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Work permits and employing overseas workers

It may be necessary to recruit workers from overseas in order to overcome skill shortages or to find multilingual workers, especially if you operate your business in different countries. However it's crucial to understand the rules around employing overseas workers to avoid any regulatory mistakes and face penalties.
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Currently any British citizen is allowed to work in the UK without seeking permission. 

Nationals of any European Economic Area (EEA) countries or Switzerland residing in the UK before or on 31 December 2020 are allowed to work in the UK without seeking permission, until 30 June 2021.

Employers who wish to employ nationals of any EEA countries or Switzerland, who are coming to the UK for work, will now need a sponsor licence.

Nationals of non-EEA countries must apply for a visa and (for Tier 2 and Tier 5 visas) be employed by a licensed sponsor in order to work in the UK.

From 30  June 2021, the new immigration rules for recruiting people from outside of the UK will apply.

Tier 1 – this is designed for investors and entrepreneurs who wish to invest in the UK, as well as a limited number of workers who have been endorsed as having 'exceptional talent' or 'exceptional promise'.

Tier 2 – this is the general type of visa which allows UK businesses to employ workers from non-EEA countries.

Tier 5 – this is designed to cover temporary workers undertaking certain roles (eg charity or religious workers and creative or sports professionals).

Tier 1 - Visa applications can be made online. Fingerprints and a photograph must be taken at a visa application centre and fees must be paid in order to process the application.

Tier 2 - Employers must first apply to become a sponsor and then assign a certificate of sponsorship to the prospective employee. The employee needs to submit a visa application, pay any relevant fees and wait for approval before starting work.

Tier 5 - Just as with Tier 2, Tier 5 visas require a certificate of sponsorship to process the application. Fees must also be paid in order to process the visa application.

All employers are obliged to check a prospective employee's right to work in the UK, prior to offering them a job, irrespective of whether they are claiming to be eligible to work in the UK. This involves:

  • viewing the job applicant's original 'right to work' documents which prove that they have a right to work in the UK (eg British or EEA passport - the latter only until 30 June 2021),
  • checking that these documents are valid (eg photos resemble applicant and dates of birth match up), and
  • making a copy of the documents which cannot be changed (eg photocopy), recording the date the check was made and keeping these copies for at least two years after the employee has ceased their employment

For more information, see the right to work checklist from the Home Office.

The criminal penalties for hiring illegal workers can range from an unlimited fine to 5 years imprisonment.

You could also face civil penalties of up to £20,000 for each illegal worker for not carrying out the proper right to work checks or not carrying out the checks properly, in addition to the criminal penalties.

Your business details may also be published by Immigration Enforcement as a warning to other businesses not to employ illegal workers.

Employing EU nationals in the UK

Before 30 June 2021

Businesses that currently employ EU, EEA or Swiss nationals in the UK should inform these employees that they will need to apply to the EU Settlement Scheme for settled status before 30 June 2021. Without this, employees may no longer be eligible to live and work in the UK, which could disrupt businesses and cost them  valuable staff members. 

EU nationals seeking settled status must satisfy certain eligibility criteria. For more information on this eligibility criteria, please read our guide on Settled Status in the UK. 

On or after 30 June 2021

From 30 June 2021, businesses  intending to employ EU nationals to come and work in the UK will need to take into account  the new points-based immigration system, which sets certain requirements for foreign workers entering the UK.  The potential employee must:

  • have a job offer from an approved employer sponsor
  • for a position that requires at least A level (or equivalent) qualifications
  • speak English
  • be paid at least £25,600

Note that these changes do not retrospectively apply to EEA nationals already employed in the UK by 30 June 2021.

Businesses  will also need to register for a sponsor licence from the UK government to support foreign workers in satisfying these requirements. They should also check that the foreign worker has the right to work in the UK using the government’s Employer Checking Service.

There is also a UK government Global Talent Scheme to fast-track immigration for highly-skilled scientists and researchers to enter the UK without a job offer. This scheme continues to apply to EU, EEA and Swiss citizens after Brexit. Individuals hired through the Global Talent Scheme do not  require a business sponsor. For more information, see the government website.

Please note that none of the above applies to Irish citizens, whose right to live and work in the UK are not affected by Brexit.

Employing UK nationals in the EU

UK nationals are no longer able to benefit from the Free Movement of Peoples from 2021 onwards. This means that  businesses that employ UK nationals in EU member states need to take into account new immigration rules in the relevant jurisdiction of their place of work. This may include applying for a work permit or visa, and may take time to obtain. UK staff working in the EEA that drive as part of their job may need to apply for an International Driving Permit. This can be checked on the government website.

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