When the UK government department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport released its UK Digital Strategy in July 2022, it set out a brief as to how it intended to deliver its vision ‘for harnessing digital transformation and building a more inclusive, competitive and innovative digital economy’. Included in the announcement was the introduction of a new Scale-up visa route.
This new visa category is part of a raft of changes being incorporated into the UK Immigration Rules which have seen the introduction of various ‘Global Mobility’ visa routes. Indeed, it is an integral facet of the over-arching aim of the UK government to continue to champion the benefits that highly qualified and educated overseas nationals can bring to the UK.
Opening on Monday 22 August 2022, the Scale-up visa can be seen as a slightly radical combination of existing visa routes, morphing a couple into one route, and one which is clearly designed to appeal to the ‘brightest and the best’ international talent pool to encourage them to move to the UK. Please see below for an overview of the Scale-up visa.
What is the Scale-up visa?
The Scale-up visa is a work route, initially granted for two years, that provides for a more fluid and flexible ability to legally work in the UK, with both sponsorship and non-sponsorship components. The Scale-up visa requires a primary period of sponsorship for six months only, unlike most other sponsorship visa routes for the UK, after which a Scale-up visa holder can either continue to work for their sponsor, change employment, or switch into self-employment.
Designed with highly skilled jobs within UK companies in mind, the Scale-up visa route is a visa route that leads to settlement.
How does the Scale-up visa work?
As noted above, the Scale-up visa is currently the only UK visa route which combines sponsorship and non-sponsorship for workers in the UK. Workers can only move into the unsponsored segment of the visa if they have first been sponsored by an approved Scale-up licensed employer.
In order to qualify for a Scale-up visa, an individual must meet the following criteria:
- Have been issued with a Certificate of Sponsorship from an approved Scale-up company based in the UK
- The Certificate of Sponsorship must have been issued for a confirmed offer of employment for at least six months, in an eligible occupation at the correct skills level
- They must be paid for the above role whichever is the highest of £33,000 per year, £10.10 per hour or the ‘going rate’ for that type of job and sector
- They must meet the English Language requirement – to at least level B1 (intermediate) on the Common European Framework of Reference for languages
- They must meet the financial requirement (cash funds of at least £1,270 held for at least 28 days before the visa application is made, unless maintenance is certified by the sponsoring employer on the Certificate of Sponsorship
Scale-up sponsoring employers will need to apply for a licence to the Home Office. Eligible companies must be able to show that they have progressed from the Start-up phase and are now expanding. Whilst the Scale-up visa route is not limited to businesses in the tech and FinTech sectors, it is likely that such entities will be amongst the sponsors under this route.
The criteria that sponsors must meet are:
- Annualized growth of at least 20% for the prior three years in terms of either turnover or staff
- A minimum of ten employees at the beginning of the three-year period
- That the salary for the position on offer is the highest of £33,000 per year, £10.10 per hour, or the ’going rate’ for that type of job and sector.
The current list of suitable qualifications, the relevant codes and the going rates for where a worker can be sponsored under the Scale-up route, can be found here.
Who is the Scale-up visa for?
With advantages for both workers and employers, in particular, the need to only be sponsored, or to only have to sponsor for six months, the route should be attractive to both talented individuals and creative, innovative companies alike.
How long does it take to get a Scale-up visa?
Scale-up employers should allow for eight weeks for the processing of their sponsor licence applications. It is possible to apply for priority processing which should speed up that timeframe. Once a licence is approved the employer can prepare and assign the Scale-up Certificate of Sponsorship if meeting all the eligibility requirements to do so.
Scale-up visa applications are currently taking three weeks if applying from outside the UK and eight weeks from within the UK. Again, it may be possible to apply for priority processing from both within and outside the UK.
What are the advantages of a Scale-up visa?
With only a very recent launch and no sponsors yet listed (as of the date of this article) as being approved under the route, the route is in its infancy. However, there are indeed some immediately identifiable benefits:
- Limited sponsorship – unlike on a Skilled Worker or Global Mobility route visa, the sponsorship is only required for the first six months of the two-year visa. This leaves both the visa holder and UK sponsor free to continue the employment or not, with the visa holder free to seek alternative employment or self-employment in the UK
- There is no mandatory requirement for an employer to apply for a sponsor licence – therefore employers may choose to only employ Scale-up visa holders after the initial six months of sponsored employment has been completed. In such circumstances, the employing company must meet the UK Scale-up sponsor requirements as set out above
- The Scale-up visa can be extended – for a further three years. The extension application should be made before the initial visa finishes and applicants must be able to show UK PAYE earnings of at least £33,000 per year for at least 50% of the first two years of the visa, as well as meeting other requirements such as maintaining English language level. Other sources of income including from self-employment will not be counted
- Scale-up visa holders are able to apply for Settlement after completing five years of continuous residence in the UK under this visa category, or a combination of the Scale-up visa with other eligible visas that lead to Settlement. Applicants will need to meet the requirements of the UK Immigration Rules for Settlement at the relevant time. This includes being employed at the point of application, sitting and passing the Life in the UK Test, meeting the English language requirements and also demonstrating earnings through PAYE of at least £33,000 per year for at least 24 months of the prior immediate three years
- Scale-up visa holders can bring their dependents (spouse, unmarried partner, dependent children) with them to the UK – all will need to make appropriate visa applications
- The Scale-up route does not require payment of the Immigration Skills Charge – unlike other work-sponsored routes
- It is possible to switch into the Scale-up visa from within the UK, if a to-be-sponsored worker holds a visa in a route from which switching into the Scale-up category is allowed
With the proof of the pudding being in the eating, it will be interesting to see what take-up there is of this visa route. Overseas-based talent needing a visa as a Scale-up worker will only be able to get one if there are sponsoring employers applying for licences in the first instance.
What is clear is that this route should provide for a more mobile workforce in the sectors with take up of the Scale-up visa model. It may also enable more employment freedom for visa holders, as well as a greater sense of confidence for companies to attract and retain highly skilled staff in the UK.
If you would like any further information on the Scale-up visa, either as a sponsor or a visa holder, please contact Tanya Goldfarb – Senior Consultant Solicitor and Head of the Business Immigration Team.
Please note that the content of this insight is correct as of the date of publication and the time frames and government website links may change. It should not be considered legal advice.