UK immigration options for overseas companies and entrepreneurs

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The UK remains one of the easiest places to set up a business. Companies are quick and easy to incorporate, English is the most widely spoken second language in the world, companies have access to a rich source of capital, cities contain a wide variety of sectors, corporation tax is one of the lowest amongst the largest global economies, tax incentives exist for innovative companies and many of the world’s best universities provide a first-rate source of talent.

A number of visa routes exist for overseas business founders and entrepreneurs to travel to the UK to set up a company.  There is also an option for senior employees of a company headquartered overseas to come to the UK to oversee the start-up of a new branch. 

Which visa route?

The decision tree below is designed to help you assess what visa route might be best for you in order to move to the UK to set up or work for a UK company. In all cases, you will still need to carefully assess whether the relevant criteria are met, but this should help you decide which route(s) to focus on.


Tier 2 / Skilled Worker

Tier 2 is for skilled workers who have a job offer from a UK employer which holds a licence to sponsor migrant workers.

A sponsor licence enables the UK employer to assign a certificate of sponsorship to non-EU nationals provided the role meets the relevant skills and salary thresholds and domestic labour market testing requirements.
On 1 January 2021, Tier 2 will be replaced by the Skilled Worker route which will apply to both EU and non-EU nationals.  

The principle of sponsorship will remain, but there will be a softening of the skills and salary threshold and the resident labour market test will no longer be required.  

Representative of an Overseas Business 

The Representative of an Overseas Business visa (or “Sole Rep” visa) enables senior employees of an overseas company to come to the UK to establish a new entity. The group’s headquarters must remain overseas.  Only one representative is permitted but, once established, the UK entity can use its Sole Rep to apply for a licence to sponsor non-EU nationals under Tier 2.

Global Talent

The Global Talent visa was formally known as the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa. The visa is for experienced and accomplished professionals in various fields, such as digital technology, scientific research, engineering and the arts. An individual seeks endorsement from a relevant designated public body by evidencing their background in the field. The endorsing body then provides a letter of endorsement in order to make a visa application. 

Start-Up / Innovator

Similar to the Global Talent visa, the Innovator visa relies on endorsement, but from a UK company that has been approved by the Home Office on the basis of it having a track record of supporting UK entrepreneurs.  An innovator visa is only a possibility for those with business ideas endorsed by an endorsing body and most endorsing bodies will only endorse those entrepreneurs and companies who are part of their programme i.e. a company in which the endorser is investing. 

To qualify for endorsement, Innovator’s need to have a business idea that is innovative, viable and scalable. Those applying in the Innovator category also require access to £50k in start-up capital. Those applying for endorsement in the Start-Up category, do not require £50k, but they will need to switch into the Innovator visa once the Start-Up visa expires.

How can we help?

Our immigration experts can assess which is the best route for a company or individual looking to start a UK business or establish a UK presence.  We always look at the ‘big picture’ to ensure we recommend the immigration route which aligns with your particular strategy and objectives.  Working with our colleagues across the Group, we can provide holistic support encompassing international inward investment services, employment, banking, tax, company set-up and intellectual property.

Obtaining the most appropriate leave to enter the UK is a critical first step on your international journey.  However, our support does not stop there – our team will remain alongside you as required to help you navigate the challenges of doing business in a new territory. 

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