UK immigration from 1 January 2021

From 1 January 2021, the UK will introduce a new system of immigration control. For the first time in decades, EEA and Swiss nationals (EEA nationals) will be subject to the same immigration controls as non-EEA nationals.

The UK Government released its policy proposals in February 2020 setting out how the current immigration system will be adapted to take into account the end of EU free movement. In July 2020, the Government released further details on how the policy proposals will be implemented.

This note provides a summary of the changes on the basis of the Government’s announcements to date. We will continue to update it as more information is released.

Overview

  • Irish nationals will continue to be able to live, work and study in the UK without obtaining immigration permission and they will only need to show their passports as proof of these rights.
  • All non-British/Irish nationals will, from 1 January 2021, require a valid immigration status to live, work and study in the UK. While non-EEA nationals will continue to receive vignettes in their passports and Biometric Residence Permits, in most cases EEA nationals will not receive a physical document evidencing their status. Instead, it will be linked to their passport number and will be able to be verified using an online system.
  • EEA nationals who are living in the UK before 31 December 2020 can apply under the EU Settlement Scheme for a valid immigration status, which will allow them to continue to live, work and study in the UK without restriction.
  • All new arrivals to the UK from 1 January 2021 will need a visa before they travel to the UK if they intend to live, work or study in the UK.
  • The Government intends to keep the application and other additional fees it charges for immigration applications at the same level as they are currently and, in some cases, increase them. This will have a large impact on EEA nationals who currently do not have to pay any fees to exercise EU free movement rights or apply under the EU Settlement Scheme.
  • Right to work checks: employers will continue to be able to confirm an EEA national’s right to work using only their passport or national ID card until 30 June 2021. From 1 July 2021, employers must see proof of immigration status which will be either from the EU Settlement Scheme or from the new immigration system.
  • Many of the immigration routes will be renamed and will be more descriptive. In this note, we will continue to refer to routes by their current names for ease of reference.

Immigration categories to be renamed

Most of the immigration categories will be renamed and we include a table of the most common categories below.

Current Immigration Category Immigration Category from 1 January 2021
Tier 1 (Entrepreneur)* Start-up/Innovator*
Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent)* Global Talent*
Tier 1 (Post-Study Work)** Graduate**
Tier 2 (General) Skilled Worker
Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) Intra-Company Transfer
Tier 4 (General) Student
Tier 5 (Youth Mobility) Youth Mobility Scheme

* renamed before January 2021

** Tier 1 (Post-Study Worker) was abolished in 2012 and is being reintroduced in 2021 as the Graduate visa

Visiting the UK

There are no substantial changes to the visitor rules.

Visitors are able to come to the UK for up to 180 days at any one time to undertake a wide range of permitted activities. For example, visitors can attend conferences and meetings, attend interviews, gather information for their work overseas, give and receive training in most circumstances.

Some nationals, known as “visa nationals”, require visas before they travel to the UK, for example those from China, India or South Africa. Applications for visitor visas are made at a local visa application centre and a vignette is placed into the passport.

From 1 January 2021, EEA nationals will be classified as non-visa nationals, joining other countries such as the US, Canada and Australia. They will therefore not be required to obtain a visa before they travel to the UK to visit. Instead, they will simply be able to travel to the UK and apply on arrival for entry as a visitor, either by presenting their passports to an Immigration Officer or by going through the e-gates at the border.

It is important to note that visitors are not permitted to undertake any work or study in the UK, beyond certain permitted activities, while holding this status. Visitors are also prohibited from using the visitor route to reside in the UK long term.

The Government’s proposals have suggested that the visitor rules will be simplified and the range of permitted activities will be expanded, but no details have been released.

Working in the UK

Skilled migrant workers may be sponsored by organisations who hold a sponsor licence issued by the UK Home Office. Those migrant workers undertaking permanent employment will usually be sponsored under Tier 2 (General), while those who are employed overseas and being sent to the UK on a temporary intra-group assignment are usually sponsored under Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer).

From 1 January 2021, employers will need to sponsor EEA nationals who do not already have an immigration status which entitles them to undertake the role on offer. If an employer does not have a sponsor licence and regularly hires EEA nationals, they are strongly advised to apply for one now.

We have prepared detailed advice about the current Tier 2 sponsor licence regime.

The Government intends to make a substantial number of changes to this route, which are summarised below. Although we are still referring to the two categories as Tier 2 (General) and Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer), it is highly likely that these routes will be renamed under the new scheme as the Government wants to move away from the current “tiered” system.

Tier 2 (General) Changes

Current rules Post-1 January 2021 rules
The proposed job role must be at the highly skilled level of RQF 6 (degree level and above) and be on the Standard Occupational Code (SOC) job list. The proposed job role must be at the medium skilled level of RQF 3 (school leaver and above) and be on the Standard Occupational Code (SOC) job list.
“Experienced workers” must earn at
least £30,000 or the SOC code salary minimum, whichever is higher.
Experienced workers” must earn at least £25,600 or the SOC code minimum salary, whichever is higher.
Lower salary thresholds are available for those roles which are at PhD Level or are on the Shortage Occupation List.
The sponsor must undertake a Resident Labour Market Test before assigning a Certificate of Sponsorship if the role is not on the Shortage Occupation list or pays under £159,600. The Resident Labour Market Test is abolished.
An annual quota of 20,700 applies to
Tier 2 (General) applicants from
overseas unless the role is on the shortage occupation list or pays over £159,600.
The annual quota is suspended.
“New entrants” must earn at least £20,800 or the “new entrant” SOC code salary minimum, whichever is the higher.

“New entrants’” salary will be set 30% lower than the “experienced workers” SOC code minimum salary.

What is not changing?

  • Applicants must demonstrate an ability to speak English at B1 level (lower intermediate).
  • Applicants are subject to a 12 month cooling off period whereby they cannot apply for a new Tier 2 visa within 12 months of their previous Tier 2 visa expiring unless they earn over £159,600.
  • There will be no regional salary thresholds or different arrangements for different parts of the UK.

Tier 2 (Intra-Company Transfer) (ICT) changes

Current rules Post-1 January 2021 rules
Applicants must earn at least £73,900
if the assignee has been working for an overseas entity linked by common ownership and control to the UK
sponsor for less than 12 months or the SOC code minimum, whichever is higher.
This exemption was not included in the July 2020 guidance and it is possible that it will not be present after 1 July 2021.
Applicants are subject to a “cooling-off” period whereby Tier 2 (ICT) visa holders cannot apply for another Tier 2 (ICT) for at least 12 months from the date they leave the UK. Those earning over £120,000 are exempt from the cooling-off period. The cooling-off period will be simplified so that Tier 2 (ICT) migrants must not hold entry clearance or leave to enter or remain as an intra-company transferee for more than five years in any six-year period. There will continue to be an exemption for high earners.
Tier 2 (ICT) migrants are not permitted
to switch into Tier 2 (General) from
within the UK
Tier 2 (ICT) migrants will be able to switch into Tier 2 (General) from within the UK subject to meeting the requirements.

What is not changing?

  • The proposed job role must be at the highly skilled level of RQF 6 (degree level and above) and be on the Standard Occupational Code (SOC) job list.
  • Applicants must earn at least £41,500 if the assignee has been working for an overseas entity linked by common ownership and control to the UK sponsor for at least 12 months or the SOC code minimum, whichever is higher.
  • Tier 2 (ICT) migrants may only remain in the UK for five years (nine years if they earn over £120,000).
  • There are no regional salary thresholds or different arrangements for different parts of the UK.
  • There is no English language requirement.

Points-based system

The Government intends to introduce a points-based element to this route, whereby applicants will be able to “trade” characteristics such as their specific job offer and qualifications against a lower salary. The current thinking is that the points system would be as follows:

Characteristics Tradeable Points
Offer of job by approved sponsor No 20
Job at appropriate skill level No 20
English at required level No 10
Salary of £20,480 (minimum) – £23,039 Yes 0
Salary of £23,040 – £25,599 Yes 10
Salary of £25,600 or above Yes 20
Job in a shortage occupation (as designated by the MAC) Yes 20
Education qualification: PhD in subject relevant to the job Yes 10
Education qualification: PhD in a STEM subject relevant to the job Yes 20

Since a total of 70 points is required to be eligible to apply, there is in fact limited flexibility in the system as only 20 points are tradeable. The effect of this is that the way the system will work is that individuals will be able to earn below the minimum salary for the route provided they have a relevant, high-level qualification or their job is deemed to be one where the required skills are in short supply.

The Government has stated that it intends to continue to refine the system and will consider adding additional tradeable attributes in the future. For example, this may include a greater range of qualification levels or other factors such as age or experience studying in the UK.

Highly skilled migrants

There are no substantial changes to the rules for highly skilled migrants.

The Global Talent route, which has replaced the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) route, will be extended to EEA nationals. Under this route, talented individuals will be granted immigration permission to work without restriction if they are endorsed by a specialist endorsing body following peer review.

The Government also intends to introduce a non-sponsored “Australian-style points-based-system” where visas would be granted based on academics, age, earning potential etc. without the need of a job offer. Those granted this visa would be able to work without restriction. This route will not be implemented by 1 January 2021 as the Government needs to undertake further research into this route’s viability.

Low skilled migrants

There will continue to be no dedicated visa route for low skilled roles which is defined as those roles below the RQF 3 skill level, for example roles in agriculture, retail, manufacturing and haulage.

The Government had previously proposed a temporary transitional visa to assist industries which rely heavily on lower skilled EEA workers, but this will no longer be implemented.

There will be sector specific seasonal visa programmes, such as the Seasonal Agricultural Workers programme, which will provide time limited visas via a quota system.

Temporary work

Tier 5 of the current immigration system contains a range of sub-categories for those undertaking temporary work in the UK, for example interns, religious workers and sportspeople. These visas require sponsorship from an organisation that holds a Tier 5 sponsor licence.

There will be no substantial changes to most of these sub-categories.

Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) may be extended on a reciprocal basis to the nationals of individual EEA countries.

Currently, those aged 18-30 from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Monaco, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan are able to apply for a visa valid for two years which permits unrestricted work in the UK.

Investors

There will be no substantial changes to the rules for investors.

Those with at least £2m who are able to transfer these funds to the UK and invest in qualifying assets will be able to continue to apply for visas under the Tier 1 (Investor) category. As long as the investment is maintained for a five year period, the migrant will eventually qualify to settle in the UK. Accelerated routes to settlement are available for those who invest £5m (settlement in three years) or £10m (settlement in two years).

We have prepared an in-depth note on this category.

Innovators/entrepreneurs

There will be no substantial changes to the rules for innovators/entrepreneurs.

Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) and Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) was replaced by the Start-Up and Innovator categories in March 2019 and visas will be granted to those with a genuine and viable business plan who are endorsed by a Government approved endorsing body. For Start-Ups, no capital investment is required but Innovators will need to show that they have £50,000 to invest in their business.

We have prepared an in-depth note on this category.

Studying in the UK

There will be no substantial changes to the student rules.

Students are sponsored by Higher Educational Institutions and Schools, which hold a sponsor licence, to study in the UK under Tier 4. Adults, for example those attending UK universities, will be granted immigration permission under Tier 4 (General) while those at school will be granted Tier 4 (Child) immigration permission.

EEA nationals will require sponsorship to study in the UK from 1 January 2021.

Family routes

There will be no changes to the route, which allows partners to join British citizens and those with permanent residence in the UK.

This is particularly relevant to EEA nationals who obtain either pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme since their partners will have to satisfy the requirements of this route if their relationship began after 31 December 2020.

This means that EEA nationals in this situation who have a status under the EU Settlement Scheme and wish to bring their partners to the UK will have to show that they are earning a minimum of £18,600 a year or have at least £62,500 in savings. Currently, there is no earnings or savings requirement for EEA nationals wishing to bring their partners to the UK.

Conclusion

With no provision for low-skilled workers, limited changes to the sponsored worker category, few new options for high-net-worth individuals and the self-employed and no reduction in the fees associated with immigration applications, it is perhaps understandable that many are concerned that the new immigration system will not address all the challenges created by the end of EU free movement.