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Work visas and migrant workers in the UK

18 Jun 2020

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
    • For the first time since 2006, the majority of people moving to the UK for work are from non-EU countries, accounting for 56% of all work migration in 2019.
    • Skilled workers sponsored by their employers are the largest recipients of work visas, with 63,000 issued for non-EU citizens to enter the UK in 2019.
    • Health and social workers accounted for nearly all of the increase in visas for non-EU skilled employees between 2015 and the third quarter of 2019. In the third quarter of 2019, skilled visas for health and social workers surpassed those for IT workers for the first time.
    • Most non-EU citizens who receive work visas leave within 5 years, and this share has increased over the past decade.
    • Indian citizens were the largest recipients of work visas in 2019. Chinese citizens received the largest number of Tier 1 visas (investors, entrepreneurs and those considered global leaders in their field) and Australians the largest number of Youth Mobility Scheme visas.
  1. Understanding the Policy

    Until the end of the post-Brexit transition period, work-related migration to the UK continues to be governed by two different policy regimes. ... Click to read more.

    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 an explanation of the proposed post-Brexit immigration system, please see the Migration Observatory’s Q&A: The UK’s new points-based immigration system after Brexit, and the government’s February 2020 policy statement.

    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’. The most recent work visa routes to be created are included in a part of the Immigration Rules called Appendix W (for ‘Workers’). Work visas are sometimes also referred to as ‘work permits’, although we use the term visa throughout this briefing. There are other ‘non-work’ visas that allow non-EU citizens to work but are not work visas (e.g., Tier 4 student visas and UK Ancestry). Work under these types of visas is not the focus of this briefing.

    Tier 1 and Appendix W

    Tier 1 and Appendix W are for various groups of high-skilled migrants not sponsored by an employer, including entrepreneurs, investors and people considered global leaders in their field. Most Tier 1 visas have been replaced with categories in Appendix W. The Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) and Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) closed to new applicants in March 2019 and were replaced by Innovator and Start-up categories in Appendix W. Exceptional Talent became Global Talent in February 2020, also in Appendix W.

    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. The rules governing Tier 2 visas are expected to experience the greatest changes under the post-Brexit immigration system. For further details, read our Q and A about the changes.

    To qualify for a Tier 2 visa, workers must currently 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, such as people switching from study to work, high earners receiving salaries of at least £159,600, and certain PhD-level roles; 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, are allowed to bring partners and children and 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

    Tier 4 is not a work visa but is for students: see the Migration Observatory briefing International 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, South 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 2020: 31,000 (Australia), 13,000 (New Zealand), 5,000 (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, which will be expanded to 10,000 places (HM Government, 2020). There are also work visas for people coming for approved training or internship programmes, charity workers, creative workers and sportspeople. Tier 5 thus involves different types of work at a range of skill levels. These visas do not provide a direct route to permanent settlement.

  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. ... Click to read more.

    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. In light of the risks and restrictions surrounding international travel and uncertainties around employment due to Covid-19, it remains to be seen whether those granted visas to come to the UK actually arrive, while it is also reasonable to expect fewer applications to be submitted for a period. All the figures mentioned in this briefing exclude dependents accompanying the worker, unless otherwise specified.

    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 publishes 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. While full year figures are available for the year ending December 2019, the future of the IPS is uncertain. In response to Covid-19, face-to-face interviews were suspended indefinitely on 16 March 2020 (Lindop, 2020). For more information about the impacts of Covid-19 on the international migration statistics published by ONS, please see their blog, Understanding international migration in a rapidly changing world.

    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.

    ONS reported that although Covid-19 was affecting some aspects of APS data collection (typically, the first wave of LFS interviews which feed into the APS are conducted face-to-face), they are pivoting to telephone- and online-based interviews, in addition to implementing other measures (ONS, 2020). For more information about the measures being taken, please see the ONS statement, Ensuring the best possible information during COVID-19 through safe data collection.

    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. To access these data by local authority, please see the Migration Observatory’s Local Data Guide, Figure 8: NINo registrations by nationality and UK local authority.

For the first time since 2006, a majority of people migrating to the UK for work in 2019 were non-EU citizens

In 2019, 170,000 non-British citizens moved to the UK for at least a year to work, according to ONS estimates. This made up 34% of all long-term migration to the UK for work, study, family and other reasons.

The majority (56%, 95,000) of this cohort were non-EU citizens, as opposed to EU citizens (76,000), the first time this has happened since 2006, when 100,000 non-EU and 83,000 EU citizens moved to the UK for work. Between 2007 and 2019, nearly two-thirds of long-term non-British immigrants who said that work was their main reason for moving to the UK were EU citizens. After the June 2016 referendum, there was a sharp decline in long-term EU migration, and this included migration for work (Figure 1). The 2019 data mark a return to the experience of the late 1990s through to the mid 2000s, when work migrants were more likely to be from non-EU countries.

Figure 1

Work is the most important driver of EU migration. In 2019, 48% of EU citizens coming to the UK for at least a year said that work was their main motivation, compared to 27% of non-EU citizens. Non-EU citizens are more likely to come to the UK to study – 50% in 2019 – though student visas often allow their holder to do part time work too. In 2019, 27% of non-EU long-term migrants said they were moving for work, while 50% said they were moving for study – though student visas often allow their holder to do part time work too. The Migration Observatory briefing, International 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. For more information, please see the Migration Observatory briefing, Where do migrants live in the UK?

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 (For more detail, see the Migration Observatory briefing Migrants in the UK Labour Market: An Overview). This is in part because free movement has allowed EU citizens to work in any occupation while non-EU citizens have had to qualify for work visas that often have skill requirements. The introductions of skills and salary restrictions on EU workers after Brexit can be expected to reduce the share of EU workers in lower skilled jobs over time. However, not all non-EU migrants working in the UK would be classified as labour migrants – some will have come as family members, refugees or students. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the importance of some ‘lower-skilled’ roles in UK society. For specific information about migrant key workers in the UK, please see the Migration Observatory report, Locking out the keys? Migrant key workers and post-Brexit immigration policies.

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Skilled workers sponsored by their employers received the largest numbers of work visas in 2019, with 64,000 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 2019, these skilled sponsored workers made up 46% of all work visas issued (Figure 2). A majority (57%) of Tier 2 work visas granted in 2019 were general work visas, rather than intracompany transfers – the first time this has happened since Tier 2 visas were introduced in 2008.

The next largest category is Tier 5, which provides temporary visas for a range of purposes: 41,000 visas or 30% of work visas in 2019. Just under half these visas (20,000) were issued under the Youth Mobility Scheme (YMS) in 2019. YMS visa holders can work in any occupation so will include people in a range of skilled and less skilled positions.

Figure 2

Tier 1 and Appendix W, which includes investors, entrepreneurs and people considered global leaders in their field, made up 2,800 or 2% of the 137,800 work visas issued in 2019. The largest category in Tier 1 and Appendix W is entrepreneurs (1,200 in 2019), followed by exceptional talent (800). 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. Fewer than 300 visas were issued for Appendix W categories in 2019.

Most of the ‘non-PBS’ visas were for domestic workers in private households: 21,100 in 2019. 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 six months.

At the end of 2019, an estimated 357,400 non-EU citizens (including dependents) held valid skilled sponsored work visas (Tier 2) and did not have permanent settlement rights in the UK. There were also 55,000 temporary Tier 5 visa holders with valid visas, as well as 37,600 investors, entrepreneurs, and others on Tier 1 visas (Home Office migrant journey data, Table MJ_D01).

The Home Office reported that visa applications and decisions have fallen across all types of visa categories since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions in the UK (Home Office, 2020).

Some international students stay on to work, but the vast majority do not

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. Roughly 6,300 non-EU citizens switched from a student visa to a skilled sponsored work visa in 2018 (full year 2019 data unavailable at time of publication). In September 2019, the government announced that international students graduating from UK higher education starting in the academic year 2020/21 would be able to stay on in the UK to look for and take on work at any skill and salary level for a maximum of two years before requiring another visa such as Tier 2.

Figure 3

Most international students from non-EU countries do not currently remain in the UK to work after their studies, however. Data from 2014 to 2018 suggest that less than 5% of students and their dependants on Tier 4 visas transition from study to work visas on average. Likewise, among the 171,900 issued an initial study visa in 2014, 17% had permission to stay in the UK around five years later, at the end of 2019. Around 10% (16,800) were still on study visas, 4% (6,500) held work visas, and just over 0.1% (200) had citizenship or settlement. Nearly all of those without permission to remain appear to have left the UK, according to exit checks data (Home Office, 2019a; 2019b). For more information on international students, see the Migration Observatory briefing, International Student Migration to the UK.

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The number of skilled non-EU workers sponsored by employers increased between 2015 and 2019, 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).

Until 2019, a majority of skilled employer-sponsored workers were people being transferred from an overseas office of the same firm, known as intracompany transfers. This route has typically been 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 8,800 or 25% between 2016 and 2019, while Tier 2 (general) work visas nearly doubled over the same period.

The number of new hires coming to the UK on skilled Tier 2 (general) work visas grew steadily from 2012 to 2019 (Figure 4). This coincided with falling unemployment as the UK economy recovered from the late 2000s financial crisis. Increases in 2018 and 2019 were 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. For more information, please see the Migration Observatory commentary, Accident and Emergency? The Move to Exempt Doctors and Nurses from the Tier 2 Cap.

Figure 4

More than half of skilled sponsored workers in the first three quarters of 2019 (Q4 2019 data unavailable at time of publication) were in two industries: IT and, increasingly, health and social work (Figure 5). Of the 49,000 skilled sponsored workers issued entry visas over this period, 31% were in the IT industry and 25% were in health and social work. The number of skilled workers sponsored by healthcare employers more than tripled, from 3,500 in full-year 2015 to 12,300 in the first three quarters of 2019 alone, whereas numbers in IT and other industries have slightly declined in recent years. In fact, the healthcare industry accounts for nearly all of the increase in Tier 2 workers between 2015 and Q3 2019. In Q3 2019 alone, Tier 2 visas for health and social workers (5,200) outstripped those for IT workers (4,900) for the first time in any quarter, accounting for an all time high of 25% of Tier 2 visas.

Figure 5

Nurses were 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?

An estimated 81% of workers in the health sector and 65% of workers in social work and residential care in 2019 would have met the criteria to be considered ‘key’ or ‘essential’ workers during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis. Although non-EU born workers represent about 10% of the labour force in the UK, they are over-represented among key workers in occupations such as health professionals (23%), nurses and midwives (19%) and care jobs (16%). For more information about the role migrants have played in the UK throughout the Covid-19 crisis and the potential impact of proposed post-Brexit immigration system on the eligibility for key workers to move to the UK to work, please see the Migration Observatory commentary, Locking out the keys? Migrant key workers and post-Brexit immigration policies.

Until the end of free movement, 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 that happens to permit work (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. For more information about the government’s proposed post-Brexit points based immigration system, see the Migration Observatory commentary, Q&A: The UK’s new points-based immigration system 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 2019, 76% of work visas issued to non-EU citizens in 2014 had expired (main applicants and dependants). This means that the person had not stayed on with a different visa and had not received permanent settlement or citizenship. In comparison, 66% of work visas issued in 2004 had expired by the end of 2009. Among people issued work visas, investors, entrepreneurs and those considered global leaders in their field are most likely to have permission to remain in the UK after five years – in 2019, 74% of those issued Tier 1 visas in 2014 (Figure 6). Although men received 27% more Tier 2 visas in 2014, women were more likely (31%) than men (23%) to still have permission to remain in the UK five years later. Across all work categories, women and men received roughly the same number of visas (69,000 and 67,900, respectively) and women had a slightly higher chance than men (26% and 22%, respectively) of remaining in the UK five years later  (Home Office migrant journey data, age and sex summary table MJ_04, includes dependants).

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.

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 while there is significant short-term migration for work among EU citizens, it is on the decline. In the year ending June 2018, EU citizens made an estimated 88,000 short-term trips of 1-12 months for employment, down by about one-third from the previous year (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 2019

Among migrant workers employed and self-employed in the UK in 2019, an estimated 2,483,000 (42%) were born in EU countries and 3,393,000 (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 2019, 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 (53% or 535,000 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 entrepreneurs, exceptional talent and investors. Indian nationals dominate the Tier 2 skilled employee visa category, receiving 67% of intracompany transfer visas in 2019. Just under half of Youth Mobility visas went to Australian citizens in the same year. Overall, Indian citizens received 27% of work visas in 2019.

Figure 7

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.

Covid-19 has had a striking impact on immigration to the UK and the UK’s capacity to measure it, both of which will further impair analysis of the effects of the post-Brexit immigration system.

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, which has been suspended indefinitely because of Covid-19), 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. This report was also made possible by the University of Oxford Social Science Division’s Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Impacts of Covid-19 – Urgent Response Fund.


  • Brokenshire, James. 2016. Written ministerial statement: HCWS660. Available online.
  • Fernandez-Reino, Marina and Reinzo, Cinzia. 2019. Migrants in the UK Labour Market: an overview. Migration Observatory. Available online.
  • Home Office. 2011. Government looks to break link between temporary and permanent migration. Press release, 9 June 2011. Available online.
  • Home Office. 2019a. Fourth report on statistics being collected under the exit checks programme. Available online.
  • Home Office. 2019b. User guide to the Home Office statistics on exit checks (user guide for “Fourth report on statistics being collected under the exit checks programme”). Available online.
  • Home Office. 2020. Statistics relating to COVID-19 and the immigration system, May 2020: Official Statistics. Available online.
  • HM Government. 2020. The UK’s points-based immigration system: policy statement. London: HM Government. Available online.
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