The Operation Of Non-EU Graduates Visa System

17 Aug 2013

Immigration News

Due to the talent shortage in the UK - including in engineering and IT/technology – the prospect of hiring migrant workers by businesses is increasing day by day.

Citizens of Switzerland and the EEA (European Economic Area) can rightfully work in the UK without any restriction. A few non-EEA citizens may be able to start work immediately if they already have a general UK visa, such as a personal skilled Tier 1 visa or a spouse/partner visa. If not, they need a new work visa.

Sponsored work visas

As a result of the Government’s pledge to reduce net migration, the UKBA (UK Border Agency) has closed the Tier 1 personal visa routes for ‘high-value’ workers and graduates from UK universities over the past couple of years. This was frustrating for SMEs as it has forced them to use Tier 2 work permits for new employees, which can sometimes involve extra red tape.

To be able to get sponsored Tier 2 visas for skilled migrant staff - either already in the UK or from overseas - a UK employer must have a sponsor license from the UKBA. The UK office needs to be trading (with at least one employee) and show that it can meet certain compliance and HR requirements, to get a sponsor license. The UKBA may conduct an audit of its record keeping duties and HR processes by visiting the employer. With employer fines for illegal working likely to increase up to £20,000 per illegal worker, it is essential that SMEs conduct proper work checks on all hires.

For recruitment of external hires, employers must use the Tier 2 General visa category. The employer must advertise the role to the resident workforce for a minimum of 28 days before a visa can be issued to a non-EEA hire. This can be foregone if:

  • The candidate is on a student visa or post-study work visa


  • The role is designated as 'shortage occupation'


  • Is expected to have an annual salary of at least £152,100.

The business must show that there are no qualified settled applicants that could perform the role. If the candidate is currently overseas after advertising, the sponsor must request 'restricted' permission from UKBA to hire because the 20,700 visas cap of UK’s annual immigration will apply. Based on prior take-up, the cap will not prevent recruitment but will cause extra delay while waiting for approval.

Exemption from the immigration cap and advertising can be applied for SMEs that are part of an international group structure, intra-company transfers of staff from linked overseas offices can be arranged quickly.

A challenge for cash-strapped start-up businesses that need to recruit inexperienced apprentices or graduates or that would prefer equity incentivization packages as there are skill levels and minimum salaries for all Tier 2 visas in the UK job sector. Depending on the role, the minimum salary is set by UKBA. However, for all Tier 2 General Visas, the annual salary needs to be at least £20,300 (£40,600 for Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer visas lasting 12 months or more).

Hiring non-EU graduates

For SMEs to be able to compete for the best graduate talent, a sponsor license is now an essential recruitment tool. SMEs often lose the best skilled applicants because they do not have a sponsor license in place. A relatively straightforward option is hiring the best and brightest migrants from UK universities with a license, who may already be doing temporary work on their Tier 4 student visa for up to 20 hours/week during term-time.

The student can switch to a Tier 2 visa before the student visa expires, provided, the student has completed and passed a graduate or post-graduate degree from a recognized UK Higher Education Institution. This will help businesses as they will be exempt from the immigration cap and from advertising, though the mandatory salary requirements and skill level will still apply.

SMEs are a key driver of growth in the economy. Hence they need access to the best migrant talent. Through the Tier 2 visa system, this is still available. However, employers need longer lead-in times to plan recruitment and need to take specialist advice to avoid unnecessary roadblocks and delays.

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