Which UK business visa?

Transferring skilled non-EU staff to London needs early planning so that you understand your options and UK immigration law. This section introduces you to the different types of UK business and entrepreneur visas.

1. Tier 1 UK exceptional talent visa requirements

The Tier 1 exceptional talent route is designed to allow exceptional people in science, engineering, arts and digital media to work in the UK in order to enrich the talent pool from within the UK. An applicant must, in general, confirm that they are world leaders in their field or can demonstrate that they have the potential to become world leaders in their field.

Each applicant must go through a two stage process before they are awarded with a quota to join the category. The first stage is for the applicant to apply to the Home Office for an endorsement by specific endorsement bodies which are Arts Council England, British Academy, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society and Tech City UK, each of which have a set allocation.

Once this is completed and an endorsement has been given, an applicant can then proceed to the second stage by making an application to remain in the UK as a Tier 1 exceptional talent.

Please note that there is an annual limit on the number of people that can use the Tier 1 exceptional talent route to enter the UK. The quota for 2014/15 has been set at 1,000, reviewable in April every year, half of which is allocated for the first 6 months.

To assess whether you are eligible for entry under the Tier 1 exceptional talent route and to identify the right endorsement body, you will need to provide the following information to an immigration specialist:

  • Your immigration status
  • Which field do you consider yourself to be in, i.e science, engineering, humanities, medicine, digital technology or the Arts
  • Your full CV with details of your education background, experience, work experience, publications, international activities and achievements within your field
  • Your degree certificate(s).

Once you provide your immigration specialist with the above, they can identify the right endorsement body and further detailed evidence you may need to prepare (or required) prior to going forward with the application.

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2. Tier 1 UK entrepreneur visa requirements

The Tier 1 entrepreneur visa allows non-EEA/Swiss citizens to establish or take over a business in the UK.

Immigration for individuals
In most cases, individuals applying for a Tier 1 entrepreneur visa in the UK must have access to at least £200,000 (£50,000 in some cases) of investment funds (own or third-party). The initial visa will be granted for 40 months, extendable by a further two years.

Investment in a business that owns residential property or is involved in property development or property management is not acceptable for visa purposes.

Immigration for companies
Businesses with a base in the UK may wish to recruit non-EEA/Swiss members of staff. In order to do so, they will need a sponsorship licence. To gain a sponsorship licence, the UK organisation must:

  • apply to the UK Visas & Immigration to register as a sponsor
  • provide a substantial number of documents that demonstrate that it is an established entity in the UK
  • be able to comply with duties set out by the UK Visas & Immigration.

London & Partners provided us with several services, some strategic – such as helping us understand the talent pool and industry landscape – and some tactical, for example, helping with visa applications to bring people from the US into London.

Jordi Ribas, General Manager of the Microsoft Search Technology Centre, Europe

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3. UK sole representative business visa requirements

An overseas business intending to send a senior non-European employee over to the UK to set up and run its UK office should arrange for the employee to apply for a ‘sole representative’ visa, officially called a ‘representative of an overseas business’ visa. Currently, this UK business visa leads to permanent residency after five years.

As with most UK visas, the sole representative’s family members (meaning spouse/long-term co-habiting partner or children under 18) will be able to apply to accompany the main applicant to the UK. They will be granted visas for the same duration as the sole representative and the partner/spouse will be able to work for any UK employer without restriction.

An overseas business can only have one sole representative; usually, any other non-European employees requiring a work visa will not be able to work for the UK business until the UK entity has a sponsor licence to grant sponsored Tier 2 work permits.

You can apply for a UK sole representative business visa if:

  • you don’t have a subsidiary, branch or ‘other representative’ (for example, a UK-based employee) already in the UK. It is still possible to obtain a sole representative visa if the UK establishment/subsidiary has already been set up (and registered a UK bank account or taken other preliminary steps), but the application will be refused if the UK entity has already commenced trading, which means that the UK entity must not have signed any customer/ commercial contracts or hired UK employees
  • your proposed new UK entity will be an establishment (registered branch) or wholly owned by the overseas business
  • your UK operation will carry out the same type of business as the overseas corporation.

The sole representative must:

  • not be a majority shareholder, meaning that the employee must own 50% or less of the overseas business
  • meet English language requirements – citizens of majority English speaking countries qualify automatically
  • be based full time in the UK, although there is flexibility for business or personal travel
  • disclose various company and personal documents to support the application, including evidence of the trading status of the overseas business (e.g. financial statements) and the role and seniority of the employee
  • A detailed business plan for the new UK operation will also need to be disclosed.

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3. Which  UK business visa?

Tier 1 exceptional talent visa
Ideal for: Internationally recognised leaders or emerging leaders in the fields of science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts.
Applicants must: Receive an endorsement from one of the designated endorsing bodies:  Arts Council England; British Academy; Royal Academy of Engineering; Royal Society or Tech City UK.
Resulting in: Visa of up to 5 years. Leads to permanent residency after 5 years.
How long to organise: Up to 3 months depending on timing of endorsement.
This is a capped visa category with a total of only 1,000 visas available each year.
Tier 1 entrepreneur visa
Ideal for: Business owners and founders: there are no  restrictions on the size of their shareholding in the new London business.
Applicants must: Have access to at least £200,000 (£50k in some limited cases) to invest, sufficient personal maintenance funds and English language skills.
Resulting in: A 40 month visa, extendable by a further two years. Permanent residency after five years, but can be accelerated in some circumstances.
How long to organise: 2–8 weeks from application.
You can only extend your UK entrepreneur visa beyond 40 months if you invest the required level of funds (£200k or £50k) into a UK business, register as a UK director or as self-employed and create at least two full-time jobs for settled workers lasting at least 12 months each.
Sole representative visa
Ideal for: Established senior employees of an overseas business that does not have any presence in the UK. Applicants must not be majority shareholders of the parent business.
Applicants must: Be the UK entity’s first hire and be responsible for running the new UK office
Resulting in: A three-year visa, extendable by a further two years. Permanent residency after five years’ continuous stay.
How long to organise: 2–4 weeks from application.

You must meet English language requirements and be based full time in the UK (personal and business travel is permitted). 

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Tier 2 visas

The tier 2 visa is a sponsored UK business visa for skilled workers. You will need a sponsorship licence from UK Visas & Immigration and there are minimum skill and salary levels for all Tier 2 visas. A 12 month cooling off period often applies from the end of a Tier 2 visa or UK assignment preventing the migrant from applying overseas for a new Tier 2 visa, but it does not apply if salary is at least £155,300 per year (the high-earner threshold). Licence for start-ups: approx. 2-3 months from having first employee on the ground in UK.

Tier 2 General visa
Ideal for: Hiring other skilled non-EU staff that are ineligible for Tier 2 ICT visas, that want to leave the door open on permanent residency or that are outside your ‘employing group’ (e.g. recruits from other UK businesses currently on Tier 2 visas with another sponsor).
Applicants must: Be paid a minimum salary of £20,800 a year (or market rate for the role, if higher) and meet English language requirements. Minimum annual salary for most experienced workers to rise to £25,000 in Autumn 2016 and £30,000 in April 2017.
Resulting in: A visa capped at six years (up to five years initially with an  extension to six years in total). Leads to permanent residency after five years.
How long to organise: 2–4 weeks from application (but a sponsor licence must be in place first).
Applicants must not own more than 10% of the business. The UK business may need to advertise the role for at least 28 days before arranging a visa to a non-EU national, but various exemptions apply. Hiring of a non-EEA citizen resident outside the UK requires additional permission to recruit against the UK’s immigration cap (20,700 visas per year). Sponsors are exempt from the shareholding restriction, advertising and the cap if UK salary is at least £155,300 per year.
Tier 2 Intra Company Transfers (ICT)
Ideal for: Transferring skilled overseas-based non-EU employees from overseas group companies to your
UK operation.
Applicants must:

Be paid at least £41,500 a year for visas of more than 12 months duration or market rate for the role if higher.

Minimum annual salary for most short-term visas of up to 12 months is set to rise, from £24,800 to £30,000 in Autumn 2016. From April 2017, all ICT visas will have a minimum salary of £41.500 per year (regardless of visa duration).

Resulting in: A visa of up to five years in total (or nine years if annual salary is at high-earner level.
Does not lead to permanent residency
How long to organise: 2–4 weeks from application (but a sponsor licence must be in place first).

After a maximum of five years, the employee must leave the UK. Maximum period is nine years if the employee is a "high-earner", which is currently £155,300 or more but reducing for ICT visas to only £120,000 per year from April 2017. During the period of the visa, the employee cannot change to a Tier 2 General visa, with the same employer or a different employer unless the new annual salary is at least £155,300.

Please note: visa timings fluctuate and the UK’s immigration rules and minimum salary thresholds often change at short notice. Salary thresholds are correct as at June 2015, but typically change on 6 April each year.

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4. How London & Partners can help

London & Partners is the Mayor of London’s official business development company. Our expert team offers free UK business visa requirement advice to potential investors, from start-ups to established companies. We

  • introduce you to UK visa specialists
  • connect you to a network of legal experts
  • offer advice on setting up in London

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Content provided by

  • Introduction and sole representative visa information provided by Taylor Wessing
  • Tier 1 exceptional talent visa information provided by Newland Chase
  • Entrepreneur visa information provided by Penningtons Mances LLP

This information is intended for general guidance only. You should always seek professional advice.