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Want to expand your business in the UK? There are now new routes available to you. Picture: SUPPLIED/SABLE INTERNATIONAL
Want to expand your business in the UK? There are now new routes available to you. Picture: SUPPLIED/SABLE INTERNATIONAL

Whether you want to start a new business or expand your existing business into the UK, there is a range of business immigration visas to use, including the UK start-up visa and the UK innovator visa

The British government has also recently published changes to its immigration rules, introducing the global business mobility visa. The Home Office admitted that “immigration routes that may once have worked for business, no longer do; they have not evolved in tandem with businesses”. 

The new visa, which came into force on April 11 2022, provides options for overseas firms that are transferring staff to the UK. The visa offers five pathways for such firms to establish a footprint in the UK or transfer staff to that country:

  • Senior or specialist worker: To meet specific business needs
  • Graduate trainee: As part of a training programme
  • Secondment worker: To UK firms in high-value contracts or investments 
  • Service supplier: To the UK in line with UK trade agreements
  • UK expansion worker: To establish a UK presence

The first three are options for firms with a UK presence; the last two are for firms with no UK presence. However, secondments will be an option for both. Workers will require sponsorship in all cases.

In practice, the new visa consolidates the existing intra-company transfer visa, the intra-company graduate trainee visa, the representative of an overseas business visa, and the international agreement visa. 

Of the five pathways, only UK expansion workers and secondments (to use the new terminology) are changing significantly. The route that has changed most in the new rules is the UK expansion worker, which replaces the sole-representative visa provisions. 

Unlike the old sole-representative visa route, the UK expansion worker visa is not a route to indefinite leave to remain. It can only be granted for one year at a time, and up to two years in total, before applicants will have to switch to another route (such as a skilled-worker visa). A UK expansion worker visa will also require sponsorship, unlike the old route, and will have the same minimum salary and skill-level requirements as the senior and specialist workers’ route (formerly the intra-company transfer visa).

Prospective sponsors must not yet be trading in the UK but must have established a “footprint” by registering a UK branch or subsidiary or by buying or leasing premises. Organisations must also prove they have been trading for at least three years overseas and provide evidence relating to their planned expansion in the UK, including a business plan and proof that they can fund the expansion. The “controlling mind” of the business must also remain overseas, meaning that any UK expansion worker must not be a majority shareholder in the overseas business.

UK start-up visa

The start-up visa is for entrepreneurs who want to set up their first UK business. It is valid for two years. This visa does not have education or financial requirements, but your business will have to be approved by an endorsing body that will need to confirm that your business idea is new, innovative and viable. It is not possible to extend this visa after the initial two years, though it is possible to switch to the innovator visa if you meet the requirements.

UK innovator visa

This visa allows business people to relocate to the UK provided they have an idea unlike anything in that market. It is valid for three years and there is no limit to the number of times you can extend the visa. After three years on this visa, you may apply for indefinite leave to remain, should you meet all the requirements.

Starting a business in the UK

Your first consideration when expressing an interest in setting up in the UK is to prove your business is legitimate. This process includes:

  • incorporating the UK entity;
  • creating a UK bank account;
  • registering for the relevant tax such as PAYE, VAT and corporate tax; and
  • registering for auto-enrolment (the UK’s compulsory pension scheme) for qualifying employees.

UK subsidiary or branch: which business structure should I choose?

Branches and subsidiaries are the most popular ways of expanding your business into the UK. There are others — it depends on your unique requirements. 

Once your business is established, you are ready to hire your first staff member. You must have a staff member already in place before you can apply for the company’s sponsor licence, as this staff member will need to fill “key personnel” roles as part of the licence application process.

Hiring foreign workers as a UK business

To hire foreign nationals, such as South Africans, to work in the UK, your business needs to be registered as a licensed sponsor. From here, you can issue a certificate of sponsorship that allows the employee in question to apply for a skilled worker visa or an intra-company transfer visa. This is when you can be hired by your UK company. 

After living in the UK for five years on a skilled worker visa, you may be eligible for indefinite leave to remain. You may then apply for British citizenship by naturalisation one year after obtaining indefinite leave to remain — or immediately after, should you be married to a UK citizen.

Get help expanding your business into the UK

If you are looking to invest in the UK by way of a business immigration visa, Sable International can facilitate this process. It will help you navigate the complexity of UK immigration law and the issues that could lead to non-compliance. 

The British government regularly implements policy changes that could have a significant impact on your business. Sable International remains up to date on all new and proposed regulations on your behalf and will advise you on the best way to manage your business immigration strategy. Its immigration audit service will help you ensure that your company meets all the requirements of the Home Office. 

Sable International helps individuals and businesses navigate all aspects of UK immigration law and can assist with ongoing employee immigration management. Call +44 (0) 20 7759 5307 or email workpermits@sableinternational.com for more information.

Darren Faife is the MD of business immigration at Sable International.

This article was paid for by Sable International.


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