Employing Overseas Nationals

Recruiting and employing international talent is easier than ever before

In an international business environment, overseas nationals – with their language skills, knowledge of international business markets, intercultural awareness and so on – can prove key to your commercial success.

In this article, we outline the various immigration schemes through which companies can recruit and employ international talent. We also dispel some common misconceptions about recruiting and employing overseas nationals, particularly international graduates.

  • Who is entitled to work in the UK?
  • Points Based System (PBS) for migrant workers – Tiers 1, 2, 4, 5 and other categories
  • Common misconceptions about recruiting international graduates
  • FAQs
  • Resources

Who is entitled to work in the UK?

  • British citizens (note: some forms of British nationality may require permission to work and live in the UK)
  • European Economic Area (EEA) and Swiss nationals
  • Commonwealth citizens allowed to enter or remain in the UK on the basis of their UK ancestry
  • Those with no conditions attached to their stay in the UK
  • Spouses, unmarried partners and dependent children under 18 of people qualifying in any of the above categories, with no restriction on employment attached to their stay in the UK
  • Asylum seekers with successful applications, who are granted Indefinite Leave To Remain (ILTR)
  • Overseas students studying at UK institutions, with certain restrictions

All other migrant workers are covered by the Points Based System (PBS) managed by the UK Visas and Immigration (Home Office) service.

Points Based System (PBS) for migrant workers

In order to obtain entry clearance and leave to remain in the UK, individuals must accumulate a certain number of points based on factors such as qualifications, prospective earnings and English language ability. With the exception of Tier 1, individuals also need a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) from a licensed sponsor.

A CoS is a unique reference number used to apply for work visas.

The PBS encompasses the following visa types:

Tier 1 – high value migrants

Tier 1 (Investor) visas are granted to those from outside the EEA and Switzerland with at least £2 million to invest in the UK.

Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas are granted to those working in a qualifying field who have been endorsed as a recognised or emerging leader, usually internationally.

In order to work, Tier 1 visa holders don’t need a job offer or CoS from a prospective employer, but do require formal endorsement from the recognised competent body from their field.

Tier 2 – skilled workers

Tier 2 (General) visas are for employment in specific jobs sponsored by a licensed employer. Employers can get permission to employ Tier 2 applicants by obtaining a licence and a CoS.

As Tier 2 workers’ permission to work is only provided for the job covered by the CoS, their right to work in the UK ends at the same time their job does. If the individual changes jobs, their new employer must issue a new CoS and they must apply for a new Tier 2 visa.

In order to obtain a CoS, a number of requirements relating to occupation, skill and salary level must be met in accordance with Home Office guidelines. In most cases, the employer must have advertised the position as required by the Home Office, in order to meet a Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT).

Employers are exempt from meeting a RLMT and paying an Immigration Skills Charge if they are hiring a Tier 4 visa holder. In such cases, they also qualify for an unrestricted CoS and lower ‘new entrant’ wage rates.

Tier 4 – students

Students studying at UK institutions under a Tier 4 (General) student visa are entitled to work in the UK, subject to some restrictions.

To employ a student, an employer must:

  • Ensure that a right to work check is carried out in the usual way.
  • Obtain documentary evidence of the term dates of the student’s course.
  • Abide by the maximum permissible hours worked per week guidelines for Tier 4 student workers.

Tier 5 – youth mobility and temporary workers

The Tier 5 (Youth Mobility) and Tier 5 (Temporary Worker) schemes allow full-time work on a temporary basis (usually for 12-24 months).

To employ Tier 5 skilled temporary workers, employers must obtain a licence. Sponsors under the Tier 5 (Youth Mobility Scheme) are the national governments of participating countries and territories, so young people with this visa don’t need the sponsorship of individual employers or other organisations to work in the UK legally.

Other categories

  • Turkish citizens who want to set up in business in the UK, may – because of a European agreement with Turkey – be able to stay longer to work if they've already been legally working in the UK.
  • It’s also possible for students to remain to undertake an internship directly related to the studies they’ve just undertaken in the UK, for up to 12 months under the Tier 5 Temporary Worker (Government Authorised Exchange) scheme.

Common misconceptions about recruiting international graduates

It’s too difficult to sponsor a graduate and not worth the effort.

No – it’s actually relatively straightforward to sponsor international students following the abolishment of the Post Study Work Scheme in 2012.

While you’ll pay a fee for assigning each CoS, if your company already has a sponsor licence and your applicant is applying for Tier 2 in the UK under a valid student visa, then you’re exempt from paying the Immigration Skills Charge. As of January 2018, students no longer need to pass their course to switch to Tier 2, they only need to ‘complete’ their studies.

They can get their own work permit.

No – all international graduates must be sponsored by employers under Tier 2 except for those who qualify under the other immigration categories listed above.

You must prove that no one in the EEA can do the job before offering it to an international graduate.

No – you are exempt from this requirement of the RLMT if you intend to employ an international graduate switching in the UK from Tier 4 to Tier 2.

The number of international people you can recruit is limited.

No – there is no cap on the number of CoSs you can issue to graduates applying in the UK with valid Tier 4 student visas. You may have an initial allocation of CoSs, which can be increased upon request by the Home Office. Caps, and the RLMT, would apply if your applicant needs to apply for Tier 2 from outside the UK.

Getting a licence to sponsor foreign nationals under Tier 2 takes a long time.

No – it usually only takes about eight weeks to get a sponsor licence, but it can take longer if the Home Office conducts a review of your HR practices and understanding of your sponsor obligations.


The student hasn’t got a National Insurance Number, can I still employ them?

Yes – if the student has the right to work, they can start work without a national insurance number provided they apply for one once they have your job offer. In the meantime, before their number is issued, you can give them a temporary number in order to pay them with the appropriate deductions.

Why can’t the student give me a letter from the Home Office to prove their right to work?

A student’s permission to work is contained within the wording on their visa. Students will only have a letter from the Home Office if they’ve extended their permission to work whilst in the UK.

Can I employ a student when their course has finished?

Yes – all students have at least an additional four months on their Tier 4 visa after their course ends. During this time, they can work full-time on their student visas as long as they don’t fill a permanent vacancy or work on a freelance basis. After their visa ends, they require sponsorship to remain in the UK.

Can I employ a student if they’ve finished their course early?

Yes – in most cases, the student can be employed full-time until their visa ends, normally 60 days from their revised course end date.

Can I employ a student if they’ve left their course without completing it?

No – they’re no longer in the UK for the purpose of their visa.

Can I offer an international student a work placement?

Yes – as long as the placement is a requirement of their course and they have approval from their Tier 4 sponsor, the university.

Can I offer an international student work on a freelance basis?

No – self-employment is not permitted under a Tier 4 student visa. You must employ the student complying with Tier 4 regulations. Many organisations offer ‘zero-hour contracts’ to students for this purpose.


In short, it’s quite straightforward to recruit and employ international students and graduates, provided they’ll be working for you or applying to you while they’re still on their Tier 4 student visa.

International students prove to be real assets to companies because they:

  • Provide knowledge of international markets
  • Maintain overseas contacts and networks
  • Use their language skills to liaise with international clients and expand your business’ marketing internationally
  • Deepen your company’s intercultural awareness
  • Bring fresh thinking and perspectives to your company’s work


  • The UK Visas and Immigration (Home Office) website has application forms, policy guidance, and other helpful information.
  • The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) or Home Office websites offer advice on immigration routes for international students and graduates to stay in the UK to work.
  • University careers services and international student support services often offer specialist information services and assistance with preparing applications to the Home Office.
  • Legal advisors accredited by the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner (OISC) can provide professional immigration advice

The information in this article is for guidance purposes only and does not intend to be a full representation of the immigration rules.  

How to Interview Graduates→