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UK Visa Routes For Tech Talent

UK startups have called on the Home Office to implement more favourable policies for highly skilled immigrants looking to work in the tech industry.

Last year, the UK’s tech sector reached $1 trillion in value, the third largest in the world behind the US and China.

The Business and Trade Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, gave a speech to herald the thriving UK tech sector, saying: “the UK is providing what tech investors actually want: a highly skilled and engaged workforce.”

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary James Cleverly has since introduced reforms to worker visas to curb legal migration saying that current levels are too high.

The visa changes include an increase in the earnings threshold from £26,200 to £38,700 for the Skilled Worker Visa. Many countries set a minimum income requirement, but none set the threshold above or close to £38,700. Also, the UK’s rules on what income sources count towards the threshold are stricter than other countries, according to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

This has prompted an outcry from lobby group Startup Coalition and the think tank Entrepreneurs Network, calling on the Home Secretary to mitigate the potential damage to the tech industry caused by the new visa rules.

UK startups have called on the Home Office to implement more favourable policies for highly skilled immigrants looking to work in the tech industry.

A report by Tech Nation claimed that the influx of international tech workers through Global Talent Visas played a major role in advancing the UK tech sector, with a quarter of the visa recipients going on to found new UK startups.

UK Visa Routes

There are many visa routes open for tech talent to work in the UK, for startups to hire worldwide talent, and for students to study or complete research projects. These include employer sponsored visas as well as non-sponsored options.

Employer sponsored visas:

  • Skilled Worker Visa
  • Scale-up Worker Visa

Non-sponsored visas:

  • Global Talent Visa
  • High Potential Individual
  • British National (Overseas) Visa
  • UK Ancestry Visa
  • Student Visa
  • Graduate Visa

Skilled Worker Visa

Most people wanting to come to the UK to work need to apply through the points-based system (PBS). Since 11th April 2024, visa applicants have to earn at least £38,700 - an increase of 50% on the previous figure of £26,200 - or the going rate for the occupation, whichever is higher.

For example, programmers and software development professionals need to have a job offer above the going rate of £49,400 to meet the salary requirements for this visa. The threshold is much lower for applicants who are under 26 years old or with a STEM PhD.

Having a job offer and speaking English is worth 50 points towards the 70 needed to qualify for the visa. The remaining 20 points can come from a higher salary, working in a sector with job shortages, or having a relevant PhD.

The shortage occupation list has been replaced by the immigration salary list and does not include any occupations in tech.

This visa lasts for 5 years and can be extended. 

Scale-up Worker Visa

The Scale-up Worker visa is similar to the Skilled Worker visa: both requiring sponsorship and 70 points under the PBS.
Scale-up visa applicants must have a high-skilled sponsored job offer from an authorised UK scale up business at the required salary level. The job must be skilled at graduate level with a salary of at least £36,300 per year, or the ‘going rate’ for the occupation, whichever is the higher.

A sponsored scale up worker will be able to work in the UK for 2 years. However, the worker will only be sponsored for the first 6 months.

After 6 months, the worker can continue working for their original employer without being sponsored or change job without requiring renewed sponsorship.

This route can, therefore, prove expensive for sponsoring scale-up companies.

Global Talent Visa

This is the top tier visa for worldwide tech talent to work in the UK digital technology sector. It offers the most flexibility and freedom: no ties to a specific role, company or job offer; the ability to bring a spouse and children under 18; no language or minimum salary requirements; can be renewed after five years.

Applicants require endorsement from Tech Nation (now part of the Founders Forum Group) and need to be able to show either ‘exceptional talent’ or ‘exceptional promise’. The bar to fulfil the criteria is high resulting in approximately a quarter of applications being refused. 

The Global Talent Visa was introduced in February 2020 to replace the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa. Between April 2020 and April 2023, the number of visas granted with endorsement from Tech Nation was 2,931.

Other countries offering similar talent visas include Australia, Denmark, Canada, China, Hong Kong, France, USA and New Zealand.

High Potential Individual (HPI) Visa

This visa gives permission to stay in the UK for 2 years – or 3 years with a PhD - without the need for a job offer. To apply, you must have been awarded the equivalent of a UK Degree level qualification or higher by an eligible non-UK university in the last 5 years.

Applicants must also prove their knowledge of English to at least B1 level and prove that they have enough personal savings to support themselves in the UK (currently £1,270).

This visa cannot be extended but it is possible to switch to another type of visa to stay longer.

British National (Overseas) Visa

Launched in January 2021, this visa is available to Hong Kong British National (Overseas) citizens. 

The visa is eligible for Hong Kongers and their dependants and lasts for a maximum of 5 years with unlimited extensions allowed.
After 5 years’ living in the UK BNO visa holders can apply for indefinite leave to remain.

UK Ancestry Visa

The UK Ancestry visa route is open to Commonwealth, British overseas citizens and citizens of Zimbabwe who can prove one of their grandparents was born in the UK, the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man.

Student Visa

International students can apply for a Student Visa to study in the UK. From 2024, international students can no longer bring family members with them to the UK as dependants unless they are enrolling on a PhD or postgraduate research programme.

On paper these new rules do not apply to students switching to a graduate visa, however, if the dependants have not lived with the main student visa holder in the UK during their studies, they will not be eligible to apply as dependants of a graduate visa holder.

Graduate Visa

A Graduate visa is a post-study-work visa giving international students the option to remain in the UK after completing their studies.

The visa lasts for 2 years – or 3 years with a PhD - after successfully completing a course in the UK on a Student visa.
You must be in the UK when you apply and be awarded 70 points, gained by completing a degree level, or higher, course or professional qualification. 

There are costs for each visa application plus the additional Immigration Health Surcharge (IHS) of £1035 per year.

Full details of all visa routes are available at GOV.UK

European Competition

The UK has a way to go if we are to rival the compelling offers of other European countries. 

Spain has recently been attracting international talent with simplified new immigration rules.

France has also updated and overhauled its previously difficult visa process with new tech licences and talent visas that enable work permits to sometimes be issued in days, rather than the weeks and often months.

Digital Nomad Visas are being rolled out by more than 40 countries, affording employees the ability to work remotely for foreign companies.

The UK is yet to follow suit.