Work in the UK: Getting a UK work visa


The UK is the fifth largest economy on the planet, with a highly developed technology and service industry. London is also the world’s leading financial powerhouse. It’s a popular place to seek employment - whether for a short working holiday or to settle for the long term. But living and working overseas always comes with its fair share of bureaucracy, and the UK is no exception to this.

Despite the recent EU referendum most European citizens don't currently need a work permit to get a job in Britain. However, if you’re from outside the Eu, the picture is more complex and you need to make sure you're eligible to work in the UK.

Read this guide to learn more about getting a UK work visa.

Do I need a UK work visa?

Your first priority should be to figure out if you need a work permit at all. In some cases, depending on your nationality and the role you’re going to take on, a permit might not be necessary.

The UK Government website has a helpful tool which shows the visa requirements for your specific nationality. All you need to do is answer a few questions about your citizenship and how long you intend to stay in the UK. The site will then hook you up with the information you need, including the visa types suitable for you and if you need one.

If you're from the European Economic Area (or Switzerland) you don't need a work visa to take a job in the UK, despite the recent UK EU referendum. If you're a commonwealth citizen with parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the UK you may also be exempt from the visa system. Full details are available on the government website.

What’s the process to get a UK work visa?

UK work visas are split by different visa types. These cover ‘skilled’ and ‘high value’ workers, as well as specialist visas for temporary employees and domestic staff.

The most common visa types are as follows:

A Tier 2 (General) visa is intended for skilled workers from outside of Europe, who have already been offered a job. You need a certificate of sponsorship from your employer to apply for this visa type.

Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) visas are split by role type and have different eligibility requirements. In general you should have a certificate of sponsorship and a fixed amount of savings to support yourself during your time in the UK.

A Tier 1 visa is issued to investors and entrepreneurs who want to come to the UK to start or build businesses. Eligibility criteria apply.

There are fees involved when you apply for a visa. The fee structure is based on things like the type of visa (and in some cases the job you'll do) and the country in which you apply. A Tier 2 visa will cost £575 in most cases with discounted rates for people doing shortage jobs.

In addition to your visa fees you may also need to pay a healthcare surcharge of up to £200 for each year your visa is valid.

You can apply for a visa up to three months before you intend to work in the UK. Applications go through the British Embassy or High Commission closest to you, and tend to be quicker when dealt with in commonwealth countries. Processing time in general is around 3 weeks  although more detail about the likely processing time for different nationalities can be found on the UK government website.

There are many visa and relocation agencies who can help you apply for a UK work visa, should you need them. Take recommendations from friends and look for online reviews and testimonials to help you choose a legitimate agency. As applications are relatively straightforward and can be made largely online, you may decide to skip the agency (and their fees).

What documents do I need?

To get any sort of UK work visa you'll need to fulfil certain criteria and provide documentary evidence. In some cases you may need to demonstrate proficiency in the English language, by passing an approved English language test.

The exact requirements vary by visa type, but you can expect to be asked for:

  • A current passport which has a blank page for the visa
  • Proof of adequate funds to support yourself (or a certificate from your sponsor stating they will support you)
  • Employer sponsorship if relevant

In some cases you'll also be asked to provide a clean tuberculosis test as part of your application.

Applications are started online, but to get a biometric residence permit (required for some visas) you'll need to visit your nearest visa application centre to have your fingerprints and other biometric data recorded. If you’re already in the UK (and need to switch your visa type or extend it for example)then you can apply at a UK based application centre. They must collect your documents within ten days of arriving in the UK.

The EU Blue Card (which allows workers to hold one visa for multiple European countries) isn't valid in the UK.

UK work visas for part time, fixed term and seasonal workers

Temporary visas, which are known as Tier 5 visas, are offered to people coming to the UK for a short period (typically under 12 months), to work in the following fields:

  • Charity work
  • Creative or athletic activity
  • Religious work

If you're from certain countries including Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, and aged between 18 and 30, you may be able to get a temporary working visa for up to two years without proving employer sponsorship.

There’s a specific visa for those coming to the UK to do domestic work such as au pairs and nannies.

If you're in the UK with a Tier 4 student visa, you'll find that you have the right to work in many fields already. Usually your visa will allow you to work up to 20 hours a week in term time and full time during the holidays. Some jobs aren't covered by this type of visa though, and your eligibility to work will also be influenced by your course type and level. Check the details before you start to seek employment, as your employer will make checks with the immigration authorities to ensure you're eligible to work for them.

Once you have finished your studies you may be able to switch your student visa to a work visa by proving that you successfully completed your course. The Tier 2 visa is then valid for five years.

How do I get a UK work visa as an entrepreneur?

People who want to come to the UK to set up a business have to apply for a Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa. As well as the usual visa requirements, you must also prove that you have access to at least £50,000 of investment funds to secure this visa.

The criteria for this visa type are fairly strict. Additionally, you need to show your business plan, evidence of your investment funds and a certain amount of personal savings to allow you to support yourself during your stay. With this visa, you won't be allowed to work for others during your time in the UK, but only on your personal business. Finally, you may need to prove you don't have tuberculosis and provide a clean criminal record statement.

How might my UK work visa affect my spouse or family members?

Under the terms of certain visa types, your family members or dependants (including unmarried and same sex partners) may be able to join you in the UK. Any adult travelling under this scheme will have to have a clean criminal record, and all will be required to pay a healthcare surcharge and some application fees. Detailed guidance about the rights of dependants and family members is provided by the UK government.

I have my UK work visa - what next?

Once you arrive in the UK you'll need to get a National Insurance Number. This might be printed on the back of your biometric residence permit. If it's not, you'll need to make a separate application.

If your circumstances change - for example, if you lose your job or change employer, your visa may no longer be valid. Make sure you keep the relevant authorities informed of any changes so you can renew or alter your visa status if needed.

Getting a work visa in the UK isn't always easy, as there are fairly strict eligibility criteria. However, there are opportunities available especially for specialists, skilled workers, and younger people looking to work and travel. If you’re considering a move to the UK for work then it is a good idea to  plan ahead to get all your paperwork in order. Then all you need to do is pack up and get ready for your new challenge.

How can I move money to the UK  from my bank account abroad?

To get the most of your money in the UK, you'll want to open a bank account in the UK, which you can do before you arrive.

Once you send money to the UK, consider using a money conversion service like Wise to avoid unfair exchange rates. There's a small transparent fee, and when your money is converted from one currency to another you’ll get the real exchange rate - the same one you can find on Google. Not only that, but Wise receives and sends money via local bank transfers instead of internationally, further saving you money by cutting out hefty international transfer fees.

If your trip is short or opening a bank account in UK isn't an option, you can always withdraw money from your foreign account using a UK ATM. Just keep in mind it'll be more favourable to agree to be charged in the local currency, not your home currency.

Regardless of when you start your new job abroad, it should be fairly straightforward to get yourself a visa if you follow the right steps. The most important part is just to make sure to enjoy your new adventure.

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This publication is provided for general information purposes and does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from Wise Payments Limited or its subsidiaries and its affiliates, and it is not intended as a substitute for obtaining advice from a financial advisor or any other professional.

We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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