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An overview of the UK immigration system

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For those of you who have never had to consider the UK immigration system, but who may do so in the near future, or who are simply curious as to how it works, read on.


Before 2008, there were over 80 different routes of entry into the UK. The Labour Government at the time became increasingly aware of the problems which were rife in the UK with illegal working and a distinct lack of control over who was meant to be here and who was not. They looked at the immigration systems in other countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. In borrowing from those systems, the UK Government sought to simplify its own and the points based system was born.

What is the points based system?

On the face of it, it is a ‘simplified’ system that enables non EEA nationals to apply to live and work in the UK. The routes of entry into the UK were reduced to five for work and study. Coming to the UK as a family member or as a visitor is outside of the points based system but the same ethos applies; namely you need to contribute to the UK economy and you mustn’t rely on the public purse.

Five tiers of the points based system:

  • Tier 1: For highly skilled workers, investors, entrepreneurs and exceptional talent.
  • Tier 2: For skilled workers with a job offer in the UK.
  • Tier 3: For seasonal and low skilled workers (closed at the moment).
  • Tier 4: For students.
  • Tier 5: Youth mobility, temporary workers and Government authorised exchange scheme.

How does it work?

If an applicant meets the number of points required in the relevant tier on their immigration application, they should be successful in obtaining their visa. In contrast,  if the required number of points are not met then the application will most likely fail.

What is a sponsor and what is their role?

Non-EEA nationals wanting to come to the UK under Tiers 2, 4 and 5 must be sponsored by a licensed sponsor in the UK. In the case of Tier 4 the sponsor is an educational establishment. In the case of Tier 2 (and some options under Tier 5) the employer is the sponsor and must be registered with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) in order to employ a non-EEA national worker (unless the individual has permission to work here legally by other means and does not require sponsorship). As a sponsor the UK employer must take overall responsibility for their non-EEA national worker(s) and must commit to ensure only those legally allowed to live and work here are employed, complying with any restrictions or their right to work. If the sponsor gets it wrong and employs an illegal worker they risk their licence and the future employment of all of their non-EEA national workers.

What must an individual do?

If applying from outside the UK, they must apply for entry clearance under one of the five Tiers above before arriving in the country. If they are already in the UK, they must make an application to extend their current visa under one of the Tiers or ‘switch’ into another category allowing them to take up work in the UK.

Is it simple?

Not always but it helps if you know your way around the system.

It is worth noting that the UKBA has very strict guidelines for making any application and even the smallest of mistakes (administrative errors etc.) can lead to an application being rejected.

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