What has changed?

In December 2013 David Cameron announced a new visa route for IT workers in the UK. As of April 2014, the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa stream would be amended to allow some IT workers of exceptional talent to apply for UK visas.

Why the need for reform?

Many companies with any major IT function or requirement have experienced difficulty in recruiting skilled workers because of strict immigration policies in the UK. The Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa was introduced in 2011 by the UK's coalition government as a partial replacement for the Tier 1 (General) visa which allowed 'highly skilled migrants' to come to live and work in the UK. This new visa route allows up to 1,000 foreign nationals of 'exceptional talent' to come to the UK each year. They do not have to have a job offer before they come nor do they need a sponsor. However, they must obtain the endorsement of a 'Designated Competent Body' (DCB).

Since 2011, there have been only four DCBs; The British Academy, The Royal Society, The Royal Academy of Engineering and the Arts Council England.  The government has now designated a fifth DCB, Tech City UK, the organisation founded by the government in 2010 to support and foster tech businesses.

In order to qualify for the tech visa, exceptionally talented programmers will need the endorsement of Tech City UK. Tech City's role, therefore, is to advise the Home Office on what constitutes exceptional talent in digital technology. It will not be able to endorse applications unless the applicant is internationally recognised and considered to be a world leading talent – endorsed as a top innovator and professional in their field.

That's all very well – but what exactly qualifies as a 'top innovator'?

To demonstrate Exceptional Talent within the field of digital technology the applicant must meet the following criteria:

Mandatory Criteria – He/she must:

  • Have a proven track record of innovation in the digital technology sector as either:
    • A director or founder of a digital technology sector company; or
    • An employee within the digital technology sector
  • Provide a dated letter of recommendation from a recognised UK based expert who is familiar with the applicants work and contribution to their field.

Qualifying Criteria – He/she must meet two of the following:

  • Have led in the development of new or leading-edge technology;
  • Have had significant commercial success in the digital technology sector;
  • Have received or been nominated for a prestigious internationally recognised prize in the digital technology sector; and/or
  • Have been recognised as a world leading talent in the digital technology sector.


The following examples indicate the type of evidence that could be assessed by Tech City UK when looking at the mandatory and qualifying criteria. These examples are not exhaustive and alternative evidence can be supplied to demonstrate the applicant meets the relevant criteria.

1. Examples of Authoritative Contributions via award, speaking engagements, or authorship.

  • Have won or been nominated for a nationally or internationally recognised Tech Award;
  • Has been a keynote speaker at a global digital technology conference; and/or
  • Has authored a well-reviewed book on digital technology or on programming or published material in a professional or major trade publication which shall include the title, date and author of such published material and any necessary translation.

It remains for Tech City UK to judge whether a particular award provides appropriate evidence of Exceptional Talent.

2. Proof of experience in a digital technology business as:

  • An Executive level employee with shares in the company;
  • An employee with distinguished reputations in their field; and/or
  • A Founder with shares in a company. Examples of evidence could include, publicity releases, publications, contract or endorsements or letters of recommendation from senior executives in the applicant’s field.

3. Proof of Technical Contributions

  • Evidence you are a maintainer of a major open source project;
  • Demonstration of product or application development or design with distinguished reputations as shown by critical reviews, ads, publicity releases, publications, contract or endorsements; and/or
  • Evidence of contribution to patents.

Local Thoughts

Steve Orr, Director, NISP CONNECT at Northern Ireland Science Park CONNECT recognises the progress made by the latest development and the real benefit for NI businesses: 'When scaling a digital technology company, the ability to attract the best and brightest talent at the required moment to stay on that growth path is essential. Tech City UK has collaborated with government and colleagues from across the tech community to develop immigration criteria that will help open the UK to exceptional tech talent. This is good news for digital business builders and good news for the UK economy.'

In real and practical terms, how will this assist NI businesses?

It may be that the criteria set for those computer specialists who wish to apply for endorsement could present a problem. Indeed, NI businesses who wish to gain from the individual's skill set might find that in spite of his/her wealth of experience, a lack of academic qualification or 'proof on paper' presents an almost impossible hurdle to overcome. Commentary on the new route suggests that some of the most successful tech entrepreneurs may not meet the required standards, proposing this on the basis that the two most illustrious specialists in the field, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, were 'college dropouts'. For NI businesses however, as much as they might like to find the next Gates or Jobs, they could find that as academic qualification becomes more prevalent and indeed a more achievable, realistic prospect for many, the criteria imposed, in turn, become more realisable. Thus many more successful applications may be attained and skills brought to our businesses, whether those entities be solely tech related or those with an IT function or need as one part of their business, fundamental in achieving their strategic objectives and goals.

Also, in light of the somewhat negative commentary from both immigration law specialists and business owners, the government may choose to modify the criteria currently imposed in the not too distant future, as a result of both feedback and perhaps the number of successful applications (or unsuccessful as in fact the case may be) made in the first year of existence.

For those NI entities who feel that this reform could have direct effect on their business skill set and indeed that the criteria set are set for a reason i.e. to attract the best and the brightest in IT talent to our business sector,  this just might be the opportunity we have been waiting for.

Key Facts for an applicant

  • Application for an endorsement can be made up to 3 months before date of travel to the UK.
  • The UK border agency estimates that an applicant will receive a response within 3 weeks of lodging an endorsement application, the response to the subsequent visa application within 8 weeks.
  • Fees - £437 for endorsement application and £437 for visa application.
  • A successful applicant can stay in the UK for 3 years and 4 months.
  • A Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa can be extended beyond 3 years 4 months for up to 2 years.