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Sponsoring employees to work in the UK

In order to employ somebody from outside of the UK, UK employers need a sponsor licence. Read this guide to find out more about obtaining such a licence.

UK employers need a sponsor licence to employ someone to work for them from outside the UK, including citizens of the EU, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland who arrived in the UK after 31 December 2020.

UK employers do not need a licence to sponsor certain groups, including:

Be aware that sponsoring someone doesn't guarantee they’ll be allowed to come to or stay in the UK.

The first step in obtaining a sponsor licence in the UK is to check that the business is eligible. To get a licence, businesses cannot have:

  • unspent criminal convictions for immigration offences or certain other crimes, such as fraud or money laundering

  • had a sponsor licence revoked in the last 12 months

Application forms (and any supporting documents) will be reviewed by UK Visa and Immigration (UKVI), who may visit business premises to ensure businesses are trustworthy and capable of carrying out their duties.

Businesses can sponsor a worker if their job:

  • has a suitable rate of pay and skill label, or

  • meets the other criteria needed for their visa

Suitability depends on the type of worker in question (eg if they’re a health or care worker, seasonal worker or religious worker). For more information, read the government’s guidance.

The licences businesses can apply for depends on whether the workers wanted are:

  • workers (ie skilled or long-term employment), or

  • temporary workers (ie specific types of temporary employment)

Businesses can apply for one or both types of licences.

Worker licence

A worker licence allows businesses to sponsor workers in different types of skilled employment. Depending on the worker’s visa, the skilled work can be short-term, long-term or permanent. There are different types of worker licence including: 

  • skilled workers visas - provided they meet the job suitability requirements

  • intra-company visas - including intra-company transfers and intra-company graduate traineeships, for global companies transferring employees/ graduate trainees to the UK

  • ministers of religion - for individuals who are coming to work for a religious organisation

  • sportspeople - for elite sportspeople and coaches who will be based in the UK

Temporary worker licence

A temporary worker licence allows businesses to sponsor workers on a temporary basis, including volunteers and those work-shadowing. Temporary worker licences only apply to certain types of employment and visas, including:

  • creative or sporting workers - those who work as high-level sportspeople (for up to 1 year), entertainers or artists (for up to 2 years)

  • charity workers - for unpaid charity workers (for up to 1 year)

  • religious workers - for those working in religious orders or organisations (for up to 2 years)

  • government-authorised exchange workers - for those coming to the UK for work experience (for up to 1 year), research projects or training, such as practical medical or scientific training (for up to 2 years), in order to enable a short-term exchange of knowledge

  • international agreement workers - for workers coming to do a job covered by international law (eg employees of overseas governments)

  • seasonal workers - for farm workers coming to the UK for up to 6 months

People need to be appointed within a business to manage the roles within the process when applying for a sponsor licence. These roles can be filled by the same person or by different people and include:

  • authorising officer, who:

    • has overall responsibility for the licence

    • does not have access to the sponsor management system or ‘SMS’ (the web interface through which the licence is administered) unless also appointed as the level 1 user

    • decides who the level 1 (or level 2) user should be

    • should be ‘the most senior person in the organisation responsible for recruitment’. This allows the employer some leeway, with often either a director or head of HR taking this role

  • key contact, who:

    • is the key contact between UKVI and the employer

    • needs to nominate the authorising officer and the level 1 user

  • level 1 user, who:

    • is responsible for the general administration of the licence and has access to the SMS

Businesses can only appoint a single level 1 user when applying for a licence. However, additional level 1 users can be appointed after a license is granted. 

Generally, there must always be at least one level 1 user that is: 

  • a ‘settled worker’ (ie someone who has indefinite leave to remain in the UK, including British citizens, individuals with settled status and most a British overseas territories citizen)

  •  an employee, director or partner

After a sponsor licence has been granted, businesses can appoint a level 2 user. A level 2 user’s role is similar to a level 1 user, however, with fewer administrative privileges (eg they cannot withdraw a certificate of sponsorship).

Suitability checks

Businesses will need to ensure that staff appointed to the above roles are suitable for them. A business may not get its sponsor licence if anyone involved in sponsorship has:

  • an unspent criminal conviction

  • been fined by UKVI in the past 12 months

  • been reported to UKVI

  • broken the law

  • been a ‘key person’ at a sponsor that had its licence revoked in the last 12 months

  • failed to pay VAT or other excise duty

The business and its allocated staff must also:

  • be based in the UK most of the time

  • not be a contractor or consultant contracted for a specific project

  • not be subject to a bankruptcy restriction order or undertaking, or a debt relief restriction order or undertaking

  • not have a history of non-compliance with sponsor requirements

Staff appointed to the above roles must typically be paid members of staff or office holders (eg directors). Businesses may appoint a UK-based legal representative, who is qualified to give immigration advice or services, to all of the above roles, apart from the authorising officer role.

Businesses can apply for licences online. Once the application is completed, the business needs to send the submission sheet at the end of the application, together with supporting documents to the email address on the submission sheet.

The applicable fee will need to be paid, which depends on the type of licence being applied for and the type of business (eg if they are a small or large business).

Applications are generally dealt with within less than 8 weeks. However, businesses may be able to pay £500 to get a decision within 10 working days. They will be informed of this after applying.

Licence ratings

Successful business applicants will be given a licence rating. Successful applicants will be awarded an A-rated licence, which allows businesses to issue certificates of sponsorship for jobs suitable for sponsorships, and will be listed on the register of sponsors.

Sponsor licences will be valid for 4 years unless a business loses its licence because they no longer meet their responsibilities as a sponsor. For more information, read the government’s guidance.

Certificates of sponsorship

Businesses must assign a certificate of sponsorship to each worker they employ. A certificate of sponsorship is an electronic record a worker can use to apply for a visa. Workers must apply for their visa within 3 months and they must not apply for their visa more than 3 months before the start date of the job listed on the certificate.

For more information, read the government’s guidance.

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