The UK is one of the best places in the world to start and run a successful business. But finding the right visa to set up operations in the UK isn’t always straight forward.

In this guide for overseas business owners, investors and entrepreneurs, we look at the various visa options available for opening a UK business, including the eligibility requirements that must be met and the application process you’ll need to follow.

 

Which visa do you need to start a business in the UK?

The UK Immigration Rules are subject to frequent change so it’s important to take professional advice to ensure you understand all of the options open to you. In 2023, for example, the UK Start up and the Innovator routes were both closed to new applications. This means that currently, the visa options for foreign nationals to set up and run a business in the UK include:

  • Innovator Founder Visa for foreign nationals who have an innovative business idea with the potential to grow and create jobs in the UK.
  • UK Expansion worker (Global Business Mobility) Visa for key employees of overseas companies to establish new UK-based operations.
  • Skilled Worker visa as a self sponsorship route to work for yourself in the UK.
  • Graduate visa for student visa holders to remain in the UK after their studies have been completed.

 

Innovator Founder visa

The Innovator Founder Visa was introduced by the UK government in April 2023 to make it easier for foreign nationals with innovative business ideas to start and grow businesses in the UK.

The Innovator Founder Visa offers a number of benefits, including the ability to live and work in the UK for three years, with the possibility to extend your visa for another three years; the ability to bring your family members with you to the UK; access to government funding and support for businesses; and you may become eligible to apply for indefinite leave to remain after three years.

 

Innovator Founder visa eligibility requirements

To be eligible for the Innovator Founder Visa, you must:

  • Have an innovative business idea that has the potential to grow and create jobs in the UK.
  • Have your business idea endorsed by an approved UK endorsing body.
  • Meet the English language requirement.
  • Meet the financial requirement

 

How to apply for the Innovator Founder Visa

To apply for the Innovator Founder Visa, you must:

  • Secure endorsement for your business idea from an approved UK endorsing body.
  • Complete the online application form and pay the application fee.
  • Attend a visa application centre to submit your biometrics.

Once you have submitted your application, it will be processed by the UK Home Office. The Home Office will make a decision on your application based on the information that you have provided.

If your application is successful, you will be granted an Innovator Founder Visa. You will then be able to live and work in the UK for three years.

 

Graduate visa

The Graduate Visa allows international students who have graduated from a UK university to stay in the UK for two years (or three years if they have a PhD) to work or look for work.

The Graduate Visa is an opportunity for international students to gain work experience in the UK and to start their careers, which can include self-employment and starting their own business.

The Graduate Visa offers a number of benefits, including:

  • The ability to live and work in the UK for two years (or three years if you have a PhD) without the need for a job offer.
  • The ability to switch jobs without having to apply for a new visa.
  • The ability to apply for permanent residency after five years.
  • The ability to bring family members with you to the UK.

 

Graduate visa eligibility requirements

To be eligible for the Graduate Visa, you must:

  • Have successfully completed a degree at undergraduate level or above (or one of the limited number of professional qualifications at degree level or above) at a Higher Education Provider with a track record of compliance.
  • Have a valid Tier 4 or Student visa at the time of application.
  • Have completed the entirety of your course in the UK as a student, apart from permitted study abroad programmes or remote study due to COVID-19, for which specific concessions have been agreed.

 

How to apply for the Graduate visa

To apply for the Graduate Visa, you must:

  • Complete the online application form.
  • Pay the application fee.
  • Provide evidence of your identity and nationality.
  • Provide evidence of your academic qualifications.
  • Provide evidence of your immigration status in the UK.
  • You may also need to provide additional supporting documents, such as a copy of your job offer or a letter from your university.

Once you have submitted your application, it will be processed by the UK Home Office. The Home Office will make a decision on your application based on the information that you have provided.

If your application is successful, you will be granted a Graduate Visa. You will then be able to live and work in the UK for two years (or three years if you have a PhD).

 

Self sponsorship under the Skilled Worker visa

While there is no specific UK self-sponsorship visa, it is possible to self-sponsor for a visa to work in the UK by registering your own UK business and applying for a Skilled Worker visa as a sponsor of yourself. To do this, you will need to meet the following requirements:

  • Your business must be a genuine and viable business.
  • Your business must be able to afford to pay you at least the minimum salary for the Skilled Worker visa.
  • You must have the skills and experience necessary to do the job that you are creating for yourself.

If you meet all of the requirements, you can apply for a Skilled Worker visa as a sponsor of yourself. You will need to submit a number of supporting documents, including a business plan and a certificate of sponsorship.

 

UK Expansion Worker Visa

If you work for an overseas company and are looking to set up operations in the UK, you should look at the UK Expansion Worker visa.

The UK Expansion Worker Visa opened on 11 April 2022, replacing the Sole Representative visa. It is one of five visa sub-categories under the UK’s Global Business Mobility categories, and is supported by its own Appendix of the Immigration Rules.

The UK Expansion Worker route is aimed at companies that are established and trading overseas and are looking to deploy a senior personnel to set up and grow the organisation’s presence in the UK.

It allows the visa holder to remain in the UK for a period of up to two years but it does not lead to UK settlement. It is possible to apply for an extension of the visa, up to a maximum of five years in total under this route. Visa holders may also apply to switch into a different visa category (such as the skilled worker visa), but any time spent in the UK as an expansion worker visa would not count towards any future settlement application.

There is also no limit on the number of expansion visa workers that a business can deploy to the UK, potentially allowing teams of senior employees to apply together.

 

UK expansion worker visa eligibility requirements

For a worker to be eligible under the expansion worker route, the business must not have not already have a trading presence in the UK.

The employer must also hold a valid sponsorship licence before any application for an expansion worker visa can be made.

All applicants must meet the visa requirements. Applications have to be made before the business starts trading in the UK.

Unlike its predecessor route, there is no limit on the shareholding of the worker coming to the UK, which means business owners and those with more than 50% shareholding can be eligible to apply.

Applicants must ahave either been employed by the overseas entity for a period of 12 months before filing their application, or if not, they must earn a salary of £73,900 or if they are a Japanese national, meet specific provisions.

The role in the UK must be genuine and the visa cannot be used for applicants to simply gain permission to come to the UK. The role must meet the minimum salary threshold for the relevant job code, which will be at least £42,000.

In addition, the Home Office will also consider “whether the applicant has the appropriate skills, qualifications and experience needed to do the job as described” and the business’s history of compliance with the immigration system including, but not limited to, paying its sponsored workers appropriately”, among other factors relevant to the information provided by the sponsor.

 

Visa to start up business in UK FAQs

Do I need a visa to start a business in UK?

If you’re subject to UK immigration control, and don’t otherwise have permission to work in the UK, you’ll need to have an appropriate visa to start up a business.

How do I get a UK business visa?

To obtain a business visa to set up and run a UK business, you’ll need to apply for permission from the Home Office. There are various visa options to choose from depending on your circumstances.

 

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.

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As editor of Xpats.io, Gill is passionate about helping individuals and organisations overseas explore and pursue opportunities in the UK. She is a content specialist in the fields of immigration, law and business.