UK Visas & Immigration ("UKVI") has recently announced a number of changes to the UK's immigration rules. Most of these changes will take effect from 6 April 2015 and will apply to new applications or extensions of existing visas made on or after that date. Existing visas and applications submitted prior to 6 April will be subject to the existing visa rules.

Below we concentrate on the changes which will have the greatest impact on corporate employers and their employees. If you are interested in the changes which will affect High Net Worth individuals please follow this link to a separate e-alert on that topic.

Changes to visa approval process for overseas applicants

  • From 6 April 2015 the entry clearance application process will change for all visa applicants who are applying for a visa of more than 6 months from outside the UK.  To comply with European Regulations, over the next four months to July 2015 the UK is rolling out biometric visa approvals for all overseas visa applicants. There is a country by country phased implementation but once it has gone live, the successful applicant will be issued with a decision letter and their passport will be endorsed with a 30 day temporary visa running from their notified date of travel which permits them to enter the UK. Upon arrival in the UK the individual will have 10 days in which to collect a Biometric Identity Document (BID) containing their visa from a specified Post Office location.  If the BID is not collected within this time frame the visa may be cancelled.

Comment – Whilst this change to the visa approval process will not increase the visa application costs, it does add another hurdle to the process. Employers will need to consider the impact of the change in process on their "right to work" checks. The current Home Office guidance states that a valid right to work check can be carried out by viewing the temporary visa before UK work commences. However employers will also need to take copies of the original BID for their files prior to the temporary visa expiring which will increase the HR team's work. Alternatively employees could be required to collect the BID before they start work.

Tier 2

  • The Tier 2 General immigration cap will remain at 20,700 for the 12 month period starting on 6 April 2015. However, the monthly Restricted Certificate of Sponsorship (RCoS) allocation will be rebalanced so that UKVI will approve up to 2,550 RCoS in April 2015 and up to 1,650 in each subsequent month to March 2016. Any spare certificates that are not allocated can still be rolled over to the following month.

Comment – With the recent upsurge in UK recruitment levels, in the last few months the demand for RCoS allocation has exceeded the monthly allocated limit. Once the limit is reached, UKVI awards allocations using a points scoring assessment based on the nature of the role and salary for the role (higher salaries score more points). If the current recruitment trends continue, it may prove more difficult to obtain Tier 2 General Restricted visas for lower paid migrants (especially those paid at or just above the minimum rate for the visa) in the future.

  • UKVI is updating the minimum salary rates in the Codes of Practice from 6 April 2015. Any RCoS allocated at the panel meetings in January, February or March 2015 will need to be assigned by 5 April 2015, otherwise the salary will need to be in line with the increased salaries in the new Codes of Practice. To accommodate the change in the salaries, applications for consideration in the April panel meeting must be made by 7 April.

Comment – if roles have been advertised at the minimum permitted salary level under the applicable Code of Practice, employers should assign their CoS before 5 April or they may need to advertise again before applying for a fresh RCoS for the role.

  • UKVI is increasing all applicable minimum salaries and thresholds for new Tier 2 applications:

Click here to view the table.

  • UKVI is removing the 12 month cooling off period for Tier 2 visas issued for up to 3 months. 

Comment – This will allow employers to transfer employees to the UK for a short assignment or internship without invoking the cooling off period which might prevent them from returning to the UK for a longer assignment at a later date. This could be particularly useful given the costs of the NHS surcharge (see below).

  • From 6 April 2015 all Tier 2 in country applications will be prepared using online forms rather than hard copy forms.

Visitor visas

  • As set out in February's edition of Law at Work UKVI has introduced new rules consolidating the visitor visa guidance with effect from 24 April 2015. These changes will condense the existing 15 routes into 4 routes covering visit (standard), marriage / civil partnership, permitted paid engagements and transits. Visit (standard) will incorporate the current business visitor and tourist visa categories. Examples of new permitted activities that visitors can perform include:
    • overseas trainers to deliver training to UK based employees of a multinational company, where the training is part of a contract to deliver global training to the international offices;
    • overseas lawyers can advise a UK client on international transactions and litigation, provided they remain employed and paid overseas.
  • Applications for visitor visas for visa nationals or for visas lasting for more than 6 months must still be submitted outside of the UK prior to travel.

Comment - UK Border Control is increasingly assessing whether those individuals travelling to the UK under the visitor category are genuine visitors or are actually trying to circumvent the immigration rules. More travellers are being challenged on entry, so advice should be taken before travel as to whether this route is the most appropriate one for your employees.

Other changes 

  • It has been announced that UKVI are introducing a National Health Service surcharge which will apply to most visa applicants coming to the UK for more than 6 months, although it will not apply to Tier 2 Intra Company Transfer applicants or their family members. It was scheduled to be introduced from 6 April 2015 but we are still waiting for confirmation of when it will take effect. The surcharge will be set at a level of £200 per applicant (£150 for Tier 4 students) for each year of the issued visa (e.g. for a family of 4 applying for a five year Tier 2 General visa the surcharge will be £4,000).  It will be paid at the time of the initial visa application.

Comment – this surcharge will still apply even where comprehensive medical insurance is held. It is likely that visa applicants will look to their sponsors to pick up the cost of the surcharge which will increase employer recruitment costs significantly, especially where a family is transferring to the UK on a long term basis.

  • UK visa application fees will increase from 6 April 2015.
  • UKVI have reviewed the language tests which they consider eligible to meet the mandatory English language requirements for certain types of visa applications and has removed some test providers, leaving only two providers on the list. The new list will be introduced from 6 April 2015 and can be found here. Applicants should ensure that, if they sit a test after 6 April 2015, it appears on this list. Tests passed before 6 April 2015 with an existing approved provider will remain eligible until 5 November 2015 under transitional arrangements.
  • As highlighted in last year's immigration roundup, from 6 April 2015 the Tier 1 General route will be closed to extension applications. Holders of Tier 1 General visas will still be permitted to apply for indefinite leave to remain in the UK until 6 April 2018, subject to satisfying the qualifying criteria. Any Tier 1 General visa holders that do not meet the criteria – for example because UK absences are too high - will need to switch into a different visa category before their current visa expires.