appropriate one. The Home Office provides next to no guidance on how to match jobs to occupation codes so sponsors cannot always be sure that they have chosen the right one. The Office for National Statistics has an Occupation Coding Tool which is useful for identifying possible codes but the search function is based on job titles, which can be misleading.

 

What do we have to pay the people we sponsor under the Skilled Worker visa category?

You have to pay at least:

  • the overall minimum salary (also known as the general salary threshold) or
  • the “going rate” for the relevant occupation code or
  • £10.10 per hour

– whichever is highest.

In most cases the overall minimum salary is £25,600 per year.

The going rate for each occupation code is listed here. The annual salaries in that document are based on a 39-hour week. If the person you employ is contracted to work longer or shorter hours the going rate is adjusted pro rata. In many cases the going rate for the occupation code is higher than the overall minimum salary.

The Home Office has devised a fiddly formula of tradable points to allow employers to pay less than £25,600 – down to a minimum of £20,480 – if the job is on the shortage occupation list or the person has a relevant PhD. The full tradable points requirements are set out in paragraph SW 4.2. of Appendix Skilled Worker

If the person you want to sponsor is a new entrant (under 26 or switching from a student visa for instance) the going rate is reduced by 30% and the overall minimum is only £20,480 per year.

Only guaranteed basic gross pay counts towards the required minimum. Allowances do not count – not even guaranteed allowances.

 

The resident labour market test has been abolished. Does this mean that we can sponsor a foreign national for a Skilled Worker visa even if we could find a suitable British/Irish worker to do the job?

Yes.

Under the previous Tier 2 (General) system employers were effectively required to discriminate against non-EEA nationals when they recruited. This is because in most cases the resident labour market test applied, meaning that the job had to be advertised in a special way. If there were any suitably qualified applicants who were “settled workers” (which roughly speaking meant British and European Economic Area nationals) they had to be offered the job before it could be offered to a non-EEA national, even if the non-EEA national was the best candidate.

Under the current system the resident labour market test does not apply, meaning that you can consider all candidates equally regardless of their immigration status.

It goes further than this. Under the current system you normally have to consider all candidates equally regardless of their immigration status, at least at the start of the recruitment process. This is because, on the face of it, a policy of preferring candidates who already have the right to work in the UK is a form of indirect race discrimination. If there is an objective justification for the policy it is not indirect discrimination, but wanting to avoid the hassle and expense of sponsoring people for Skilled Worker visas will not by itself count as an objective justification. You may need to rethink your recruitment practices to avoid indirect discrimination. Cost considerations can come into your recruitment decision-making on a case-by-case basis but you should certainly not have a blanket policy of favouring candidates who already have the right to work in the UK.

 

Can we sponsor our friends for Skilled Worker visas?

Yes, potentially, but you need to be careful about this.

The abolition of the resident labour market test means that in theory you can offer a job to a friend or acquaintance – or a family member – who needs a UK visa, even if you could find a British or Irish citizen to do the job.

This does not mean that you can sponsor anyone you like. The job must be genuine and the applicant must have the skills, qualifications and experience needed to do the job.

A Skilled Worker visa will be refused if the Home Office has reasonable grounds to believe that the job has been created mainly to enable the applicant to get a visa.

If you are thinking of sponsoring a friend, acquaintance or family member for a Skilled Worker visa, ask yourself two questions. Would you try to find someone else for the job if the person you plan to sponsor did not want it? Would you employ the person if they already had permission to work in the UK? If the answer to both questions is “no”, think again before going ahead.

 

How do we get certificates of sponsorship?

A certificate of sponsorship (CoS) is a sort of digital work permit issued by the employer. 

Defined CoS

If the person will be applying for a Skilled Worker visa outside the UK they need a defined CoS. You (or your representative) request this type of CoS through the Sponsorship Management System on a case-by-case basis.

It usually takes one to two working days for a defined CoS request to be processed. It takes longer if the Home Office asks for more information. 

Undefined CoS

If the person will be making a Skilled Worker application from within the UK they need an undefined CoS. A batch of undefined CoS is allocated to the employer on an annual basis and is used each time a CoS is assigned to an individual.

If the allocation runs out you can request an increase through the Sponsorship Management System. It usually takes several weeks for this type of request to be processed but it can be expedited by using a priority service which costs £200.   

 

What is the English language requirement?

Everyone applying for a Skilled Worker has to meet an English language requirement.

There are three main ways of meeting the requirement:

  • The applicant is a national of a majority-English-speaking country as defined in paragraph EL 4.1. of Appendix English Language or
  • The applicant has a degree taught in English. If the degree is not from a UK university it has to be validated by UK ENIC, which is a service provided by a company called Ecctis or
  • The applicant has passed a Home Office-approved English language test in speaking, listening, reading and writing at level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

 

How much does a Skilled Worker visa cost?

The government fees for a five-year, non-shortage occupation Skilled Worker visa sponsored by a standard sponsor (as opposed to a small sponsor) come to the best part of £10,000:

Certificate of sponsorship fee

£199

Immigration Skills Charge: £1,000 x 5

£5,000

UKVI application fee (non-shortage occupation)

£1,220

Priority visa service fee (optional)

£220

Immigration Health Surcharge: £624 x5

£3,120

TOTAL

£9,759

If the company is registered as a small sponsor the Immigration Skills Charge is £364 per year instead of £1,000 per year. A company qualifies as a small sponsor if it is subject to the small companies regime under the Companies Act 2006.

 

The UKVI application fee, priority visa service fee and Immigration Health Surcharge are charged in local currency and almost always end up being significantly higher than the official figures shown above.

 

Who can switch into the Skilled Worker visa category without leaving the UK?

In most cases it is possible to switch into the Skilled Worker route without leaving the UK.

The only people who cannot switch into the Skilled Worker route are those who have or were last granted permission as a visitor, short-term student, parent of a child student, seasonal worker, domestic worker in a private household or outside the Immigration Rules.

 

How does the visa application process work and how long does it take?

The process depends on the applicant’s nationality and where they are applying.

If the applicant is an EU/EEA/Swiss national the process is entirely digital and they do not have to hand over their passport. Instead they use a mobile phone app to read the chip in their passport and then fill in an online form. At the end of the process they get a digital visa.

If the applicant is not an EU/EEA/Swiss national they have to fill in an online form and then attend an appointment at a centre run by one of the Home Office’s commercial partners. At the appointment they hand over their passport and have their photo and fingerprints taken. If they are applying from outside the UK the passport is kept by the centre and at the end of the process a visa is stuck in the passport. If the visa is for more than 6 months the person collects a biometric residence permit after arriving in the UK. 

The process usually takes one to two months from start to finish but it can be much quicker or slower depending on where the person is applying and whether there are priority services available there. Depending on the situation, the individual may have to take an English language test and/or a tuberculosis test, which adds to the timeline.

 

Intra-company Transfer Visas
 

Which type of visa is appropriate for intra-company transfers?

Most people coming to work in the UK will need a Skilled Worker visa.

There is a separate Intra-company Transfer visa, which can be useful for senior executives who are being transferred to the UK on a temporary assignment and who cannot pass an English language test or do not have time to take a test.

Minimum skill level

The minimum skill level for an Intra-company Transfer visa is higher than for a Skilled Worker visas. See the list of eligible occupation codes for an Intra-company Transfer visa.

Minimum salary

The overall minimum salary is also higher than for a Skilled Worker visa: £41,500 per year (or £73,900 if the person has been working for the company for less than 12 months).

As with a Skilled Worker visa, you have to pay at least the going rate for job, which may be higher than the overall minimum salary.

Unlike under the Skilled Worker route, certain allowances can be taken into account.

Switching from Intra-company Transfer to Skilled Worker

It is possible to switch from an Intra-company Transfer visa – or the old Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) visa – to a Skilled Worker visa.

Time spent on an Intra-company Transfer or Tier 2 (Intra-company Transfer) visa cannot be combined with time spent on a Skilled Worker visa towards the five-year qualifying period for indefinite leave to remain. If you have staff members on Tier 2 (ICT) visas who you want to keep in the UK permanently you should think about switching them into the Skilled Worker route as soon as possible so they can start the five-year clock for indefinite leave to remain.

It is not possible to hold Intra-company Transfer visas for a total of more than 5 years in any 6-year period (or 9 years in any 10-year period if the salary is £73,900 or more).

 

Graduate visa route
 

What is the Graduate visa route?

The Graduate visa route allows international students who have graduated from a UK university to stay for two years (three years for PhD graduates) and work at any skill level without needing a sponsor. If they find a skilled job with a licensed sponsor they can switch into the Skilled Worker visa category.

 

Internships
 

We want to offer an internship to a foreign national. Do they need a visa?

Foreign nationals need a visa which allows work to do an internship in the UK. They cannot enter as visitors for this purpose, even if the internship is unpaid. Visitors cannot do internships.

If you want to offer an internship to a foreign national they may qualify for a Skilled Worker visa if the skill level and salary are high enough.

The other main option is a Temporary Worker – Government Authorised Exchange visa. This type of visa has to be sponsored by a third-party sponsor such as GTI (Tier 5 Intern), AIESEC (Access Tier 5) or BUNAC (Intern in Britain). Each sponsor has its own requirements. All of them insist that you pay at least the National Minimum Wage / National Living Wage. Unpaid internships are not possible.

 

Business visitors
 

What sorts of work are business visitors allowed to do while they are in the UK?

The general rule is that people entering the UK as visitors are not allowed to work – paid or unpaid. There are some permitted business activities for visitors such as attending meetings, receiving work-related training and sharing knowledge with UK colleagues on an internal company project.

 

Visas for low-skilled jobs
 

How do we get visas for people to jobs which don’t qualify for a Skilled Worker visa?

There is no sponsored work visa for low-skilled jobs, except for seasonal agricultural workers and some other temporary categories.

If you want to recruit foreign nationals for jobs which are below the skill level for a Skilled Worker visa you will have to look for people who already have permission to work in the UK – for instance under the EU Settlement Scheme – or who qualify for an unsponsored visa, such as a Youth Mobility Scheme visa.  

 

EU Citizens living in the UK
 

The UK’s immigration system applies to EU and non-EU citizens. What about EU citizens who lived in the UK before 31 December 2020?

EU citizens (as well as other European Economic Area nationals and Swiss nationals) who already lived in the UK or who moved to the UK by 11pm on 31 December 2020 do not need Skilled Worker visas.

They should have applied to the EU Settlement Scheme by 30 June 2021. This is free and usually straightforward. It is still possible to make a late application if the person has reasonable grounds for missing the deadline. 

If you discover that an EU citizen who has been employed by you since before 1 July 2021 has not yet applied to the EU Settlement Scheme you should tell them to apply as soon as possible. The Home Office has published guidance on the steps you need to take in this situation.

If you are doing a right to work check on an EU citizen on or after 1 July 2021, unless they are an Irish citizen you cannot rely on their EU passport or national identity card.  You will normally need a share code from the employee so you can check their right to work online.  If their application to the EU Settlement Scheme is still pending you can rely on their certificate of application and a Positive Verification Notice from the Employer Checking Service.

 

Further information
 

How do we find out more?

The Home Office has published an introduction to the points-based immigration system for employers.

For more information please do not hesitate to contact a member of the immigration team.

 

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