June 29, 2021

Preparing for U.K. Inbound Mobilization

The U.K. immigration system requires any EU national coming to the United Kingdom for work to have a visa, regardless of whether the employee intends to stay for 3 months or 3 years. Unlike some of the systems found in other countries, it doesn’t provide for work visa exemptions for most types of professional activities and engagements.

To secure a Skilled Worker or Intra-company visa, an organization needs to have a U.K. sponsoring entity, licensed by the U.K. government.

When the British government published its most recent figures for the number of U.K. licensed sponsors, the data suggests that many organizations may not yet be fully prepared to meet the new requirements of the post-Brexit immigration landscape.

The data show that in the period spanning the third quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2021 – the quarter immediately following the June 23, 2016 Brexit referendum and the latest reported quarter – the number of U.K. licensed sponsors increased by 12%, equivalent to 3,348 licenses. A relatively small number, given the scope of change ushered in by Brexit. There are a variety of reasons why license uptake may not have been higher over this period, including a lack of clarity over the form Brexit would take in the intervening years between the vote for the U.K. to leave the European Union and the timing of the implementation of the new U.K. immigration system announced towards the end of 2020. It is perhaps unsurprising that roughly half of the increase in licensed sponsors occurred in the first quarter of 2021. The 6% jump from the last quarter of 2020 represents the largest quarter-over-quarter increase in licensed sponsors in any reported period in the seven years between 2014 and 2021. Although the global health crisis will undoubtedly have had an impact on the imperative for businesses to apply for licenses and the government’s efficiency at processing them, it is still somewhat surprising that there has not been a greater surge. As business travel resumes and pent-up demand for international assignments flows through the system, it is vital that organizations have a clear understanding of the U.K. immigration system, which of their entities hold sponsor licenses and which are most likely to need to secure one in the near future.


Some organizations without a licensed sponsoring entity in place have been caught out by this post-Brexit requirement, and are having to create new or leverage linked entities, such as a client organization, to be able to successfully navigate the system.

Global mobility would be well advised to work with stakeholders to look at the business structure and to ensure that it has a clear strategy for managing future mobility into the U.K.


EU nationals are of course permitted to enter the U.K. as visitors. However, permissible activities under this entry type are limited; for example, attending meetings or conducting intra-corporate activities. Limited remote working can be conducted while in the U.K. as a visitor, but it should not be the main purpose of the visit to the U.K.

With the pandemic suppressing business travel, it is highly likely that many organizations have not fully taken account of the implications of the end of the freedom of movement rights U.K. and EU nationals enjoyed before Brexit and have not adjusted their practices accordingly. As business travel starts up again, Sterling Lexicon's Head of Immigration, Leanne Cottrell, feels that it is only a matter of time before some organizations may be caught off-guard, particularly given that robust border and work site checks are anticipated in the foreseeable future. Global mobility can assist in ensuring that the organization has compliant business travel processes in place and that communication is widely and frequently disseminated across the business.

Ongoing advancements in digital border enforcement will confer an ever-increasing burden on organizations to ensure compliance for business travelers, international assignees and international new hires.

Efforts such as the EU’s electronic, pre-travel authorization process known as the ETIAS scheme, anticipated to be fully operational by 2022, in addition to the existing Entry-Exit System are working to streamline the process for travelers, enhance automated border checks and security, and give authorities greater visibility into traveler status, making it easier to detect identify fraud or individuals who over-stay their eligible visa time period.

For its part, the U.K. government has recently published a policy paper setting out its digital border proposals which include the introduction of an equivalent ESTA/ETIAS electronic travel authorization (ETA) which all visitors will be required to apply for at least 48 hours prior to arrival. The paper states the government’s intent to “significantly increase the use of automation, in particular ensuring that the majority of all arrivals to the main U.K. ports will pass through some form of contactless corridor or automated gates for identity and security checks”. Among the measures which will provide a freer flow of people through passport control is the greater use of facial recognition technology similar to measures currently being trialed in the UAE, although this is unlikely to be fully operational in the U.K. until 2025.

Monitoring Costs

The changes to the immigration system introduced by the U.K. government in 2020, particularly the removal of the resident market labor test, have been broadly welcomed from a simplification perspective. There is no avoiding, however, the new and significant costs to businesses to bring employees into the U.K. for the purpose of work. Global mobility professionals should keep a wary eye out for the possibility of further changes to the system which could incrementally add to those costs. Recent reports indicate that the U.K. government is giving consideration to withdrawing from the European Social Charter, for example, which entitles citizens of 26 countries (mostly EU member states but also includes Turkey and North Macedonia) to a discount of £55 on application fees for most work visas and an exemption from the £199 sponsorship fee for employers. While a single fee for all visa applicants would further simplify the system, there is the potential for higher costs for some sectors.

Sterling Lexicon’s guidance to organizations and global mobility teams is that a step-change is required in both mindset and record keeping to achieve immigration compliance and keep pace with the changes on the horizon. Global mobility is ideally positioned to support organizations in identifying and implementing the unique and necessary changes to enable compliant talent mobility in the future.

If you would like to learn more about U.K. sponsorship licenses, or intra-U.K. and EU movement for work, contact our immigration experts.


Stuart Jackson

Stuart Jackson

As Account Director at Sterling Lexicon, Stuart focuses on working with clients to optimize their global mobility solutions. Stuart has worked in global mobility for 19 years. His broad experience of working with different program sizes across a variety of industry sectors helps to bring success to clients' programs and wider business strategies. If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article or learn more about Sterling Lexicon, please do not hesitate to contact Stuart Jackson at stuart.jackson@sterlinglexicon.com.

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