How I got an Unsponsored UK Work Visa as a Software Developer
A stroll through the process of getting a UK Tier 1 Visa
I’m an American. I’ve lived in several different countries in my career, but never in Europe. But like many Americans, I’ve had visions of living in Europe for a while - particularly in London.
For years, I thought my dream of living in London would never happen. As an American, I can’t move to the UK without getting a full-time job at a company that will sponsor me for a UK work visa. But since I’ve been running my own consulting business for the past couple of years, I wasn’t in a situation where I could go work for another company. It seemed like a stalemate unless I discovered a forgotten grandparent with UK citizenship (spoiler: I didn’t).
I gave up on ever living in the UK — until one of my friends sent me a link to a special visa for people working in the tech industry that made it possible. The visa process was intimidating, but it all worked out. I wanted to share my experience in case it helps out someone else or encourages someone else to apply.
Note: Keep in mind that I’m neither a barrister nor a solicitor (and I’d be hard-pressed to even tell you the difference between the two), so this is definitely not any kind of official advice. I’m just sharing what happened to me in case it is helpful to you.
The Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa
If you are a tech worker with a strong track record, the UK wants you! They offer a visa targeted at you called the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa. It is a great deal as far as visas go:
- The visa lasts for 5 years and can be extended.
- You are free to work for anyone (as a consultant, employee, whatever) and switch jobs at will. You can even start your own company and hire employees.
- The rest of your immediate family also gets a visa through you. You can sponsor your spouse/partner and they can also work legally. That’s huge for people with families and two-income households.
- It’s a path to permanent residence and potentially citizenship. You can apply to become a permanent resident (a.k.a. Indefinite Leave to Remain) after staying in the UK for only three years.
Who can get this visa?
This visa is for anyone who is “an established as a leader in the field of digital technology” or “demonstrates the potential to become a leader in the field of digital technology.”
Before we go further, keep in mind that everything I’m going to say only applies to people with backgrounds in software engineering or tech start-ups. There are different flavors of this visa available to people who work in science, engineering, fashion, art or medicine, but it is a different process for each industry with different qualification standards. So if you work in one of those other fields, you’ll want to search out a different source of advice.
So what does it mean to be “an established as a leader in the field of digital technology?” An independent group called Tech Nation is tasked with deciding who is and isn’t a leader. Luckily, the UK and Tech Nation provide a fairly detailed list of requirements that you need to satisfy and you only have to qualify for a certain number of them, not all of them.
The requirements are things like “Have made significant technical, commercial, or entrepreneurial contributions in the digital technology sector as either a founder, entrepreneur or employee of a digital technology company.” For each requirement, you get to pick the documents that show that you qualify. It could be anything — a news article, a patent filing, a company blog post, a github repo, visitor stats for your personal tech blog — whatever makes the best case.
But as you read through the official eligibility requirements, it will still be very intimidating (it definitely was for me!). They make it sound like you have to literally be Yann LeCun to qualify. It makes sense that the UK wants to be strict on who is allowed in, but anecdotally it also seems like those very scary-sounding requirements also scare off most people from ever applying. Even though the UK only gives out around 200-400 of these visas per year, supposedly there aren’t actually that many applications relative to the number of visa slots available. You have a fairly decent shot of qualifying if you have a good career track record and can provide good documentation for enough of the requirements.
To hopefully encourage you further, here’s a table from the UK Policy Guidance document that shows examples of the wide range of people they want to apply:
They are casting a wide net. Whether you are a UX designer, a hardware engineer, tech salesperson or a product manager, this visa might be an option for you. Just take your time and think through how your past experiences and work might best map to their requirements.
How do I apply for this visa?
First of all, the Gov.uk website is actually great. It’s definitely one of the best government websites that I’ve ever used. Using the website, I was able to figure out the process myself without hiring an immigration attorney. But you do need to be really careful about reading all the requirements fully and making sure you send in exactly what they ask for and nothing else.
Here’s the basic process of applying:
- Read the UK’s Visa Guidance document and the Tech Nation Visa Scheme Guidance carefully. The UK makes the final decision, but Tech Nation is the group that actually decides if you qualify as an expert.
- You have to qualify in one of two “key” areas and two of four “qualifying” areas to get the visa. Choose which key area and which two qualifying areas you will target based on your experience. Pick the areas for which you have the strongest support.
- Collect the required documentation and recommendation letters that best represent you as qualifying in those selected areas. You can only send in 10 two-page documents and two recommendation letters to prove your experience, so give it some thought.
- Complete the Stage 1 visa application with the UK.
- In parallel, complete the Tech Nation Visa Scheme application. You’ll send in the UK Stage 1 application, the Tech Nation application and all your supporting documents and recommendation letters all together via FedEx to one address.
- Wait about a month to see if you qualified. You’ll get the answer via email. This is the most stressful part.
- Assuming you qualified, now you need to complete a Stage 2 visa application with the UK. You also need to complete an additional Stage 2 application for each immediate family member that will be going with you. Do them all together — don’t wait to get your visa grant before applying for your family members.
- In parallel, you’ll have to visit the closest UK biometric office and get photos and fingerprints taken. If you live in the US, this will actually be a US government immigration office.
- Send in a second giant envelope (this time to a different address) with your papers and all the papers for all your family members. You’ll also need to include your passports and extra passport photos. Finally, don’t forget to include proof of relationship for all your immediate family members (marriage certificate, birth certificate or whatever you are using). I nearly missed this in my application.
- You’ll get a package back in the mail with your approval letters and your passports. Now you need to fly to the UK on the travel date listed in your application, show the approval letter at the airport and then visit a pre-selected post office to pick up your residence permit card (called a BRP). The catch is that if you don’t show up when you say you will, they can fine you. So don’t put tentative travel plans in your visa application that you can’t actually arrange in time. Make sure to give them the exact dates when you will actually be traveling to the UK.
Congrats, you did it!
How much does it cost?
It cost me £1,708 to get the visa for myself (£456 for Stage 1, £152 for Stage 2 and a £1,100 healthcare surcharge). In addition, it cost an extra £1,708 for each additional person in my immediate family that would also be coming. So all in, it cost £5,124 for the three of us.
Basically, immigration is going to be expensive, so plan ahead for these costs. And keep in mind that this total doesn’t include incidental costs like Fedex charges to send in the applications and it doesn’t include the cost of actually getting to the UK. I also ended up paying about $900 in expedited processing fees because of a flight scheduling issue where I needed my passport back more quickly for a business trip, but that won’t apply to everyone.
Most of the fees are fixed, but the healthcare surcharge is pro-rated based on how long you want to stay in the UK. It’s less if you don’t want to stay the entire 5 years, but it seems crazy to me to go through the whole visa process and opt for less time to save a few hundred pounds. But I’ve also heard that the healthcare surcharge will be doubling in the near future, so it may be an additional £1,100 per person for a 5-year visa in the near future. In any case, it is still way less than most Americans pay for private health insurance, so you might actually save money in that area.
How long does it take to get the visa?
It took me about three months to get the visa from start to finish (which is fast in the world of visas). That breaks down like this:
- Prep: About a month to gather the required documentation and get recommendation letters.
- Visa Stage 1: About a month waiting to be endorsed as an expert after applying.
- Visa Stage 2: About two-four weeks to get approved for the visa itself after being endorsed. This is the step where you will be without your passport since you have to send it in to get stamped. You can pay extra here for faster processing which I did because I needed my passport back for another trip. But I don’t think it would have taken that much longer if I hadn’t paid.
- Biometrics: About a week to get an appointment to get my biometric data collected and then about an hour to do it. They partner with US Immigration for this, so the nearest biometric collection office was only a few miles away.
- Pick-up: After you are awarded the visa, you have to physically fly to a pre-arranged post office in the UK to collect your residence permit in person on the day it says on your acceptance letter. The actual process at the post office only took about five minutes and was painless.
Your own timing is going to vary. This is just what I experienced when I applied in Spring/Summer 2018.
If you feel like this visa is something you want to try, I hope this information was helpful and I hope it all works out for you! If you have questions about your own visa process, I’m not really qualified to help you but I’ve had a great experience reading and posting on Reddit in /r/ukvisa.