UK visa sponsorship for employers

A note on:

  • Who needs to be sponsored to work in the UK,
  • the different sponsorship routes,
  • the eligibility and suitability criteria for being a sponsor,
  • the duties expected of a sponsor and,
  • an outline of the sponsor licence application process.

Note: The government has announced measures to reduce net migration, taking effect in spring 2024, these are:

  • The minimum salary threshold for Skilled Worker visas will be increased from £26,200 to £38,700 a year (or the going rate for the role, if higher). Those coming on the Health and Care visa route and those on national pay scales will be exempt from this increase.
  • In accordance with the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) previous recommendations, the 20% salary discount for roles on the Shortage Occupation List will be scrapped and a smaller list of shortage roles on an “immigration salary list” will be introduced which will retain a general threshold discount. The MAC has been instructed to review the new list against the increased salary thresholds to reduce the number of occupations on it.
  • Care workers will no longer be able to bring dependants to the UK and care firms in England will need to be regulated by the Care Quality Commission to sponsor visas.
  • The minimum income threshold for family visas (for example, as the spouse or partner of a British or settled person in the UK) will increase significantly, from £18,600 to £38,700 a year, to match the new Skilled Worker minimum income threshold.
  • The MAC will be instructed to conduct a review of the Graduate route to ensure it “works in the best interests of the UK” and is not being abused.
  • The Immigration Health Surcharge will increase from £624 to £1,035 per year from January 2024.

What is sponsorship?

An organisation that wishes to employ a person who does not have the right to work for the employer in the UK, will need to be authorised by the Home Office to sponsor them to work. This authorisation is known as a “sponsor licence” and employers that hold a sponsor licence are known as “sponsors”.

Sponsors are granted access to the online sponsor management system (SMS).

They can then use the SMS to assign a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) to a migrant worker in respect of a specific role.

A CoS is an electronic record, not a physical certificate.

The CoS contains personal information about the migrant worker, as well as details about the role to be undertaken and the salary to be paid.

Each CoS has its own number and enables the migrant worker to apply for leave to enter (a visa) or leave to remain (permission to stay) in the UK to perform the role.

A CoS can only be used by the specific individual it is assigned to. However, assigning a migrant with a CoS does not guarantee that they will be allowed to enter or stay in the UK.

The Home Office must be satisfied that:

  1. there is a genuine vacancy for the role,
  2. that it is sufficiently skilled and,
  3. that the migrant will be paid appropriately to perform the role.

The migrant will also need to meet specific eligibility criteria themselves. The criteria vary depending on the category of sponsorship but can include minimum English language and financial requirements.

By sponsoring an employee, the employer also accepts the reporting and record keeping duties of sponsorship.

Who needs to be sponsored to work in the UK?

Employers need to sponsor individuals to work in the UK who are not settled workers, or who do not have some other immigration permission allowing them to work in the UK.

Sponsorship routes

There are two broad types of sponsor licence an organisation can apply for:

1. Worker routes

These routes are for skilled and long-term workers.

There are four “Worker” routes of which the two below are most likely to apply to a UK business.

Skilled Worker

This route allows employers to recruit people to work in the UK in a specific job.

A Skilled Worker must have a job offer in an eligible skilled occupation and meet the salary and going rate requirements.

For more details, see, Sponsoring an employee under Skilled Worker linked >here<.

Global Business Mobility – Senior or Specialist Worker

This is for senior managers or specialist employees being transferred by their overseas employer to a branch in the UK; it replaced the Intra-Company Transfer route in April 2022.

2. Temporary Worker routes

The Temporary Worker routes allow employers to recruit workers in a variety of temporary roles with an organisation in the UK to help satisfy cultural, charitable, religious or international objectives, including volunteering and job shadowing, and for meeting seasonal employment needs in the edible horticultural sector.

The Temporary Worker routes are linked >here<.

Principles of sponsorship

When a sponsor is granted a licence, significant trust is placed in them by the Home Office. With this trust comes a direct responsibility to act in accordance with the UK’s immigration laws, all parts of the Home Office’s guidance for sponsors, and with wider UK law.

This includes UK employment law (such as payment of National Minimum Wage, holiday and sickness pay, maximum working hours, health and safety, and trade union and worker rights) and preventing illegal working.

Sponsorship is considered by the Home Office to be a privilege, not a right. It holds the view that those who benefit most directly from employing migrant workers must play their part in ensuring the immigration system is not abused, comply with wider UK law and not behave in a manner that is not conducive to the public good.

Sponsors are expected to report sponsored migrant activity to the Home Office and keep specific records in relation to its sponsored migrants.

Eligibility criteria

The Home Office must be satisfied that the organisation is genuine and has an operating or trading presence in the UK.

Suitability criteria

Human resource and recruitment systems

The organisation must have human resource and recruitment systems in place to meet its sponsor duties.

The Home Office may visit the organisation (a compliance visit), either before it decides the outcome of an application or after the licence is granted to check this. The visit can be arranged on notice or unannounced.

Place of work

The organisation must confirm where its sponsored migrants will carry out their employment duties.

Checks could be conducted by the Home Office at any physical addresses specified on the licence application (including the migrant’s home address, if they normally work from home).

If the organisation operates a virtual business model (with little or no physical office space), it is highly likely that the Home Office will conduct an on-site visit to the authorising officer’s physical address before deciding the application.

If the organisation states that sponsored workers may work at third party’s sites, the Home Office may need to see evidence of arrangements between the organisation and the third party that would ensure full co-operation with the Home Office by that third party.

Route specific requirements

The Home Office will also check that the organisation meets the specific requirements of the route, or routes, in which it is applying to be licensed.

For example, if applying under Skilled Worker or the Intra-Company routes, that it can offer genuine employment that meets the skill-level and salary requirements for those routes.

Previous conduct

The Home Office will check whether the organisation or any of its directors have any criminal convictions or civil penalties or any evidence of previous non-compliance with immigration requirements.

Sponsor duties

The sponsor management system is designed to ensure that all sponsors discharge their responsibilities. The Home Office will undertake compliance action when it is considered that a sponsor has failed to do so, or otherwise poses a risk to immigration control.

This can include the suspension, downgrade or revocation of a sponsor’s licence. Such action can cause reputational damage to the organisation and pose practical issues as it can also lead to the curtailment of sponsored migrants’ visas.

Sponsors have the following core duties:

  • Reporting duties.
  • Record-keeping duties.
  • Maintaining migrant contact details.
  • Duty to comply with wider UK law.
  • Not engage in behaviour or actions that are not conducive to the public good (such as fostering hatred or inter-community division, fomenting, justifying or glorifying terrorism).

An organisation’s sponsor duties start on the day the Home Office grants their licence and continue until:

  • The sponsor surrenders its licence.
  • The Home Office makes the licence dormant (where the sponsor is taken over by another organisation, for example).
  • The Home Office revokes the licence.

Responsibility for each sponsored worker starts on the day the sponsor assigns a CoS to them and ends as soon as any of the following events occur (and the sponsor has reported the relevant event as required, using the SMS):

  • They leave the UK and their entry clearance or permission expires or lapses.
  • Their application for entry clearance or permission is refused, or is cancelled or curtailed, and any administrative review or appeal rights have been exhausted.
  • They are granted entry clearance or permission to work for a different sponsor.
  • They are granted indefinite leave to remain (settlement), or permission to stay on an immigration route that does not require sponsorship under the Worker or Temporary Worker routes.
  • The organisation is no longer sponsoring the worker for any other reason (for example, they have resigned or been dismissed).

Reporting Duties

The sponsor must use the SMS to report certain information or events to the Home Office within specified time limits.

The following changes must be reported within ten working days of the event:

  • If a sponsored worker does not start the role for which they are being sponsored, including any reason given for their non-attendance, if known (for example, a missed flight, illness or bereavement).
  • If a sponsored worker is absent from work for more than ten consecutive working days without permission (this must be reported within ten working days of the tenth day of absence).
  • If a sponsored worker’s contract of employment or contract for services, or any relevant professional registration ends earlier than shown on their CoS (for example, if the worker resigns or is dismissed).
  • If the sponsor stops sponsoring a worker for any other reason, such as:
    • Their application for entry clearance or permission is refused.
    • The sponsor becomes aware they have moved on to an immigration route that does not need a sponsor.
    • They are absent from work without pay for more than four weeks and this absence is not for statutory maternity leave, statutory paternity leave, statutory parental leave, statutory shared parental leave, statutory adoption leave, sick leave, assisting with a national or international humanitarian or environmental crisis (provided the sponsor agreed to the absence for that purpose) or to take part in legally organised industrial action.
  • If there are any significant changes in the sponsored worker’s employment, such as:
    • A promotion or change in job title or core duties, other than those which need a change of employment application.
    • A change (increase or reduction) in salary from the level stated on their CoS.
    • The location they are employed at changes. This includes where a worker is working at a different client’s site or a sports player moves to another sports club on loan.
  • If a sponsored worker’s regular work location (as recorded on their Certificate of Sponsorship) changes. This includes where they will be changing to a remote (working from home on a permanent or full-time basis with little or no requirement to physically attend a workplace) or hybrid (working remotely from home on a regular and planned basis, as well as working from another address, for example, the office) working pattern and where the worker is, or will be, working at a different site, branch or office of the sponsor, or a different client’s site, not previously declared to the Home Office. Day-to-day changes in work location (for example, if a worker occasionally works at a different branch or site, or from home) do not need to be reported.
  • If a sponsored worker’s employment is affected by TUPE or similar protection.
  • If a worker’s sponsor changes but they will remain working for the same employer and in the same employment.
  • If the size or charitable status of the sponsor changes. For example, the sponsor:
    • Was a large company but now qualifies as a small company or has gained charitable status.
    • Was a small company but is now a large company.
    • Previously held charitable status but has ceased to do so.

When the sponsor submits its report, it must also, where relevant, include the last recorded residential address and contact telephone number for the worker, and any personal email addresses it has for them.

Many of these reporting obligations cannot be met without the co-operation of the migrant employee. It is advisable to seek compliance from the employee by inserting relevant reporting obligations into the employment contract.

See Standard clause, Employer duties: information to be obtained from migrant employees linked >here<.

If there are any significant changes to the sponsor’s own organisation, it must report these within 20 working days of the change. Examples of significant changes include if the sponsor:

  • Changes its company name or the name of any of its branches.
  • Sells all or part of its business.
  • Is involved in a merger or is taken over.
  • Stops trading or goes into an insolvency procedure.
  • Substantially changes the nature of its business.

Record-keeping duties

HR systems for maintaining personnel records must be particularly robust and available for inspection at short notice.

The employer must retain on file all of the relevant documents listed in Appendix D of the sponsorship policy guidance for the periods specified.

Some of these documents will be available before the migrant begins work (for example, passport copy, degree certificate), and some will need to be collated as the employment progresses (such as payroll records).

All documents submitted in support of the employer’s application to become a licensed sponsor must be retained for the duration of the licence.

Documents can be retained as paper copies or in electronic form.

Employers must be able to supply (when requested to do so) any documents relating to sponsored migrants or the running of the business which are relevant to assessing their sponsor compliance duties.

Employers must also comply with relevant data protection law when retaining personal data.

The sponsor must keep a record of full current contact details for the migrant (including address, phone number and mobile phone number).

The employer must also maintain a history of the migrant’s contact details and a suitable method of updating these details must be in operation.

Many large-scale employers use a self-service computerised system under which employees enter updates about their personal data. Such systems must be adapted so as to preserve their historical details too, not just the changes.

Duty to comply with UK immigration law

All sponsors must comply with UK immigration laws and all parts of the Home Office’s Worker and Temporary Worker guidance for sponsors. This includes:

  • Only employing workers who are appropriately qualified, registered or experienced to do the job or will be by the time they begin the job. For example, if the worker will be sponsored as a doctor, the sponsor must make sure they have the correct registration that allows them to practise legally in the UK.
  • Keeping a copy of any registration document, certificate or reference that confirms they meet the requirements of the specific job, and give this to the Home Office on request.
  • Not employing workers where they do not have the experience, qualifications or immigration permission to do the job in question, and stopping employing any workers who, for any reason, are no longer entitled to do the job.
  • Not assigning a CoS where there is no genuine vacancy or role which meets the Worker or Temporary Worker criteria. If a sponsor assigns a CoS and the Home Office does not consider it is for a genuine vacancy, it may suspend the sponsor’s licence, pending further investigation which may result in the licence being revoked.
  • Only allowing the worker to undertake the roles permitted by the conditions of their stay.
  • Only assigning a CoS to workers who the sponsor believes will meet the immigration requirements of the route on which it proposes to sponsor them and are likely to comply with the conditions of their permission.
  • Disclosing (by adding a sponsor note) if it assigns a CoS to a family member of anyone within the sponsor organisation if it is classed as a small or medium-sized business, or if the sponsor is aware it is assigning a CoS to a family member of anyone else within a sponsor organisation classed as a large business.
  • Only assigning a CoS to a worker if it is satisfied they intend to, and are able to, fill the role.

Duty to comply with wider UK law

Sponsors are also expected to comply with wider UK law (other than immigration law).

For example, sponsors must comply with UK employment law, including National Minimum Wage legislation, working hours and pension entitlements.

Sponsors are expected to comply with illegal working and right to rent legislation.

The employer must make sure that no new employee or intra-company transferee starts work before their right to work documents are seen and checked. Any new starter who does not provide these documents should not start work.

The same applies to an individual who has transferred under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (SI 2006/246) (TUPE).

Apply for a sponsor licence

Organisations must apply for a licence by:

Before an organisation applies, it should:

  • Ensure it understands and can meet the requirements for being a sponsor
  • Decide which routes it wishes to be licensed under
  • Appoint an authorising officer to manage its application and nominate a level 1 user (see Sponsorship management roles: key personnel linked >here<).
  • Decide which branches of the organisation it would like to employ and sponsor workers at and whether individual branches should hold their own licence if there are multiple branches or sites.
  • Decide how many workers are likely to require sponsorship in its first year as a sponsor. This will determine how many CoS it will need to request. It will need to justify its request.
  • Ensure it can send all relevant supporting documents listed in Appendix A of the sponsor guidance to the Home Office within five working days of submitting its application.

Applications can take around eight weeks to be processed. However, it is possible to pay an additional fee for priority processing, in which case the application should be processed within 10 working days.

If the licence is approved, it will be valid for four years. The employer will be granted access to the SMS as an “A-rated” sponsor and may start to assign CoSs. The business will be listed in the register of sponsors.

Once registered, the sponsor will be responsible for the actions of any employee or legal representative who acts on its behalf. The Home Office will conduct reviews and may visit sponsors either during the term of their licence or when their licence is due for renewal.

Refusal of sponsor licence

An application for a sponsor licence may be refused for one or more reasons.

There is no right of appeal against a refusal.

Applicants may submit a fresh application following an appropriate “cooling-off period”. The length of the cooling-off period depends on the severity of the reasons leading to the refusal.