Immigration for workers and employers in the UK

The UK exited the EU on 31 January 2020.

From January 2021, the UK government will introduce a new immigration system for hiring non-UK workers, with the same rules for EU and non-EU citizens. It will also simplify the Immigration Rules, many of which relate to work visas.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted visa applications and led the government to make temporary changes to the Immigration Rules for businesses and their employees.

Read our guide to the temporary changes

In February 2020, the government released a policy statement on the new immigration system. This will affect how people can move to the UK with or without a job offer. The statement followed the Migration Advisory Committee’s (MAC) consultation and report on:

  • whether the UK should adopt a new ‘Australian style’ points-based system
  • what the salary threshold should be

In April 2020, the government released information on the new system that’s specifically aimed at employers.

Read the government summary for employers

Solicitors need to be aware of the changes to support clients using the new system.

Key changes from January 2021

From autumn 2020, the Home Office plans to open updated immigration routes for those who wish to work in the UK from 1 January 2021. These include:

  • a skilled worker route for those with a job offer
  • points-based routes for workers without a job offer

From 1 January 2021, free movement will end in the UK. This means that newly arriving EU citizens will need permission to enter, live and work in the UK. Those who are already living in the UK before 1 January 2021 must apply for settled status before July 2021 to continue living and working in the UK.

When free movement ends, UK employers will need a sponsor licence if they want to recruit citizens from EU and non-EU countries who do not have leave to remain in the UK.

Read more about sponsorship for employers

Skilled workers with a job offer

The government’s position is that those coming to the UK for work from January 2021 must:

  • have a job offer from a licensed sponsor
  • meet certain skills/salary criteria
  • speak English

The government has confirmed that it will also:

  • reduce the general salary threshold to £25,600 (from £30,000)
  • lower the required skills level from degree to A-level or equivalent
  • suspend the cap on how many people can enter the UK on the skilled worker route
  • remove the resident labour market test

A total of 70 points is needed to be able to apply to work in the UK. The points for some characteristics such as salary or qualification are tradable. Therefore, if someone earns less than £25,600, they may still be able to come if they can show that they have a:

See a list of points and characteristics under section 6 of the policy statement 

Workers without a job offer

On 29 March 2020, the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa for migrants without a job offer was replaced by the Global Talent visa. This will be opened up to EU citizens in 2021.

Migrants who want to set up or run a business in the UK who do not qualify for the Global Talent visa may be able to use the:

In its February 2020 policy statement, the government also said it may explore other options for highly skilled workers without a job offer. From January 2021, people without a job offer or the skills needed to meet the UK visa requirements will not be able to migrate to the UK. The government is trialling a seasonal workers' pilot until the end of 2020, to test how well the system can support UK farmers during peak production periods.

Other existing routes for temporary visas (Tier 5), such as the Youth Mobility Scheme or for specialist occupations, will also be opened to EU citizens as well as non-EU citizens.

Sponsorship for employers

UK employers who want to recruit workers from outside the UK from January 2021 will need to apply for a sponsor licence, unless they only employ workers who have an existing right to work in the UK, such as:

  • EU citizens with settled or pre-settled status
  • non-EU citizens with indefinite leave to remain in the UK

Employers will need to make sure they comply with right to work checks and other regulations – especially between 1 January and 30 June 2021, when some EU citizens may still be applying for settled status. The Home Office is accepting applications for sponsor licences now.

The Home Office is encouraging employers hiring overseas nationals (which includes European nationals and their family members from January 2021) to obtain a sponsor licence if they do not already have one in place.

An application for a sponsor licence includes:

  • submitting an online application
  • providing evidence of the business operating in the UK

A fee is payable, and the application typically takes eight weeks to be processed.

Currently there are two main routes to sponsor individuals on a long-term basis in the UK:

  • Tier 2 (General)
  • Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer)

Whilst the Tier 2 (Intra Company Transfer) route is intended to remain largely the same, there will be some major changes to the Tier 2 (General) route, under its new label of the ‘Skilled Worker’ route from 2021.

The main changes include the removal of a resident labour market test. This currently requires employers to advertise an eligible role for 28 days and be satisfied that there are no suitable settled candidates before they can offer the role to the overseas national.

The cap on those who are permitted to be sponsored under this route is also expected to be removed. In addition to this, we’ll see some flexibility in the current salary and skills thresholds for most occupations.

Whilst a lot of information has been published on the new immigration system, and the Home Office is keen for the message to be spread across sectors, we’re less than three months away from January 2021 and the immigration rules setting out the exact details of the changes on the main work routes are yet to be laid out.

We encourage the government to provide its statement of changes on the new system without delay so employers can plan for changes with a greater degree of certainty.

Download the Home Office’s UK points-based Immigration system: Employer Partner Pack (PDF 1 MB)

What we’ve been doing

In November 2019, we responded to the MAC's call for evidence on the points-based system and salary thresholds for general work visas (Tier 2). Since then, we’ve also been engaging regularly with the government on the new system, offering feedback on behalf of our members.

Our view

We support an unsponsored visa route that would encourage highly skilled workers to move to the UK without a specific job offer in place.

For sponsored workers, we welcome the:

  • suspension of a cap on Tier 2 visas
  • removal of the resident labour market test
  • reduction of the Tier 2 general salary threshold to £25,600

However, we believe a salary threshold should be fair on all UK businesses, whatever their size, sector or location. We’re also concerned that there will be significant upheaval for the economy if workers who earn below the salary threshold cannot migrate to the UK.

We’ve recommended that the government:

  • engages carefully with stakeholders
  • takes care to avoid potential abuse of any points-based system
  • tailors salary thresholds to account for factors such as geographical region
  • supports businesses (especially small and medium-sized ones) to engage with the sponsorship licence system, for example by reducing the rules for sponsors
  • reduces the rules and requirements that are currently in place for sponsor licence holders

We think that any future immigration system should be fair to all applicants, regardless of nationality.


The UK's points-based immigration system: policy statement – GOV.UK

MAC report: points-based system and salary thresholds (January 2020)

Law Society response to the MAC call for evidence (PDF 241kb)

Guide to citizen's rights during the Brexit transition period

The Independent Monitoring Authority for the Citizens' Rights Agreements