Despite the UK Government’s widespread tightening of immigration policies, the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa criteria have recently been relaxed for tech start-ups.

Since billion dollar internet companies can theoretically be based anywhere, it’s vital the UK offers an attractive proposition for start-ups. Countries like Australia, Canada and Chile have already recognised the tax revenue on offer and relaxed their own immigration rules for start-up companies to set up there.

It seems however that UK start-ups are failing to take advantage of the visa opportunities exclusively available to them.

What is the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, and how can start-ups make use of it to meet their talent needs?

Limited applications

Of the 1000 Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visas granted each year, 200 are reserved for the tech industry. To put that in context, there are about 50,000 Tier 2 visas granted.

The tech sector argues this figure falls far short of what is needed, yet the Government has reported that the limit has never come close to being reached.

Tech City UK, the UK’s government-funded organisation, has the exclusive power to endorse tech talent from outside of the EEA to apply for a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa.

On 22 January 2016, it was reported that Tech City UK had received only 37 applications since the previous April. Twenty-eight had been endorsed.

So it appears there is room for more start-ups to take advantage of this relatively relaxed visa option.

How the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa works

The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa, as the name suggests, is aimed at those who are considered to be exceptionally talented individuals outside of the EEA, in fields of science, humanities, engineering, the arts and digital technology.

The Royal Society, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering, Arts Council England and Tech City UK are mandated to identify and endorse ‘exceptional talent’ in each of these areas.

Visas are granted for a maximum of five years, after which an applicant can apply for settlement.

On this visa, a person may be employed or self employed, work for any employer and take up employment in any sector at any level. Although, if they wish to extend leave or apply for settlement, they will need to demonstrate that they have worked in their field of speciality.

Dependants can also accompany the applicant if they meet the relevant requirements.

Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa Application Process

There is a two-stage application process. First, apply to Tech City for endorsement. Then make an application to the Home Office for a visa.

Stage 1 – Endorsement Criteria

Mandatory Criteria (must meet at least one of two):

  • A proven track record of innovation working in the digital technology sector as director or founder of a digital technology sector company, or an employee working in a new digital field or concept; or
  • Proof of recognition for work outside of your immediate occupation that has contributed to the advancement of the sector (e.g. by mentoring, advising, teaching or participating in clubs and societies).

Qualifying Criteria (must meet at least two of four):

  • Significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contribution in the digital technology sector as either an entrepreneur, director, or founder of a digital technology company;
  • Recognised as a world leading talent in the digital technology sector;
  • Undergone continuous learning / mastery of new digital skills (commercial or technical) throughout your career;
  • Demonstrated exceptional ability in the field by making academic contributions through research (e.g. journals or awards).

If an applicant cannot meet the qualifying and/or mandatory criteria, but has evidence demonstrating potential to do so in the future, they can apply as a candidate with exceptional promise.

If an applicant disagrees with a decision to refuse endorsement, there is a review process in place.

Fast Track Applications

There are also opportunities to fast track applications where:

  1. Applicants are planning to make a contribution in Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Sunderland.
  2. Applicants have specific skills that are particularly in need in the UK.
  3. Applicants are part of a team of five or more (this allows UK start-ups to poach entire teams from abroad. Each of the individuals in the team must qualify in their own right).

It may also be possible to make an application for endorsement through the Royal Academy of Engineering for engineers with ICT or electronic skills.

Stage 2 – Immigration Application

After receiving endorsement, the Home Office must consider whether there are any general grounds for refusal.

Interestingly, the usual requirements of maintenance and sufficient English language do not apply to this visa.

Given the small number of applicants, the high endorsement rate and the relaxed criteria for those with “potential”, this visa offers a genuine opportunity for UK start-ups to recruit talent from abroad.

In an industry filled with innovative people, it surely won’t be long before this little known visa becomes oversubscribed.