The UK has a 5-tier immigration points-based system for international students (nationals from outside the European Economic Area) who'd like to work (or study) in the UK.
Am I eligible for a visa?
Your eligibility will depend on which type of visa you apply for. The most likely categories are Tier 1, Tier 2 or Tier 5 work visas.
GOV.UK – visas and immigration has details on the requirements for each type of visa.
Points are awarded based on skills, experience, age and demand in cases where the UK has a shortage of qualified personnel. The points required and the manner in which they are awarded is dependent on the tier.
Prepare your documentation and check the earliest that you can apply for your visa carefully. 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).
Explaining your visa to employers
Requirements for visas do change regularly, and 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.
Tier 1 (Graduate entrepreneur) visa
This is open to graduates who have been endorsed by either the Department for International Trade (DIT) under the Sirius programme, or an authorised UK higher education institution (HEI), as having a ‘genuine and credible business idea'.
To get an endorsement from an HEI, you must hold a UK-recognised undergraduate degree, masters or PhD award. The endorsement does not have to be from the university that you graduated from, but you will need your original degree certificate.
Each year, there are 2,000 Tier 1 (Graduate entrepreneur) places. The cap runs from 6 April to the 5 April.
How long will a decision take?
A decision on your visa should take less than one month if you've been endorsed by the DIT, or two months if you've been endorsed by a higher education institution.
The visa is valid for one year. You can apply to extend the visa for another year.
For more on eligibility, see the visa information on GOV.UK.
Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa
The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa is open to applicants with exceptional talent or promise in science, humanities, engineering, medicine, digital technology or the arts.
Applying for the visa is a two-stage process: you need endorsement as a leader or emerging leader in your discipline from the Home Office before you apply for the visa itself.
The Home Office provides endorsements based on recommendations from the relevant designated competent body, which will be one of the following:
- Arts Council England – arts and culture
- The British Academy – humanities and social science
- The Royal Society – natural science and medical science
- The Royal Academy of Engineering – engineering
- Tech City UK – digital technology
The visa lasts for five years (with an additional four months for applications made outside the UK) and can be extended for another five.
Tier 2 visa
With a Tier 2 visa, you are eligible to work in the UK for five years. Your employer must be a registered sponsor (the Home Office has a register of officially licensed sponsors).
Your sponsor is responsible for confirming the role is eligible for a Tier 2 visa, and that you can fulfil the job requirements. You'll then be given a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) to prove this.
The following conditions must be met:
- skilled work – the role must meet a required skill level.
- minimum salary of £30,000 (or the appropriate rate). Some professions are exempt from the £30,000 threshold.
- some roles are subject to a resident labour market test.
- you must meet English language requirements. If you graduated from a UK university you're likely to be exempt.
If you are considered a ‘new entrant' when applying for a Tier 2 visa, the minimum salary threshold is £20,800. To qualify as a new entrant, you'll need to be meet one of the following criteria:
- under 26 years old
- recruited through the university milkround process by a Tier 2 sponsor
- have a post-study exemption from the resident labour market test.
Changing from a Tier 4 (student) visa to a Tier 2 visa
To switch visa, you must have completed your course with a tier 4 sponsor institution graduating with either a UK bachelors degree, a masters, a PGCE or PGDE. Alternatively, you need to have completed at least 12 months of your PhD.
After changing visa, your Tier 2 visa will be eligible for up to five years.
You can find out more about switching to a Tier 2 visa from GOV.UK.
Doctorate extension scheme
This provides an extension which allows PhD students close to completing their research to extend their Tier 4 visa for another 12 months. This could be to gain more experience in their specialist field, to find skilled employment or set up as an entrepreneur.
Tier 5 Temporary Worker – Government Authorised Exchange
This is available for applicants from approved schemes coming to the UK for work experience, research, training or an overseas government language programme.
An overarching organisation is responsible for the scheme and is supported by a government department. The organiser managing the exchange scheme issues the certificate of sponsorship needed for a visa.
The visa is valid for 12 months for work experience, or 24 months for research, training, or an overseas government language programme.
Extending a student visa
It is possible to extend your student visa, provided that your circumstances haven't changed and that you still meet the eligibility criteria. It is very important to apply before your current visa expires so that you aren't classed as having overstayed by the Home Office.