International students

Visas and permits for international students who wish to work in the UK

25 Jan 2023, 13:37

Find out about the UK’s point-based system and what it means for international students looking for work.

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The UK has a points-based immigration system for international citizens who would like to work in the UK. Since 1 January 2021, this applies to nationals from the EU, EEA and Switzerland, as well as to nationals from outside Europe. Irish citizens, however, are an exception and will be able to continue to study and work in the UK without the need for visas or settled status. There are many types of visa available for those who have completed their studies and are now wanting to work in the UK. This section focuses on those visas but if you’re still studying in the UK and would like to work alongside this, find out more information on being a full-time student, part-time worker .

Visas for international students: Eligibility | Explaining visas to employers | Switching visas | Extending a student visa | The new graduate route | Skilled worker visas | Temporary work visas | Innovator and start-up visas | Global talent visas | High potential individual visas

Am I eligible for a visa?

Your eligibility will depend on which type of visa you apply for. There are different types of visa for different situations, but the most likely categories are ‘skilled worker’ or ‘temporary work’ visas.

Prior to 2021, UK visas were organised into five ‘tiers’. These tiers have now been renamed, but you may still occasionally see ‘skilled worker’ visas being referred to as ‘Tier 2 visas’, for example. See the relevant sections below to find out the updated names for the most common visas for international students.

Your visa application will be assessed by the Home Office and you will need to acquire a certain number of ‘points’ for your application to be successful. These points are awarded based on skills, experience, age, salary of job offer and demand (in cases where the UK has a shortage of qualified personnel). The points required, the manner in which they are awarded, and if there are any additional requirements will depend on the type of visa.

Prepare your documentation and check the earliest you can apply for your visa carefully (this will depend on the type of visa and whether you are applying from inside or outside the UK). GOV.UK provides thorough guidance notes for each type of visa. UKCISA (the UK Council for International Student Affairs) and your university’s international students’ office can both offer help and advice. Law clinics and advice centres may offer free advice around visas, and you could also seek help from legal professionals specialising in immigration (you are likely to need to pay for this).

You will also need to pay a fee for each visa application, which will depend on the type of visa. In addition to this, you will need to pay a healthcare surcharge for each year that the visa will be active and a fee for supplying your biometric information (usually fingerprints and a digital photo of your face). These fees apply even if you are ‘extending’ or ‘switching’ a currently held UK visa.

Can I get a visa as a graduate without a job already in place?

Whether you need to have a job offer or sponsor in place to apply for a visa will depend on the type of visa you want. Some are limited, requiring sponsorship from certain approved employers while others allow you to look for work while you’re in the UK. The sections below give information on the requirements for various types of visa.

How do I explain my visa to employers?

Requirements for visas underwent a large change in October 2020 and are likely to continue to change; it can take some time for employers to familiarise themselves with the new requirements. You can direct them to a number of available up-to-date sources if they would like to understand more about your visa. The GOV.UK website should be able to answer most questions that an employer may have.

Changing from a student visa to a different visa

If you are currently studying in the UK with a student visa (previously called a Tier 4 (student) visa), you may be able to ‘switch’ to another form of visa. The switching requirements vary on the type of visa you apply for, but will usually be the same as if you were applying for the visa from outside the UK. For example, if you want to switch from a student visa to a skilled worker visa, you will need a qualifying offer of employment from a sponsoring employer. You will need to apply to switch before your current visa expires. Further details about the requirements for switching to each visa can be found on the GOV.UK website.

Extending a student visa

It is possible to extend your student (or Tier 4) visa if it is due to expire, provided that your personal circumstances haven’t changed and that you can either show that your subsequent studies will be at a higher academic level or that your current studies meet other certain requirements. It is important to apply before your current visa expires so that you aren’t classed as having overstayed by the Home Office.

Graduate visa

To qualify for this visa, you must be in the UK on a current student visa (or Tier 4 visa) and have completed an eligible course at a higher education provider in the UK.

The graduate visa allows you to look for employment and work in most roles in the UK, regardless of skill level or starting salary. As well as this, you can work on a self-employed basis, undertake voluntary work and return to the UK if you travel abroad. If you live with a partner and/or children who are eligible to stay in the UK you can continue doing so. On the flip side, the graduate visa does not allow for application for most benefits or the state pension, or work as a professional sportsperson.

The graduate visa allows you to stay in the UK for at least two years (three if you have a PhD). After that time, you can’t extend the visa but it may be possible for you to ‘switch’ to a different type of visa.

Skilled worker visa

With a skilled worker visa (formerly known as a ‘Tier 2 visa’), you are eligible to work in the UK for up to five years before you need to apply to extend it. You must have a job offer from an approved employer and for an eligible occupation (the Home Office has a register of licensed sponsor employers and qualifying occupations). Your sponsor is responsible for confirming the role is eligible for a skilled worker visa, and that you can fulfil the job requirements. You will then be given a Certification of Sponsorship (CoS) to prove this.

The following conditions must be met:

  • Skilled work – the role must meet a required skill level (typically at qualification level 3 or above, which is equivalent to A levels).
  • A minimum salary of £25,600 or the ‘going rate’ for the job opportunity – you can see a list of ‘going rates’ on GOV.UK . See below for more information about possible exemptions to salary requirements.
  • You must meet English language requirements. You may need to take an assessment to prove this. You are likely to be exempt if you graduate from a UK university or from a course that was taught primarily in English.

There may be exemptions to the minimum salary requirements for jobs if you fulfil certain criteria. You can qualify for a visa with a salary of between 70–90% of the occupation’s ‘going rate’ if:

  • you are under 26
  • you are a student, in professional training or have graduated in the past two years
  • your job is in a ‘shortage occupation’ (where the UK government has identified that there aren’t enough UK residents to fill these jobs)
  • you have a PhD – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) PhDs allow for a lower qualifying salary than PhDs in other subject areas
  • you hold a postdoctoral position in higher education or in science.

In these instances, your salary must be at least £20,480 a year and you must earn at least £10.10 per hour.

Temporary work visas

There are several types of temporary work visas that cover different types of work in the UK. These include…

Temporary work – creative worker visa

You will need to apply for this visa if you want to work in the UK in the creative industries, eg within acting, film and TV, dancing, theatre or music.

You can stay in the UK on this visa for an initial maximum period of 12 months. Before your visa expires, you may be able to apply to extend it for another 12 months. You’ll be required to have a certificate of sponsorship from a licensed sponsor before you can apply for the visa and you cannot use it to start your own business while in the UK.

This visa was previously called a ‘temporary worker – creative and sporting visa (T5)’. If you want to work in the UK as a sportsperson, you’ll need to apply for the international sportsperson visa .

Temporary work – government authorised exchange visa

This is available if you’re coming to the UK on an approved scheme for work experience, research, training, a fellowship or an overseas government language programme.

Sponsor organisations that can run authorised exchange programmes include employers, higher education institutions and government departments and agencies.

This visa is valid for 10, 12 or 24 months, with the length determined by the scheme you apply for. It used to be known as the ‘temporary worker – government authorised exchange visa (T5)’.

Temporary work – international agreement visa

You will need to apply for this visa if you have a job offer to work in the UK for an overseas government or international organisation that is covered by international law.

A licensed employer will need to have given you sponsorship for you to be able to apply for this visa and you can stay in the UK for up to two years.

This visa used to be known as the ‘temporary worker – international agreement worker visa (T5)’.

Seasonal worker visa (temporary work)

If you’re planning to work in the UK for a short period of time for a certain season, this is the visa you’ll need to apply for. The seasonal work can be in horticulture, working to pick fruit and vegetables or flowers, or in poultry. You’ll need to have a sponsor for the work already in place before applying for the visa.

The time limits for the visas are quite specific and finite. You can stay for up to six months if you’re working in horticulture and if you’re working in poultry you can only stay for the period of 18 October to 31 December in the same year.

This visa is limiting as it doesn’t allow you to work in a permanent job or in a second job, to claim public funds or bring family members with you. It used to be called the ‘temporary worker – seasonal worker visa (T5)’.

Innovator visa and start-up visa

You can apply for one of these visas if you have plans to set up a new business in the UK. They were previously called Tier 1 (entrepreneur) visas. Both visas require you to have a business idea that is new, ‘different from anything else on the market’ and ‘viable, with potential for growth’.

Where these two visas differ is that innovator visas require business ideas to be endorsed by an authorised body from a list of approved bodies , while start-up visas can be endorsed by an authorised body that is a higher education institution or a business organisation that has helped UK entrepreneurs in the past.

Innovator visas last for three years and can be extended while start-up visas last for two. You can’t extend a start-up visa but it can be switched to an innovator visa once your business is active and has been endorsed by an authorised body.

Global talent visa

The global talent visa is intended for ‘leaders or potential leaders’ in academia or research, arts and culture and digital technology, as long as they are at least 18 years old. This visa was previously known as the ‘Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa’.

Before you apply for a global talent visa you must first have applied for an endorsement. The Home Office will review this application along with a relevant institution (such as the Royal Society for academic applicants or Tech Nation for digital technology applicants). If you have won an eligible award you do not need an endorsement to prove you are a leader (or potential leader).

Global talent visas can last up to five years at a time and you can extend it as many times as you like if you still meet the criteria. This visa gives you a significant degree of freedom when compared to other types of visa; for example, you’re able to be self-employed or change jobs and there are no language or salary requirements.

High potential individual (HPI) visa

You can apply for this visa if you have gained a qualification from an eligible university in the last five years that is equivalent to a UK bachelor’s degree, postgraduate degree or PhD. It cannot be from a UK university and the list of eligible universities is available on the GOV.UK website.

The HPI visa allows you to do a variety of things in the UK such as look for employment, work in most jobs, be self-employed, carry out voluntary work and travel abroad and then return to the UK.

You can stay in the UK on an HPI visa for two years unless you have a PhD or other doctoral qualification, in which case you can stay for three years. The HPI visa can’t be extended beyond this period but you might be able to ‘switch’ to a different visa depending on your eligibility.

This article was last updated in November 2022.

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