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

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 students who would like to work (or study) in the UK. As of 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.

Visas for international students: Switching visas | Extending a student visa | The new graduate route | Skilled worker visas | Temporary worker visas | Innovator and start-up visas | Global talent 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 worker’ 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.

Explaining your 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.

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 circumstances haven’t changed and that you still meet the eligibility criteria. It is important to apply before your current visa expires so that you aren’t classed as having overstayed by the Home Office.

Doctorate extension scheme

This provides an extension which allows PhD students close to completing their research to extend their student (or Tier 4) visa for another 12 months. This could be to gain more experience in their specialist field or to find skilled employment.

The new graduate immigration route

A new immigration route for international students who have studied and completed a degree in the UK started on 1 July 2021. The graduate visa allows graduates to work and secure employment in most roles in the UK, regardless of skill level or starting salary. As well as this, those with the visa can work on a self-employed basis, undertake voluntary work and return to the UK if they travel abroad. Those who live with a partner and/or children who are eligible to stay in the UK 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.

To qualify for this, graduates must have completed an eligible course at a higher education provider in the UK. The graduate visa lasts for two years for most graduates, and three years for those who have completed a PhD.

  • GOV.UK gives further details on eligibility and how to apply for a graduate visa here.

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. 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 fulfill 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 research.

Temporary worker visa

The temporary worker – government authorised exchange visa (previously called a Tier 5 visa) is available for applicants from approved schemes coming to the UK for work experience, research, training 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 12 or 24 months (or, if it is shorter, the length of the programme plus 14 days).

Innovator visa and start-up visa

These visas are open to people who have plans to set up new businesses in the UK. They were previously called Tier 1 (entrepreneur) visas. Both visas require applicants 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.

Innovator visas last for three years and start-up visas last for two. A start-up visa can be switched to an innovator visa once the applicant’s 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 and from one of a number of eligible European countries. This visa was previously known as the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa.

Applications for global talent visas 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).

Global talent visas can last up to five years and allow holders a significant degree of freedom when compared to other types of visa; for example, they are able to be self-employed or change jobs and there are no language or salary requirements.

This article was last updated in July 2021.

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