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UK Sponsor Licence Guide for employers

Table of content


Your business requires a sponsor licence to employ someone from outside the UK; following Brexit this requirement has now been extended to European Economic Area (EEA) and Switzerland nationals who arrived in the UK after 31 December 2020. This includes unpaid work for charities. Any organisation can apply for a sponsorship licence, provided they meet the relevant requirements and each organisation will have a different set of requirements that must be met before a Sponsorship License can be issued.

2. General eligibility requirements

To be able to hire new skilled workers from outside the UK, as employer you must demonstrate that:

  • you are a genuine organisation operating lawfully in the UK,
  • your key personnel named on the sponsor application are honest, dependable and reliable,
  • you have effective HR and recruitment systems in place and
  • you are offering genuine employment that meets the skill level and appropriate rates of pay.

3. Business eligibility

All applications for a sponsor licence must meet the eligibility and suitability criteria to ensure that you are a genuine business and have an operating or trading presence in the UK.

To assess your business suitability, the Home Office will look at whether:

  • You have human resource and recruitment systems in place to meet, or continue to meet, your sponsor duties, and to do so they may carry out a compliance checks by visiting your premises either before they decide your application or after your licence is granted.
  • You can offer genuine employment that meets the skill-level and salary requirements.
  • You have any criminal convictions or civil penalties: to get a licence, you cannot have unspent criminal convictions for immigration offences or certain other crimes, such as fraud or money laundering or had a sponsor licence revoked in the last 12 months.
  • Your business has a tracking record of compliance.

4. Job suitability

You can only sponsor a worker if the job they’re going to do for you has a suitable rate of pay and skill level, or meets the other criteria needed for their visa. The job must be at or above the minimum skill level: RQF3 level or equivalent (A level or equivalent qualification). Workers will not need to hold a formal qualification. It is the skill level of the job they will be doing which is important.

You’ll usually need to pay your worker at least £25,600 per year unless the ‘going rate’ for his job is higher than this. There are different salary rules if your worker is employed in some healthcare or education jobs, where the going rate is based on national pay scales.

Get in touch with our expert immigration lawyers to learn how to apply for your visa.

5. Types of licences

The licence you need depends on the type of workers you want to employ: the Skilled Worker licence (formerly known as Tier 2 general visa) is designed for workers with long-term job offers and the temporary worker (formerly also known as Tier 5) is for temporary workers. However, you can apply for a licence covering one or both type of workers.

A worker licence will let you employ people long-term or permanently. It’s split into:

  • Skilled Worker – the role must meet the job suitability requirements
  • Intra-company visas – this includes Intra-company Transfer and Intra-company Graduate Trainee, for multinational companies which need to transfer established employees or graduate trainees to the UK
  • Minister of Religion – for people coming to work for a religious organisation
  • Sportsperson – for elite sportspeople and coaches who will be based in the UK

A temporary Worker licence will let you employ people on a temporary basis. It’s split into:

  • Creative or Sporting Worker – to work as a high-level sportsperson (up to 1 year), entertainer or artist (up to 2 years)
  • Charity Worker – for unpaid workers at a charity (up to 1 year)
  • Religious Worker – for those working in a religious order or organisation (2 years)
  • Government Authorised Exchange Worker – work experience (1 year), research projects or training, for example practical medical or scientific training (2 years) to enable a short-term exchange of knowledge
  • International Agreement Worker – where the worker is coming to do a job which is covered by international law, for example employees of overseas governments
  • Seasonal Worker – for those coming to the UK for up to 6 months to do farm work

6. Sponsorship management roles

As part of your application process, you are required to appoint individuals within your organisation to carry out particular administrative functions some of whom will have access to the sponsorship management system (SMS) after a licence is granted. These people are known as ‘key personnel’ and there are 4 roles: authorising officer, key contact, level 1 user and level 2 user. These roles can be filled by the same person or a combination of different people.

The Authorising Officer is usually the most senior person responsible for recruitment within the company, which can be a company director or an HR manager. Upon the grant of the licence, the Authorising Officer will be responsible for overseeing the SMS and ensuring the sponsorship duties are complied with. You will also need to appoint a level 1 user. This is the person with access to the SMS and does not necessarily need to be the Authorising Officer. This person will be responsible for reporting any changes within your organisation as well as requesting and assigning CoS to migrant workers on the SMS. The first level 1 user must be an employee or an office holder of the organisation. However, once the licence is granted, the level 1 user will be able to request for additional level 1 users such as legal representatives to be added.

Each of your key personnel must be based in the UK, not have any unspent criminal convictions, be a paid member of your staff or engaged by you as an ‘office holder’ except in few circumstances. The Home Office will carry out checks on your key personnel against their records and the Police National Computer and the outcome of these checks may influence the decision they make on your application or the status of your existing licence.

7. Monitoring sponsored employees.

It is critical for the success of your application to have human resource and recruitment systems in place to discharge your duties as licence holder.

You must have HR systems in place that let you:

  • monitor your employees’ immigration status
  • keep copies of relevant documents for each employee, including passport and right to work information
  • track and record employees’ attendance
  • keep employee contact details up to date
  • report to UKVI if there is a problem, for example if your employee stops coming to work

You must also:

  • check that your foreign workers have the necessary skills, qualifications or professional accreditations to do their jobs, and keep copies of documents showing this
  • only assign certificates of sponsorship to workers when the job is suitable for sponsorship
  • tell UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) if your sponsored workers are not complying with the conditions of their visa

Your licence may be downgraded, suspended or withdrawn if you do not meet them.

8. Application process

You must complete an online licence application and provide supporting documentation to meet the necessary evidential requirements. This must be supplied within five days of the initial application with a covering letter providing background information about the company. Following the receipt of these documents, your organisation may then be subject to a compliance visit from UK Visas and Immigration, who will assess whether or not to grant the licence.

Failure to submit all required documents will result in your application being delayed or rejected and further costs being incurred. So, it is important to have prepared all of the necessary evidence and documentation by the time you submit your online application.

Sponsor licence application processing time will depend upon the complexity of each application. However, on average a sponsor licence application will be processed in approximately 2 to 3 months. You may be able to pay £500 to get a decision within 10 working days. You’ll be told if you can after you apply.

If you wish to find out more about your immigration matters, our team of experienced lawyers is happy to assist.

9. Application fees

You will have to pay a fee for:

  • your initial application for a sponsor licence
  • applying to renew an existing sponsor licence
  • in some cases, applying to extend the scope of an existing licence (adding routes on which you can sponsor workers)
  • each Certificate of Sponsorship you assign, unless the worker is a national of a country which has ratified the European Social Charter.
  • any additional premium services after your licence has been granted

The fee for your initial application for a sponsor licence depends on the type of licence you are applying for and the size or status of your organisation. You will be eligible to pay the ‘small’ fee if you:

  • are applying for a licence under the Temporary Worker routes only,
  • have charitable status,
  • are subject to the small companies regime as set out in sections 381 to
  • 384 of the Companies Act 2006, or
  • are an individual (not a company) and you employ fewer than 50 people

In all other cases, you must pay the ‘large’ fee. If you are a charitable or small organisation, the sponsor licence application fee is £536. If you are a medium or large organisation, the fee is £1476. An organisation would normally qualify as a small sponsor if two of the following apply:

  • your annual turnover is £10.2 million or less
  • your total assets are worth £5.1 million or less
  • you have 50 employees or fewer

Registered Charities are also considered to be “small” sponsors. If you are sponsoring a worker on the Skilled Worker or Intra-Company Transfer routes, you may also have to pay an Immigration Skills Charge for each worker you sponsor.

10. Supporting documents

You will usually need to submit a minimum of four specified mandatory documents with the Skilled Worker licence application. There are several types of sponsor licence and each type of licence will require different supporting documents to be submitted.

Ultimately, the required document list will depend on whether you are representing a public body, start-up, franchise or SME however it may include:

  • Latest business bank statement.
  • Employer’s liability insurance of at least £5 million from an authorised insurer.
  • Certificate of VAT registration.
  • Evidence of registration as an employer with HMRC – i.e. PAYE and Accounts Office Reference Number.
  • Proof of ownership or lease of business premises or rent agreement.
  • Latest audited or unaudited accounts.
  • If you are required to be registered with and/or inspected/monitored by a regulatory body to operate lawfully in the UK, evidence of your registration.

If you are applying for the Intra-Company Transfer sponsor licence subcategory, you will also be required to submit evidence of common ownership between the company in the UK and the company overseas.

Occasionally, the Home Office may require additional documents such as evidence of the company’s HR processes to assess whether the compliance requirements and sponsorship duties will be met.

11. Duties and entitlement as licence holder

The UK Immigration Rules are demanding on employers who want to recruit talents from outside the UK. As part of your licence application, you are pledging to accept all of the duties associated with being a sponsor licence holder.

Once an organisation acquires a sponsor licence, they become registered with the Home Office as a sponsor. You will be awarded an A-rating, your licence will be valid for four years and can begin issuing Certificates of sponsorship (CoS) to skilled non-UK staff subject to meeting the requirements.

You must maintain your systems and policies in order to keep your rating as failure to comply with your ongoing compliance duties may result in a downgrade in user rating, a licence suspension or revocation. Indeed, if the Home Office finds that a business is not complying with its sponsor duties, it may be downgraded to a B-rating; in such a case, the business will need to meet a time-limited action plan to regain their A-rating. If they cannot meet the requirements of the action plan within the specified time-frame, the licence will be revoked.

12. Certificates of sponsorship

You must assign a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) to each foreign worker you employ; this is an electronic document generated on the Sponsor Management System (SMS) after a licence is granted. It should be noted that the longest you can sponsor a worker for is 5 years. In order to sponsor a migrant worker, the company must first request a Certificate of sponsorship from the Home Office through the SMS. Once this is granted, the company will need to assign it to the migrant worker they intend to sponsor to generate a unique reference number for the candidate to submit during their visa application.

When you assign the certificate to a worker, they must use it to apply for their visa within 3 months. Defined certificates are for people applying on a Skilled Worker visa from outside the UK and making an entry clearance application. Undefined certificates are for Skilled Workers applying from inside the UK and applicants on all other visas.

If you’ve assigned a certificate of sponsorship to someone in your organisation, who then moves to a new job in your organisation, you’ll need to assign them a new certificate which they will use to apply for a new visa.

13. Right of appeal and cooling off period

There is no right of appeal as such when your sponsor licence is refused however you can apply to request a review of your application if you think it was refused because the caseworker processing your application made a mistake or your supporting documents were not considered.

In general, if a sponsor licence application you have submitted is refused, a six-month cooling off period will apply. Whether or not this applies will depend on the reasons for refusal and the length of a cooling off period will vary depending on the circumstances. For example, if your application was refused because you were unable to submit requested information or documentation within a specified timeline (for reasons out of your control) you may be able to reapply without waiting. There are some circumstances where it may be longer. For example, if you have been issued with a civil penalty for employing an illegal worker, it would be 12 months from the date you paid the penalty in full. If you tried to reapply during this time, your application would automatically be refused.

In some cases, if there has been a mistake in the decision to refuse your application, you may submit a pre-licence error correction. However, if the decision was not overturned after the pre-licence error correction, the only other option to challenge the decision would be to lodge a judicial review.

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