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What are the best UK immigration options for recruiting Tech Workers?

30 October 2023

Like the US, the EU and many tech hubs all over the world, Britain’s growing technology sector continues to face skills shortages.

Our clients’ recruiting options have definitely been hit by the end of freedom of movement with the EU as well as the UK Government’s recent efforts to hike up the cost of hiring from abroad. (NB: The Immigration Health Surcharge is due to almost double after January 2024, so we are advising clients to make moves to the UK before where practical.)

At the same time, the UK Government is ambitious for the UK to keep growing as one of the world’s top innovation hubs and has ensured Britain’s tech firms have the immigration routes they need to entice talent from all over the world.

This is an overview of the main current visas that tech firms can use to hire the best global talent. For more details, please feel free to contact our friendly experts to discuss your best options on  enquiries@vanessaganguin.com or +44(0)207 033 9527.

Sponsoring Skilled Workers

The vast majority of workers coming to the UK to work in the tech sector are hired by firms with Skilled Worker sponsor licences.

Applying for a Skilled Worker sponsor licence is a popular option as it is a relatively straightforward way to source a range of skilled staff across different disciplines.

Skilled workers can bring dependent family and settle after five years. There are no caps on numbers but there are skills and salary thresholds to obtain Skilled Worker visas and vacancies do have to be genuine, among other requirements.

The Scale-up Sponsor Licence

The Scale-up visa was launched as part of the UK government’s aim to promote fast-growing innovative companies and businesses. Rishi Sunak insists the new UK immigration route will mean it is “quicker and easier for fast-growing businesses to bring in highly skilled individuals” to the UK.

The main advantages of obtaining a Scale-up sponsor licence are lower fees, a lighter-touch sponsor licence application process and no Immigration Skills Charge to pay as needed when sponsoring Skilled Workers. Scale-ups only have sponsorship duties for a Scale-up worker’s first six months, meaning significantly less admin.

However after being sponsored for six months, staff on Scale-up visas can then choose to work for different employers in the UK, or indeed, for themselves.

While this may not appeal to sponsors who have gone through the time and cost of sponsoring an individual only to then lose them to another employer, it might be more appealing for tech professionals seeking a greater degree of flexibility. After five years on this route, they may if eligible apply for settlement in the UK. Eligible dependent family members may join Scale-up workers.

Our lawyers have been commended in various legal guides for advising firms on this and other new UK work immigration routes.

UK Expansion Worker

To obtain the above sponsor licences to sponsor tech staff who are not British or Irish, firms would require an established business operating in the UK.

The new UK Expansion Worker immigration route replaces the Representative of an Overseas Business path, allowing an overseas business to send a small team to establish a branch or subsidiary in the UK.

Companies established and trading overseas for three years or more can use the UK Expansion Worker route to send up to five employees to set up UK operations.

Tech firms considering this route into the British market will require particular documents regarding their UK footprint, overseas trading and business plans to expand in the UK. We have advised some of the first few firms on how to negotiate these requirements and our experts are renowned for their expertise in this and other new work immigration routes.

Global Talent visas

The Global Talent visa has become the greatest accolade our immigration system can bestow on those who excel in their fields. It does not require sponsorship by a firm in the UK. You can apply for a Global Talent visa to work in the UK if you’re a leader or potential leader in the fields of academia or research; arts and culture or digital technology.

Each field has its own endorsing body. For example, those seeking a Global Talent visa who work in the film and TV industry may need to seek endorsement from PACT, architects from RIBA, scientists may approach the Royal Society, etc. Since 2015, Tech Nation have been endorsing what was then called the Tech Nation visa scheme – a dedicated route for businesses operating in the digital technology sector to attract and secure world-class talent.

Applicants must satisfy the UK Government’s appointed endorser Tech Nation that they are internationally recognised as a leading talent in the digital technology sector. Despite this rather high bar, thousands of tech talents and their families have used this immigration route to settle in the UK and found or work for some of the biggest UK tech brands.

The Global Talent visa digitech route provides founders and tech talent with technical or business backgrounds in sectors such as FinTech, AI, cyber and games a very useful five year visa with a route to settlement in the UK for applicants and their families.

People with the requisite levels of success and technical skills such as senior systems engineers, principal software engineers and developers, artificial intelligence and cyber security experts can come to the UK to help develop major new technologies without any need of a job offer. It is the most flexible tech immigration route in terms of employment as it allows successful applicants the ability to be employed, self-employed or both.

Our lawyers are ranked highly in legal guides for their work advising on this useful path to settlement. Contact us to find out if you may qualify.

Innovator Founder visas

The UK’s new Innovator Founder visa has replaced the Innovator and Start Up visas, offering tech entrepreneurs another route to come to the UK to start businesses. The Innovator Founder visa has got rid of the old routes’ more onerous requirements (e.g. a £50,000 minimum investment for Innovators).

Successful Innovator Founders will need one of the endorsing bodies appointed by the government to assess their business plan as innovative, viable and scalable, and their role in its founding to be more integral than just financial investment.

Co-founders can apply too, if they have integral roles and skillsets contributing to founding their innovative business. Successful applicants can work on their venture, as well as being free to do other skilled work and may bring partners and dependent children to the UK.

Applicants should be aware that endorsement is not just needed to obtain a visa, but also to ensure that businesses have met requisite targets for Innovator Founder visas to be renewed or to qualify for settlement after three years.

What other UK immigration routes can tech staff use?

As well as the main immigration routes above, a good immigration practitioner will help you explore whether tech figures have any others they can explore – for instance they may have graduated from one of the top global universities in the past five years that qualify them for a High Potential Individual visa, or they may be a Commonwealth citizen with a grandparent born in the British Isles that qualifies them for the Ancestry route to settlement in the UK.

Since July 2021, graduates are able to work or look for work for two years after graduation (three for doctorates). The Graduate visa allows firms to hire bright migrant graduates with no need to sponsor them first, so there is plenty of time to get to know them without the responsibility of sponsorship. After this period, they could work on a Skilled Worker visa as a New Entrant on a minimum salary of only £20,960 pa.

There are other less used Global Business Mobility visas such as a Senior or specialist worker to meet specific business needs; Graduate trainee as part of a training programme; Secondment worker to UK firms in high value contracts or investments or Service supplier to the UK in line with UK trade agreements.

Some nationalities can make use of the Youth Mobility Scheme to work in the UK for up to two years (three for Australia, New Zealand and Canada nationals). Others may be able to still come to work in Britain from Europe on a Frontier Worker permit or as a Service Provider from Switzerland.

Do I need an immigration lawyer to sponsor or apply for a work visa for tech staff?

All the UK immigration routes described above require different levels of documentary evidence and processes for successful applications and to avoid costly illegal working breaches.

If a visa application is refused, it significantly adds to the time and cost of sourcing the talent you need. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced massive hikes in illegal working penalties as well as greater enforcement. Specialist advice on best practices to avoid illegal working practices, how to mitigate and report lapses and how to respond if you fall foul, are all essential.

Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law is rated highly by all the main legal guides for business and personal immigration advice, as well as services for High Net Worth individuals. Chambers UK 2024 for instance, reports: “The firm stands out not just for its technical knowledge but also its thought leadership. Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law seems ahead of the curve. We cannot fault its knowledge and ability to handle the most complex of cases, whilst providing a service that is second to none.”

The UK lawyers guide adds: “The team’s experience covers all aspects of immigration law, giving a wide spectrum of coverage. It also works well as a group.”

For expert advice on the options for innovative firms detailed above as well as and the other immigration paths that the UK has to offer, contact us for a free chat on enquiries@vanessaganguin.com or +44(0)207 033 9527.

"Vanessa is very knowledgeable and has saved our company numerous delays and headaches with her attention to detail and advice. She is very responsive and always goes the extra mile to help ensure we have the best solutions and outcomes. We are incredibly happy with the service and results we have received."

Testimonial from Cybersecurity client

“The firm stands out not just for its technical knowledge but also its thought leadership. Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law seems ahead of the curve. We cannot fault its knowledge and ability to handle the most complex of cases, whilst providing a service that is second to none.”

Chambers UK Guide

"Anushka goes the extra mile for her clients. She cares about the outcome of her client cases. It’s not just a number to her.”

Chambers UK testimonial

“We have had fantastic support from Vanessa and her team with our Tier 2 sponsorship work. A very safe pair of hands.”

HR Manager, tech company, Cambridge

“The immigration boutique Vanessa Ganguin Immigration Law covers the full scope of immigration work, acting for a range of clients across a range of sectors including media, sport, financial services, and tech. The practice is led by the ‘impressive‘ Vanessa Ganguin , whose substantial expertise straddles the full range of business and personal immigration matters across a number of industries. Senior counsel Philip Trott is also noted for his significant experience, which he employs for complex work arising in relation to discretionary applications and national security issues. Senior associates Ben Maitland and Anushka Sinha bolstered the team with their arrivals in October 2022 and January 2023 respectively, and are key contacts within the department, as is ‘solutions-focused’ senior client manager Ross Kennedy.”

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