Home Moving to the UK Visas & Immigration Work visas for highly-skilled migrants in the UK
Last update on April 21, 2020
Gary Buswell Written by Gary Buswell

Visas for skilled migrants are available in a number of UK sectors. Find out if you qualify and how to apply if you land a lucrative job offer.

The UK has always attracted highly skilled workers from overseas to work in a wide variety of sectors including finance, technology, and healthcare. Current skills shortages mean that there are a number of opportunities for highly-skilled migrants across the world to apply their talents in the UK.

With the UK poised to leave the EU, Europeans who want to work in the country will have to go through the same visa processes as non-EU nationals. This guide to skilled work visas in the UK explains what you need to know, with sections on:

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Work visas in the UK

The UK is changing its immigration program following its departure from the EU in 2020. A new immigration bill will end free movement from the EU and introduce a points-based system for all overseas workers, focused on attracting only workers categorized as high-skilled.

A new system is likely to come into place on 1 January 2021. Current plans state there will be a general salary threshold of £25,600 (reduced in some sectors) and a points-based system that applies to both EU and non-EU workers. Those who don’t meet the skills and salary thresholds will only have limited routes to access work-related visas in the UK, such as seasonal work, temporary work, and sectors with specific shortages.

Until the new system comes into place, EU/EFTA nationals have the right to travel to and seek work in the UK without the need for a visa. EU citizens already living and working in the UK have until 30 June 2021 to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme if they want to continue living in the UK.

What UK visas for skilled migrants are available?

Tier 2 work visa

Skilled migrants can apply for a Tier 2 work visa if they have been offered a skilled job in the UK by a licensed sponsor. This is the only general long-term work visa currently available in the UK. It is available to migrants who meet skills and salary requirements, including:

  • academics and researchers;
  • those working in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM);
  • healthcare professionals;
  • those working in sectors with skills shortages in the UK

Other visas for highly-skilled migrants

Migrants who have been recognized as having exceptional talent or promise can apply for a Global Talent visa if they have been endorsed by an officially recognized body such as the Royal Society or the Arts Council. This visa allows you to work, take up self-employment or become a company director in the UK.

visas for skilled migrants in the uk

If you are a skilled migrant working for an overseas company who wants to transfer you to a branch in the UK, you may instead be able to apply for a Tier 2 intra-company transfer visa.

Self-employed workers and those looking to start a business or invest in the UK can apply for either:

  • Innovator visa – for those who want to set up a new business and have at least £50,000 to invest and an endorsement from an approved body;
  • Start-up visa – for those with a new business idea that can demonstrate both innovation and potential for growth;
  • Investor visa – for those who want to invest at least £2 million in the UK

Who can apply for a skilled migrant visa in the UK?

At present, these visas are available for migrants from outside the EU/EFTA who meet the necessary requirements. As of 1 January 2021, EU/EFTA citizens will most likely also need to apply if they want to work or set up a business in the UK.

The current requirements for applying for a Tier 2 work visa are:

  • having a job offer and a certificate of sponsorship from a licensed UK employer;
  • meeting the minimum salary threshold of £30,000 (or appropriate rate for your job if the standard salary is higher than this);
  • proof of sufficient knowledge of English;
  • minimum of £945 in savings, or the equivalent amount paid to you by your sponsor;
  • a clean criminal record for the last 10 years;
  • tuberculosis test results if you are from a listed country

Points-based system from January 2021

Changes to the UK immigration system will likely come into effect from 1 January 2021. In addition to EU/EFTA citizens having to apply for the same visas as non-EU nationals, will likely see a points-based system introduced where applicants have to score a minimum number of points from the main eligibility criteria list.

The general minimum salary requirement will likely be set at £25,600. This can be reduced to £20,480 in certain skills shortage sectors if the applicant scores the minimum number of points through other means.

visas for skilled migrants in the uk

Applicants will have to score at least 70 points to be considered. Points will be awarded for the following:

  • job offer by approved sponsor (20 points);
  • job at appropriate skill level (20 points);
  • meets minimum English requirement (10 points);
  • salary between £20,480 – £23,039 (0 points);
  • salary between £23,040 – £25,599 (10 points);
  • £25,600 salary or more (20 points);
  • job listed as a shortage occupation (20 points);
  • Ph.D. in a STEM subject relevant to the job (20 points);
  • Ph.D. in another subject relevant to the job (10 points)

The first three (job offer, skill level and English requirement) need to be met in all instances. However, others can be traded against each other. For example, the salary can be below £23,040 if the job offer is a shortage occupation or the applicant has a STEM-related Ph.D.

How to apply for a visa for skilled migrants in the UK

Where to apply

Applications for a Tier 2 visa are done from outside the UK before traveling unless you are extending an existing visa or switching from another UK visa.

You need to make the application online and visit a visa application center to have your fingerprints and photo taken. This is for your biometric residence permit.

You can find the link to the online application here.

Documentation needed

To make an application for a UK skilled migrant visa, you will need to provide:

  • employer sponsorship reference number;
  • proof of English language skills;
  • evidence that you meet the financial requirements, e.g. bank statement;
  • valid passport or ID document

You may also need to provide evidence of a clean criminal record and information on your state of health, depending on your job and where you are traveling from.

If you are making an application for a Global Talent visa, you will have to provide evidence of endorsement from a recognized body.

Visa application fees

Fees depend on the exact visa you are applying for. Current costs are:

  • 3-year Tier 2 visa – £610
  • 3-year Tier 2 visa in a shortage occupation – £464
  • Tier 2 Visa over 3 years – £1,220
  • Tier 2 Visa over 3 years in a shortage occupation – £928
  • Global Talent visa – £608
  • Tier 2 intra-company transfer visa as a graduate trainee – £482

Costs are the same for each dependent that applies. Citizens from Turkey and Macedonia applying for a UK work visa get a discounted rate of £55 off all the above categories.

You will also need to pay the healthcare surcharge along with certain other administration costs, for example to get your biometric information taken.

How long it takes

You can apply for a skilled work visa in the UK up to 3 months before you are due to start your job. Once you have submitted your application and all the necessary documentation, you should get a decision within 3 weeks.

You can pay for a fast-track service if you don’t want to wait for the full 3 weeks. The current cost for this is £500 for a decision within 5 working days, and £800 for a decision within 24 hours (or two days if your application is made over the weekend).

Working on a skilled migrant visa in the UK

You can start work in the UK as soon as you receive your visa. Make sure you give yourself ample time to apply to avoid any delays. Most visas last for the same length as the employment contract they are connected to. The maximum visa length is 5 years, although some highly-paid intra-company transfer visas can last for 9 years.

You can renew a Tier 2 work visa to last for a maximum of 6 years in total. Global Talent visas can be repeatedly renewed for 5 years at a time.

The Global Talent visa also allows holders to freely switch jobs. You cannot change employer with a general Tier 2 visa unless you have prior permission from the Home Office. Most Tier 2 visas are used in connection with just one job.

visas for skilled migrants in the uk

However, you can take on a second job with a Tier 2 skilled worker visa in certain circumstances. You can also do voluntary work or study in the UK, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your sponsored employment.

Work visas for skilled migrants in the UK also allow you to leave and return to the UK as you please for as long as the visa is valid. However, you cannot access public funds in the UK with this visa.

If you want to switch your work visa to another type of visa, you will need to make a fresh application for a new visa.

Residence permits and citizenship for skilled migrants in the UK

You should receive your biometric residence permit within 10 days of receiving your decision letter. This is a temporary residence permit that lasts for the same length of time as your visa.

Skilled migrants in the UK on a work visa can apply for permanent residence after 5 years of living in the UK. Those on a Global Talent visa for having a recognized exceptional talent can apply for a permanent settlement permit after 3 years of residence.

You can apply for UK citizenship if you have been a permanent resident for at least 12 months, as long as you have been living in the country for at least 5 years.

Family reunion for skilled migrants in the UK

You can bring your spouse/partner or children aged under 18 with you if you come to the UK as a skilled migrant. Each family member needs to apply for a separate visa.

Currently, family members from EU/EFTA countries don’t need to apply for a visa. However, this will likely change when the new UK immigration laws come into effect on 1 January 2021.

Useful resources

UK Government website – information on all UK work visas, including how to apply