If you’re an employer, you may find it necessary to recruit workers from overseas in order to overcome skill shortages or to find multilingual workers, especially if you operate your business in different countries. However, it's crucial to understand the rules around employing overseas workers to avoid making any regulatory mistakes and facing penalties.
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Who is eligible to work in the UK?
Currently, any British citizen is allowed to work in the UK without seeking permission. You will also have an automatic right (ie without making a new visa application) to work in the UK if you:
are an Irish citizen
have indefinite leave to enter or to remain in the UK
have the right of abode in the UK
European Union (EU), European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss citizens may also be able to work in the UK. See the section titled ‘How did Brexit change EU, EEA and Swiss nationals’ ability to work in the UK’ below.
You should always check an employee’s right to work in the UK by carrying out a ‘right to work check’ before employing them, regardless of their nationality (ie including UK citizens). For more information, read the subsection titled ‘Conduct a right to work check’ below.
The points-based immigration system
The UK launched a new points-based immigration system on 1 January 2021 which, although similar to the previous system in many ways, has key differences in that it:
applies to EU citizens as well as non-EU citizens, due to the UK’s leaving the EU
doesn’t use visa ‘tiers’
The points-based system requires that a visa applicant has a certain number of ‘points’ to be granted a visa under various visa categories. Points are granted if the applicant meets certain requirements (eg they have a job offer or they speak English to a certain standard). Some requirements are mandatory for a given visa category, meaning that applicants must meet them, and meeting them grants them points. Others are ‘tradeable’. This means that applicants can accumulate points from any combination of these tradeable requirements. They don’t have to meet each specific tradeable requirement, as long as they can accumulate enough points.
The Skilled Worker route
The main long-term work visa route is the skilled worker route. This visa is similar to the ‘Tier 2 (General)’ work visa that was available under the old immigration system. This route is used by many employers who are looking to recruit workers from abroad. The mandatory requirements for this visa category are that the prospective employee:
has a job offer from a sponsor (who has a sponsor licence)
can speak English to the required standard, and
their job offer meets the required skill level
If a prospective employee meets these requirements and enough of the tradeable requirements to accumulate 70 points (eg their job offer meets a specified salary threshold, or they have a PhD relevant to the job), they may be able to work in the UK under this visa.
Other work visa routes
Various other visa categories are available in the new immigration system. Some function in a similar way to the skilled worker route, while others have less requirements and don’t use points. Some work visa categories, which may be most relevant to small business employers, include:
the graduate route - this visa does not require points. Instead, international students who have completed their degree can stay to work in the UK for 2 years (or 3 if they’ve completed a doctoral degree) after their studies. You can hire people who have this visa without needing to sponsor them
the health and care visa - this sits within the skilled worker route and allows workers to apply for a cheaper visa if they’re working for, for example, a business which provides services to the NHS
the creative route - prospective creative industry workers may be able to work for you under this visa if you’ve given them a job offer and you have a sponsor licence
the global talent scheme - for highly-skilled scientists and researchers, who may be able to enter the UK without a job if they’re endorsed by a recognised UK body (eg the Royal Society)
the intra-company transfer visa - allowing easier sponsorship for some key business personnel within a multinational organisation
For more information about the full range of work visas available, and the eligibility criteria for each, read the UK Government’s guidance.
Individuals who hold other types of UK visa (ie not a dedicated work visa) may also be able to work in the UK. For example, UK Ancestry visas allow holders to work and student visas sometimes allow students to work a limited number of hours per week.
How can a prospective employee get a visa to work for you?
Get a sponsor licence
In order to hire people from abroad under the points-based system, depending on their visa category, you (the prospective employer) will usually need to be a licensed sponsor. Becoming a licensed sponsor can take a long time, so you should plan ahead if you’re considering hiring somebody from abroad.
If your business is eligible to be a sponsor, you will need to assign somebody within your business to manage the sponsorship process. Then, apply online. You’ll have to pay a fee, the level of which depends on your business type and intended licence type.
For more information on getting a sponsor licence, read Sponsoring employees to work in the UK.
Offer the job
Once you’re a licensed sponsor, you can give a prospective employee a job offer, which they can use to apply for their visa. You should support the employee by providing any paperwork related to the job offer that they need for their visa application. For each person you employ (or extend employment for) under some visa routes (eg the skilled worker route), you’ll also have to pay an immigraiton skills charge to the Government.
Conduct a right to work check
It’s also your responsibility as an employer to conduct right to work checks. You must check a prospective employee’s right to work in the UK before unconditionally hiring them.
This can be done as a manual check. A manual check involves checking the applicant’s original documents (eg their physical passport and, where required, the visa which grants them the right to work in the UK). To complete a manual check, you should:
view the job applicant's original right to work documents which prove that they have a right to work in the UK (eg a British passport or a visa)
check that these documents are valid (eg the photos resemble the applicant and the dates of birth match up), and
make a copy of the documents which cannot be changed (eg a photocopy). You should also record the date the check was made and keep these copies for at least two years after the employee stops working for you
Alternatively, right to work can now be checked online if an applicant has a newer ‘eVisa’.
For more information on carrying out right to work checks, read the Government’s guidance.
What are the penalties for hiring workers without immigration permission?
The criminal penalties for hiring workers who do not have a current right to work in the UK can include an unlimited fine and 5 years imprisonment.
You could also face civil penalties of up to £20,000 for each worker you employ who doesn’t have the right to work in the UK, if you did not carry out the proper right to work checks or you carried them out improperly.
Your business details may also be published by Immigration Enforcement to warn other businesses against such conduct.
For more information on potential penalties, read the Government’s guidance.
How did Brexit change EU, EEA and Swiss nationals’ ability to work in the UK?
Nationals of EEA countries or Switzerland residing in the UK with settled or pre-settled status are allowed to work in the UK (without applying for another visa).
Since 30 June 2021, if you want to employ an EU, EEA or Swiss national who is coming to the UK from abroad (ie they’re not already settled here), they’ll have to use the routes available to all workers from abroad (set out above) to get permission to work in the UK. For example, you could sponsor them to get a skilled worker visa.
Employing UK nationals in the EU
Since 2021, UK nationals have not been able to benefit from the free movement of persons within the EU’s internal market. This means that businesses that employ UK nationals in EU member states need to take into account new immigration rules in the relevant jurisdiction(s) (ie member state(s)) of their place of work. This may require applying for a work permit or visa, which may take a significant amount of time. UK citizens working in the EEA who drive as part of their job may need to apply for an international driving permit. This can be checked on the Government’swebsite.