Work Permits for Employees in the UK: A Complete Guide for Employers


May 24, 2023

In order to expand your business and start hiring employees in the UK, it’s absolutely crucial that you make sure everyone you hire is actually authorized to work in the United Kingdom.

The British government takes its visa mandate very seriously, and if you hire employees who don’t have the proper authorization to work in the UK, you could find yourself facing severe penalties that include fines and even prison time.

So, before you make your first UK hire, follow our guide to learn what a work permit is, what types of permits exist, and who needs one, as well as other frequently asked questions to make hiring in the UK a breeze.

What is a work visa in the UK?

In the UK, a work permit (or work visa) is a document issued by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), a Home Office department that permits a foreign national to legally work for an employer in the United Kingdom. It’s good for up to five years, after which the employee will either need to return to their home country or apply for renewal.

Foreign nationals who wish to work in the UK usually need a job offer to be eligible to apply for a work visa (although this isn’t always the case). Employers who want to hire non-UK citizens need to apply for a sponsor license and must demonstrate that the position they’re hiring for meets the government’s requirements for suitable pay and skill levels.

Who needs a work visa in the UK?

Post-Brexit, the Home Office now requires anyone who isn’t a UK citizen to have a work permit to be employed in the United Kingdom. This includes all EU citizens, except for Irish citizens.

When you send an offer letter to a new hire in the United Kingdom, include a clause about the offer being contingent on their eligibility to work in the United Kingdom legally.

How long does it take to get a work permit in the UK?

If the employee is applying for a work permit and still living outside the UK, it’ll take three weeks for the Home Office to make a decision about their application. Foreign nationals who are already living in the United Kingdom can expect to hear back in eight weeks.

Employees can fill out a visa application up to three months before they start their new position.

Occasionally, there are some exceptions to these processing times, and an employee may be able to get a decision faster. However, this depends entirely on whether they’re already living in the UK or not. They’ll be able to figure out whether they’re eligible for a faster processing time when they fill out the application.

Types of UK work visas

The UK visa system is complex, and the type of permit someone needs to legally work in the United Kingdom depends on their industry and job requirements.

Below, you’ll find a list of work visas:

  • Skilled Worker visa (the new name for the Tier 2 (General) or T2 visa)
  • Health or care worker visa
  • Seasonal worker visa
  • Government Authorised Exchange visa
  • Creative worker visa
  • Religious worker visa
  • Charity worker visa
  • International Agreement visa
  • International Sportsperson visa
  • EU Settlement Scheme visa (for citizens of the EU, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, or Liechtenstein only)
  • Ukraine Family Scheme visa (for Ukrainian citizens only)

There are even work permits for entrepreneurs and UK start-up visas, so make sure you browse the website thoroughly before selecting one.

The Skilled Worker visa is one of the most popular and covers many common jobs. To be eligible for it, employees must:

  • Have a job offer and certificate of sponsorship from an employer that’s been approved by the Home Office
  • Have a job that’s on the list of eligible occupations
  • Receive a minimum salary

The minimum salary requirements depend on the type of work the employee does.

Application process for work permits under the UK visa system

Applying for a UK work visa is a relatively simple process. All an employee needs to do is go online, prove their identity, pay the appropriate fee, and submit the necessary documents.

The exact documents an employee will need may vary based on the visa they’re applying for. For instance, to obtain a Skilled Worker visa, a team member needs to provide the following:

  • Their certificate of sponsorship (CoS) reference number
  • A valid passport or another document that proves their identity and nationality
  • Their job title and annual salary
  • Proof of their knowledge of English
  • Their job’s occupation code
  • The name of their employer and their sponsor license number

Depending on their individual circumstances, employees might also be asked to provide the following to qualify for a Skilled Worker visa:

  • Bank statements to prove they have adequate savings to support themselves while they’re living in the UK
  • Proof of relationship with their partner and/or dependents if they’re applying with the other members of their family
  • Criminal record certificate
  • Their tuberculosis test results, depending on which country they’re coming from

Citizens of the EU, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Iceland (also called EEA–or European Economic Area-citizens) don’t need to have a blank page in their passport so long as they have a passport with a biometric chip in it. Citizens of all other countries need a blank page in their passport.

Rippling can connect you with immigration services to help you sponsor work visas around the world.
Talk to our team.

How to get a British sponsorship license

As you probably gleaned from this guide, employees aren’t the only ones who need permits to work in the UK. If you plan on hiring team members who aren’t UK citizens, your company must get a sponsorship license from the UKVI office first.

There are five steps to obtaining a sponsorship license in the UK:

  1. Make sure your business is eligible. You’re eligible for this license so long as you haven’t violated any immigration laws, committed crimes like fraud or money laundering, and haven’t had a sponsorship license revoked in the last 12 months. You must also designate someone to manage sponsored employees and have a system in place to monitor them. Be aware that UKVI might want to visit your business to make sure you have everything in place before they make a decision about your application.
  2. Make sure the job is suitable for sponsorship. UKVI has numerous criteria for jobs it considers “suitable” for sponsorship, so make sure you have a thorough understanding of what you need to do to be compliant with UK employment law. You’ll also need to select the proper occupation code, ensure the position is on the list of eligible jobs, and prove that the job is genuine and isn’t just being used to help someone gain entry to the UK.
  3. Select the right sponsorship license. There are two types of sponsorship licenses to choose from, depending on what types of jobs you’re hiring for and which visas your workers have:
    • Workers: This option is for skilled and/or long-term employment. You’ll choose it if you’re hiring people with Skilled Worker visas or those with Senior or Specialist Worker visas.
    • Temporary Workers: This is for temporary employment, including volunteers. You’ll need it to hire people with Creative Worker visas, Scale-Up Worker visas, or Seasonal Worker visas, to name a few.

      It’s perfectly fine to apply for one or both licenses, depending on what you need.
  4. Pick someone to manage sponsorship at your company. To manage your license, issue certificates of sponsorship, and report changes at your workplace, you need to appoint someone at your company to be in charge of the sponsorship management system (SMS) UKVI requires you to use.
  5. Submit the online application and pay the fee.

Once you’re approved, your sponsorship license is good for four years before it needs to be renewed.

Frequently asked questions about work visas for employees in the UK

Do I need a job offer before I can get a UK work visa?

The short answer is yes. The majority of people who want to work in the UK will need a job offer before they can apply for a permit. The Home Office will want a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) to confirm the offer; you, the employer, are responsible for providing your new hires with a CoS.

How long is a Skilled Worker visa valid for?

A Skilled Worker visa (also called a Tier 2 (General) visa) is good for five years before it needs to be renewed. Eligible workers who have been employed in the UK for five years can also apply for indefinite leave to remain, also called settlement.

Do I need a sponsorship license?

Yes. Any business that intends to hire employees who aren’t UK citizens needs a sponsorship license before it can start hiring.

How long is a British sponsorship license valid for?

Sponsorship licenses are valid for four years before they need to be renewed.

How long does it take to get a sponsor license in the UK?

The processing time for sponsor licenses is eight weeks.

Do US and Canadian citizens need a work permit to work in the UK?

Yes. The Home Office requires all foreign nationals to hold a valid work permit to be employed in the United Kingdom, including US, EU, Commonwealth, and EEA citizens. The only country that’s an exception to this rule is the Republic of Ireland.

What documents are required to apply for a Skilled Worker visa?

When filling out a visa application, an employee will need, at minimum:

  • A valid passport or another travel document
  • Their CoS reference number
  • Proof of their knowledge of English
  • Their job title and annual salary
  • The name of their employer and their sponsor license number
  • Their job’s occupation code

Unless they’re EEA citizens with a biometric passport, they’ll also need to have a blank page in their passport. Additionally, it’s important to note that partners and dependents are not automatically included on the work visa application form. They’ll need proof of eligibility and their own British visa applications to move to and/or work in the UK.

What’s the fastest way to get a UK work visa?

The processing time for UK work permits isn’t super lengthy. If they’re applying from outside the United Kingdom, an employee should expect to hear from the Home Office within three weeks. If they’re already living in the UK, they can expect a decision within eight weeks.

If the employee meets certain eligibility requirements and is willing to pay an additional fee, it’s possible to get a decision in five business days or even by the end of the following business day. They can find out if they qualify for priority or super priority processing when they fill out the permit application.

Employees can begin the work permit application process up to three months before their start date.

Is there a limit on the number of sponsor licenses you can obtain in the UK?

No. You can get both a Worker and Temporary Worker license if you need them.

Run your global workforce with Rippling

Rippling can connect you with immigration services to help you sponsor work visas around the world; enquire for more information.

Rippling and its affiliates do not provide tax, accounting, or legal advice. This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or accounting advice. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors before engaging in any related activities or transactions.

last edited: May 11, 2024

The Author

Carrie Stemke

A freelance writer and editor based in New York City, Carrie writes about HR trends and global workforce management and is the Rippling content team’s expert on hiring know-how in Western Europe.