Details of how the new immigration system will operate from 1 January 2021 have been published by the Home Office in a Policy Statement. As expected, EU nationals relocating to the UK from 1 January 2021 will be subject to the new system on the same footing as non-EU nationals.
European Economic Area (EEA) nationals who are living in the UK before 1 January 2021 will not be subject to the new immigration rules. They must apply under the EU Settlement Scheme before 30 June 2021 to preserve their immigration status and right to live, work and study in the UK.
Irish nationals will also be exempt from the new system due to existing arrangements with the UK.
What is the new sponsored "Skilled Worker" visa?
At first glance, the Skilled Worker visa appears to be similar to the Tier 2 route; points are awarded for having certain "characteristics" including a job offer from an approved sponsor, meeting salary thresholds and English language skills.
- Migrants applying for a "Skilled Worker" visa must score 70 points to qualify and can "trade" points for certain "characteristics".
- UK Visas & Immigration (UKVI) is likely to continue to use the Standard Occupation Classification Codes currently used for Tier 2 to set minimum salary thresholds. Lower minimum salary rates will apply for "new entrants" as is currently the case for Tier 2.
- The Home Office has rejected the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) recommendation to have regional salary thresholds.
More information about the "characteristics" and salary thresholds is set out in the below table:
Offer of job by approved sponsor
Job at the appropriate skill level
Speaks English at required level
Salary of £20,480 (minimum) - £23,039
Salary of £23,040 - £25,599
Salary of £25,600 or above
Job in shortage occupation (as designated by the MAC)
Education qualification: PhD in subject relevant to the job
Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job
An example from the Policy Statement shows how points can be traded:
"A university researcher in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subject wishing to come to the UK on a salary of £22,000, (which is below the general minimum salary threshold), may still be able to enter the UK if they have a relevant PhD in a STEM subject. Likewise, a nurse wishing to come to the UK on a salary of £22,000 would still be able to enter the UK on the basis that the individual would be working in a shortage occupation, provided it continues to be designated in shortage by the MAC."
- English language skills are not "tradeable" (so a mandatory requirement for the visa), as is the case currently for Tier 2 General migrants.
- Skill level will be reduced from RQF Level 6 to RQF Level 3 (A- level equivalent).
- The Shortage Occupation List (SOL) will be maintained. More points will be awarded to migrants coming to fill roles listed on the SOL. UKVI significantly expanded the SOL last year to include many more engineering, technology and other roles, but the Policy Statement confirms that the SOL will be under "constant review".
- Further to the MAC's recommendation, the Resident Labour Market Test (advertising process) will be removed in order to "ensure that a wide pool of skilled workers will be available" and to make the process simpler and quicker for employers.
- The annual cap currently imposed on Tier 2 General visas (20,700 per year) will be suspended.
- Dependant family members will be able to continue to join skilled workers in the UK. There is no mention of whether the Home Office plans to make changes to dependants being able to work or study in the UK.
- The UK government will continue to honour its commitments under existing trade agreements, but it is not clear whether the Intra-Company Transfer visa will still be available under the Skilled Worker route. We also don't know if UKVI will require Intra-Company Transfer migrants to obtain points for English language skills, as Tier 2 ICT applicants are currently exempt.
- EEA nationals applying overseas will be able to apply using a "streamlined" visa application process. Instead of visiting a visa application centre, they will be able to use their smartphone to enrol their facial biometrics. Fingerprints will not be required. The decision will be sent to the applicant by email and employers can check right to work status online. Non-EEA nationals must continue to apply through a visa application centre in the usual way.
- There is no provision under the Skilled Workers route for those looking to relocate to the UK to start their own business or be freelancers/self-employed. Those individuals (including EEA nationals arriving in the UK from 1 January 2021) will need to obtain either a Global Talent visa (the new name for the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa) or an Innovator visa. Both of these visa routes have eligibility criteria that are difficult to meet.
- The Policy Statement mentions that the Home Office may implement the MAC recommendation of introducing a broader unsponsored route to allow "a smaller number of highly-skilled workers to come to the UK without a job offer". The number of highly skilled workers under this visa route would be capped and subject to review by UKVI, but whether or not it ever sees the light of day, it will not be available from 1 January 2021.
Post study work/Graduate visa
- Although not mentioned in the Policy Statement, the Home Office has previously announced that it will open a "Graduate" work visa for Tier 4 General migrants who entered the UK in the 2020/21 academic year.
- The two year "Graduate" visa will allow students who have completed a degree level course or above to remain in the UK and look for work or undertake unsponsored employment with no minimum skill or salary level.
- EEA nationals arriving in the UK after 1 January 2021 to commence a course of study will require a Tier 4 General visa to study in the UK, so should be able to take advantage of the new Graduate visa from 2021 onwards.
Low skilled workers
- Apart from the Seasonal Agricultural Workers scheme, there will be no visa route for "low skilled" migrants that would perform UK jobs below the RQF Level 3 skill threshold. There will be an increase in the number of Seasonal Agricultural Worker visas from 2,500 to 10,000. UKVI considers that, despite low levels of unemployment, there is sufficient capacity from the existing EEA workforce already in the UK by the end of 2020 coupled with "economically inactive" British citizens to meet demand. But industry groups in a number of sectors, including hospitality, construction and social care, are concerned that there will not be enough people available to fill their vacancies.
- EEA nationals will not require a visa to travel to the UK on business or for tourism (for up to six months) after 1 January 2021, and will be able to continue to use e-gates.
- The same rules will apply to EEA and non-EEA nationals visiting the UK from 1 January 2021.
What should employers do to prepare?
- Employers will need a sponsor licence to sponsor EEA nationals under the Skilled Worker visa scheme so the Policy Statement urges businesses that don't already have one to apply for a licence. We recommend that businesses needing a licence apply as soon as possible, before the surge of applications. We typically see sponsor licence applications approved in four to five weeks, but processing times may increase if there is a spike in applications leading up to the visa route opening in Autumn 2020.
- Employers will need to factor in additional costs for hiring Skilled Workers that are currently payable when sponsoring non-EEA nationals:
- Immigration Skill Charge: £364 for small and medium employers or £1,000 for large employers in addition to a £200 COS fee.
- Immigration Health Surcharge: £400 per year of the visa per applicant (this could rise to £625 per year of the visa).
- Visa application fees: approximately £600 to £1,200 per applicant depending on visa length.
The Immigration Health Surcharge and visa application fee are also payable for accompanying family members. All fees may increase slightly on 6 April 2020.
- Employers will need to factor in longer lead-in times for the hire and transfer of staff to the UK. Additional time will now be required for the EEA applicant to evidence their English language skills (either by taking a UKVI approved test or obtaining UK NARIC documents) and applying for the visa.
- Consider alternatives to the Skilled Worker visa route. For example does the EEA citizen have a British or Irish partner who will be relocating to the UK, or can their proposed role be adjusted to conform with the rules for business visitors?
- Review current employment arrangements to check how the new system will affect your business. EEA nationals will require a visa to study in the UK and are likely to be subject to the same visa conditions as non-EEA nationals (eg can only work for 20 hours per week during term time) so consider workforce requirements and resourcing if you rely on a large EEA student workforce.
- Right to work check process will change from 30 June 2021. Until this date, the current right to work process will apply.
- If you have EU offices, keep up to date on EEA countries proposals for British nationals relocating to the EEA after 1 January 2021.