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Work visas and migrant workers in the UK

18 Jun 2019

This briefing examines labour migration to the UK. It presents data on migrant workers, including people coming to the UK on work visas (or ‘work permits’) and those whose main reason for migrating is work.

  1. Key Points
    • A majority people moving to the UK for work have been from EU countries over the past decade, although the share fell after the Brexit referendum
    • Skilled workers sponsored by their employers are the largest recipients of work visas, with 56,000 entry visas issued to non-EU citizens in 2018.
    • Former international students staying on to work in the UK made up 6,300 or 20% of non-EU citizens who received a new employer-sponsored work visa in 2018
    • IT and health are the main industries that rely on work visas for skilled non-EU employees. The number of skilled sponsored work visas increased from 2015 to 2018, driven by growing recruitment into the healthcare sector
    • Most non-EU citizens who receive work visas leave within 5 years, and this share has increased over the past 15 years
    • Indian citizens were the largest recipients of work visas in 2018. Chinese citizens received the largest number of Tier 1 (investor and entrepreneur) visas and Australians the largest number of Youth Mobility Scheme visas
  1. Understanding the Policy

    Work-related migration to the UK is governed by two different policy regimes. People from EU countries (plus EEA and Switzerland) can come to the UK to work without applying for permission, while citizens of non-EEA countries require a work visa.

    For non-EU citizens, there are several different work visas available for different purposes. Most work visas are part of the UK’s ‘points-based system’, which is divided into 5 ‘Tiers’. Work visas are sometimes also referred to as ‘work permits’, although we use the term visa throughout this briefing.

    Tier 1

    Tier 1 is for various groups of high-skilled migrants not sponsored by an employer, including entrepreneurs, investors and people with ‘exceptional talent’.

    Tier 2

    Tier 2 is for employees in graduate jobs, who must be sponsored by their employers (referred to in this briefing as ‘skilled sponsored workers’. This category includes Tier 2 (general) visas for newly recruited workers coming to fill a specific vacancy, and Tier 2 (intracompany transfer) for staff being transferred from an overseas office of an international company.

    To qualify for a Tier 2 visa, workers must meet minimum earning requirements which vary by occupation and are at least £20,800 for ‘new entrants’ to the labour market, £30,000 for experienced workers, and £41,500 for intra-company transfers coming for at least a year. ‘New entrants’ include people under the age of 26, international students staying on to work in the UK after their studies, and people hired as part of ‘milkround’ graduate recruitment. Some public sector workers do not have to meet the £30,000 threshold, such as nurses who must instead receive the standard amounts specified in NHS pay-scales for the job. In 2011, the government introduced a 20,700 cap on the number of Tier 2 (general) visas that could be issued each year. Some people are exempt from the cap, including people switching from study to work and high earners receiving salaries of at least £159,600; in June 2018, doctors and nurses were exempted from the cap.

    Migrants coming through Tiers 1 and 2 are considered highly skilled. They can come to the UK for several years and are allowed to bring partners and children. Tier 1 and Tier 2 (general) visa holders are eligible to apply for settlement to stay permanently after a few years (in most cases 5 years). The Migration Observatory briefing, Settlement in the UK gives an overview of permanent settlement in the UK.

    Tier 3

    Tier 3 is in theory for low-skilled workers, although in practice it does not exist – there are currently no routes for visas to be issued under this tier.

    Tier 4 is not a work visa but is for students: see the Migration Observatory briefing Non-European Student Migration to the UK.

    Tier 5

    Workers in low-skilled or middle-skilled jobs that do not require a graduate degree must usually come on a strictly temporary visa under Tier 5 of the points-based system. This tier is a catch-all comprising several short-term, temporary work visas. It includes the Youth Mobility Scheme, which gives 2-year non-renewable work visas to people aged 18 to 30 from certain countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Monaco). Youth Mobility visa holders do not need an employer to sponsor them and are not tied to specific jobs. There are caps on visa numbers for each nationality, although the overall number of visas granted is well below the total number that are in theory available. The caps in 2019 were: 31,000 (Australia), 14,000 (New Zealand), 6,000 (Canada), 1,000 (Japan), 1,000 (Monaco), 1,000 (Taiwan), 1,000 (Hong Kong) and 1,000 (South Korea) (Immigration Rules Appendix G).

    Other categories within Tier 5 include a pilot programme to admit up to 2,500 non-EU seasonal agricultural workers in 2019, as well as work visas for people coming for approved training or internship programmes, creative workers and sportspeople. Tier 5 thus involves work at a range of skill levels. These visas do not provide a direct route to permanent settlement.

    After Brexit, the immigration system for workers is expected to change. Government proposals are described in an immigration White Paper published in late 2018 (HM Government, 2018). Proposed changes include ending free movement for EU citizens, introducing a single system for both EU and non-EU citizens coming for skilled work, and introducing a new short-term work route. For a discussion of these changes, see the Migration Observatory commentary, Where is UK labour migration policy heading after Brexit?

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    There are two main sources of data on work-related migration: Office of National Statistics (ONS) surveys and Home Office records. The Home Office provides information on visas issued to non-EU citizens to work in the UK. Most of these visas go to people who are not already living in the UK, although it is also possible to switch into a work visa from other visas, such as study visas. Unless otherwise specified, the visa data in this briefing only include people receiving their visas from outside the country. Visa data give an indication of how many people are coming to the UK for work, although not everyone who is issued a visa will necessarily come to the UK – some may change their plans after a visa is issued.

    This briefing also uses data on ‘Certificates of Sponsorship’ (CoS) for Tier 2 visas. When employers sponsor a worker, they must assign them a CoS. The worker then uses the CoS to apply for their entry visa to the UK. Again, some people who receive a CoS may not actually come to the UK.

    The second major source of information on work migration is the International Passenger Survey (IPS). The IPS is a survey conducted at all of the UK’s major airports and sea routes, and the Channel Tunnel. Respondents are asked to provide their “main reason” for migrating. The data are separated into long-term migration (at least 12 months) and short-term migration (1 to 12 months). Some figures the ONS published based on this survey are adjusted to account for migration between the UK and Ireland, people who change their intended duration of stay, and asylum seekers. The figures used in this briefing, however, do not include these adjustments which are not available when looking at data on both citizenship and reason for migration.

    This briefing also uses data from the Annual Population Survey (APS). The APS is based on an ONS survey of households across the UK and provides detailed information on the characteristics of people living here. It has some important limitations, however. Some people are excluded, such as residents of communal establishments like hostels. Response rates for the survey have declined over time, and are now below 50% (ONS, 2016); this means that people who are more likely not to respond to the survey may be undercounted, and ONS analysis based on the 2011 Census suggests that non-response is more of a problem among people born outside of the UK (Weeks et al, n.d.).

    Because the APS is a sample survey, the estimates come with margins of error. This means that small differences between numbers or percentages may not be statistically significant – that is, they may not reflect real differences in the population. This briefing rounds APS estimates to the nearest 1,000, although in practice the margins of error will be much larger than this.

    This briefing does not use National Insurance Number (NINo) registrations to overseas nationals, as they do not provide much additional value to the above source when examining labour migration. However, they can be useful for looking at the numbers and nationalities of migrants entering the labour market at the local authority level.

A majority of people migrating to the UK for work are EU citizens, although the EU share has fallen since the Brexit referendum

In 2018, 178,000 non-British citizens moved to the UK for at least a year to work, according to ONS estimates. This made up 38% of all long-term migration to the UK for work, study, family and other reasons.

Between 2007 and 2018, a majority of long-term migrants who said that work was their main reason for moving to the UK were EU citizens (Figure 1). This is in contrast to the experience of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when work migrants were more likely to be from non-EU countries.

After the June 2016 referendum, there was a sharp decline in long-term EU migration, and this included migration for work (Figure 1). By 2018, the numbers of migrants coming for work from these two groups was relatively similar: 99,000 EU citizens and 78,000 non-EU citizens.

Work remains the most important driver of EU migration. In 2018, 56% of EU citizens coming to the UK for at least a year said that work was their main motivation. By contrast, work is not the main reason for non-EU citizens, who are more likely to come for study. In 2018, 27% of non-EU long-term migrants said they were moving for work, while 55% said they were moving for study – though student visas often allow their holder to do part time work too. The Migration Observatory briefing, Non-EU Student Migration to the UK, gives more detail on international students.

Looking at the whole population of foreign-born people living in the UK, including both recent arrivals and those who arrived many years ago, approximately 19% of the non-EU born reported work as the main reason for migration, compared to 45% of the EU born. Overall, 29% of the foreign-born population said that their main reason for originally moving to the UK had been work (Kone, 2018).

Migrant workers are employed in a wide range of different jobs after they arrive in the UK. Overall, non-EU workers are more likely to be working in high-skilled jobs than EU workers (Rienzo, 2018). This is in part because free movement allows EU citizens to work in any occupation while non-EU citizens must qualify for work visas that often have skill requirements. However, not all migrants working in the UK would be classified as labour migrants – many will have come as family members or refugees. Information on the jobs that migrant workers do in the UK is available in the Migration Observatory briefing, Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview.

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Skilled workers sponsored by their employers received the largest numbers of work visas in 2018, with 56,000 entry visas issued to non-EU citizens

The largest category of work visas issued to non-EU citizens is employer-sponsored work visas for graduate jobs, which make up the part of the immigration system known as Tier 2 (see the ‘Understanding the Policy’ section above for details). In 2018, these skilled sponsored workers made up 45% of all work visas (Figure 2). A majority of Tier 2 work visas (57% in 2018) go to intracompany transfers.

The next largest category is Tier 5, which provides temporary visas for a range of purposes: 38,900 visas or 31% of work visas. Just over half these visas (20,900) were issued under the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) in 2018. YMS visa holders can work in any occupation so will include people in a range of skilled and less skilled positions.

Tier 1, which includes investors, entrepreneurs and people with ‘exceptional talent’, made up 3,200 or 3% of work visas issued in 2018. The largest category in Tier 1 is entrepreneurs (1,160 entry visas in 2018), followed by ‘exceptional talent’ (528 visas in 2018). The size of the Tier 1 route has fallen significantly since a peak of 18,900 in 2009. This followed the abolition of the post-study work route and the ‘Tier 1 (general)’ route for skilled migrants who had passed a points test; both routes were closed under the 2010-2015 Coalition government.

Most of the ‘non-PBS’ visas issued were for domestic workers in private households: 20,300 in 2018. This visa allows people who live abroad to bring cleaners, chauffeurs, cooks or carers to the UK with them for temporary visits of up to 6 months.

At the end of 2016, an estimated 277,000 non-EU citizens held valid skilled sponsored work visas (Tier 2) and did not have permanent settlement rights in the UK. There were also 65,000 temporary Tier 5 visa holders with valid visas, as well as 48,000 investors, entrepreneurs, and others on Tier 1 visas (Home Office immigration statistics, Table MJ01).

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Former international students staying on to work made up 6,100 or 19% of non-EU citizens receiving a new employer-sponsored work visa in 2018

The number of international students receiving work visas to stay on in the UK after their studies fell sharply after 2012, when the Tier 1 ‘post-study work route’ was closed. After  2012, students who wanted to remain in the UK to work either needed to find an employer willing to sponsor them for a skilled work visa, or needed to qualify for another type of work visa, for example as an entrepreneur. In practice, the large majority of students switching to work visas took the first of these two routes. Just over 6,300 non-EU citizens switched from a student visa to a skilled sponsored work visa in 2018 (Figure 3).

The 6,300 work visas granted to former international students made up 20% of new Tier 2 (general) visas in 2018. This is calculated on the basis that approximately 31,300 ‘new’ Tier 2 visas were issued in 2018, including 24,400 entry visas and 6,900 extensions to people already living in the UK on a different type of visa.

Most international students from non-EU countries do not remain in the UK to work after their studies, however. While an average of 6,400 non-EU citizens switched from study to work visas each year from 2014 to 2018 inclusive, an average of 194,000 people received Tier 4 (general) entry visas to study in the UK over the same 5-year time period. While not all of these will be the same individuals (some switchers will have received their study visa before 2014), both levels have been relatively stable over time. This suggests that on average, less than 5% of these students transition from study to work visas. For more information on international students, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Non-EU Student Migration to the UK.

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The number of skilled non-EU workers sponsored by employers increased from 2015 to 2018, driven primarily by recruitment into the NHS

Following a sharp decline from 2006 to 2009, the number of non-EU citizens receiving work visas for skilled employee jobs increased steadily from 2012 onwards (Figure 4).

A majority of skilled employer-sponsored workers are people being transferred from an overseas office of the same firm, known as intracompany transfers. This route is dominated by the IT sector (MAC, 2015). Restrictions on intracompany transfers were introduced in 2016 and 2017, including an increase in the required minimum salary from £24,800 to £41,500 (Brokenshire, 2016). The number of intracompany transfers declined by 4,300 or 12% between 2016 and 2018.

However, the number of new hires coming on skilled, Tier 2 (general), work visas grew steadily from 2012 to 2018 (Figure 4). This coincided with falling unemployment as the UK economy recovered from the late 2000s financial crisis. The increase in 2018 will have been facilitated by the government’s decision to exempt doctors and nurses from the 20,700 cap on these visas that had been introduced in 2011.

More than half of skilled sponsored workers in 2018 were in two industries: IT and health. Of the 58,400 skilled sponsored workers issued entry visas that year, 37% were in the IT industry and 17% were in health and social work. In fact, the healthcare industry accounts for all of the increase in Tier 2 workers between 2015 and 2018. During this period, the number of skilled workers sponsored by healthcare employers almost tripled, from 3,500 to 10,100, while numbers in other industries slightly declined (Figure 5).

Nurses are the largest single occupation receiving of Tier 2 (general) visas, making up 16% all Certificates of Sponsorship issued to new hires in 2018, according to FOI data. For more information, see the Migration Observatory commentary, Threshold? Which Threshold?

Non-EU citizens are currently only eligible for employer-sponsored work visas if they are in graduate jobs that meet minimum salary requirements (see ‘Understanding the Policy’ above). Migrant workers in lower-paid jobs such as cleaners, carers or waiters must either be EU citizens or have another type of visa, such as a temporary Youth Mobility visa or a non-work visa (such as a family or study visa). For a discussion of how ending EU free movement might affect low-skilled work in the UK, see the Migration Observatory report, Exploiting the Opportunity: Low-skilled Work Migration After Brexit.

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Most non-EU citizens receiving work visas leave the UK within 5 years, and this share has increased over time

By the end of 2018, 77% of work visas issued to non-EU citizens in 2013 had expired. This means that the person had not stayed on with a different visa and had not received permanent settlement or citizenship. Among people issued work visas, investors and entrepreneurs were most likely still to have permission to remain in the UK (67% of those issued Tier 1 visas in 2013) (Figure 6).

During the 2010-2015 Coalition Government, the Home Office had an explicit policy to break the link between temporary migration and permanent settlement (Home Office, 2011). This included a new £35,000 income requirement for settlement, which applies to people who received a Tier 2 (general) visa after April 2011 (the figure has since risen with inflation). In addition, an April 2010 change under the previous Labour government meant that the intracompany transfer visa no longer led to settlement. The share of workers who still have permission to be in the UK five years after their initial visa was granted does appear to have fallen over time since 2004. However, some of the fall predates these 2010-2012 policy changes (Figure 5).

While less is known about how long EU labour migrants stay in the UK because they do not need visas, available data do suggest that there is significant short-term migration for work among EU citizens. In the year ending June 2017, EU citizens made an estimated 129,000 short-term trips of 1-12 months for employment (ONS Table STIM.01a). This is in addition to EU citizens who stay temporarily for at least a year. For more information on emigration and temporary migration, see the Migration Observatory briefing, Permanent or Temporary: How long do migrants stay in the UK?

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Indian citizens were the largest recipients of work visas in 2018

Among migrant workers employed in the UK in 2018, an estimated 2,365,000 (42%) were born in EU countries and 3,307,000 (58%) were born in non-EU countries, according to Migration Observatory analysis of the Annual Population Survey. This includes people arriving in any year up to 2018, and includes non-EU citizens whose visas were not issued for work. If we look only at those who arrived in the previous five years (i.e. in 2014 or later), a majority (56% or 526,000 people) were from EU countries.

Among non-EU citizens on work visas, the top countries of origin vary depending on the visa type (Figure 7). Chinese nationals received the largest share of Tier 1 visas (primarily for investors and entrepreneurs in 2018. Indian nationals dominate the Tier 2 skilled employee visa category, receiving 70% of intracompany transfer visas in 2018. Just under half of Youth Mobility visas went to Australian nationals the same year. Overall, Indian citizens received 35% of work visas in 2018.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

Despite significant improvements in data on work-related migration over the past decade, there is still very little information in certain areas. For example, there is currently no usable data on what work-visa holders do after they enter the UK if they are not sponsored by an employer (i.e. if they enter on Tier 1 or Tier 5), although it is possible that in future such data could become available from administrative data sources (i.e. HMRC and DWP records). There is also no data on the occupations or earnings of short-term migrants, particularly those from EU countries. These workers are not expected to be captured well by the Labour Force Survey, which is currently the main source of information about migrant workers’ economic activity in the UK. This makes it difficult to analyse the impact of proposed changes to the immigration system after Brexit, which among other things would mean that a higher share of migrants to the UK would be expected to leave after 1-2 years.

Another area of limited evidence is emigration. While there are overall statistics on the numbers of people leaving the UK for at least 12 months (through the International Passenger Survey), it is currently not possible to provide a clear picture of the skills and activities of people who leave vs. remain in the UK long term.

Thanks to Brian Bell for comments on an earlier draft of this briefing. This briefing was produced with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.


  • Brokenshire, James. 2016. Written ministerial statement: HCWS660. Available online
  • Home Office. 2011. Government looks to break link between temporary and permanent migration. Press release, 9 June 2011. Available online
  • HM Government. The UK’s future skills-based immigration system. London: HM Government, 2018. Available online
  • Kone, Zovanga. Where do Migrants Live in the UK? Migration Observatory. Available online
  • Migration Advisory Committee. 2015. Review of Tier 2. London: MAC. Available online

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