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Tier 2 Visas: 5 Top Tips for International Students

As an immigration solicitor in Leeds, a city with a high student population, I am often asked the following questions:

  • How do I switch from my Tier 4 Student Visa to a Tier 2 Visa?
  • Are any other Visa categories available after I graduate?

Since the abolition of the Post-Study Work Visa in 2012, it’s far harder for international students to obtain a Visa which allows them to work in the UK after their studies, and most will have to obtain suitable employer sponsorship (and then a Visa) under the Tier 2 General category.

Below are my five top tips to help you secure a Tier 2 Visa or an alternative immigration route.

In addition, with a periodic overhaul of the immigration system coming up soon (the life of an immigration solicitor is never dull) what its liberalising changes will mean for you.

But first, why is it so hard to obtain a Tier 2 Visa?

The Barriers to Tier 2

The overriding barrier that students face when seeking a Tier 2 Sponsor is that the employer must hold a Sponsor Licence before it can even consider hiring a non-EU migrant.

There are around 1.4m employers in the UK but only around 28k hold Tier 2 Licences; which instantly takes the vast majority of businesses off the radar of those seeking Tier 2 Sponsorship.

In addition, there are rules which govern the types of jobs which are capable of sponsorship under Tier 2 (e.g. jobs must be classified at degree level or above unless the job is on the shortage occupation list).

As we explore below, there are also ‘appropriate rates of pay’ associated with each job classification, with different levels depending on whether the migrant is classed as an ‘experienced worker’ or a ‘new entrant’. There are also general minimum salary thresholds.

To top it off, international students face a race against time to secure sponsorship. For example, most students will be granted visas which expire four months after their course finishes; leaving little time to secure a job.

The hurdles which international students face when seeking sponsorship can be daunting.  However, they are not insurmountable and you can make the process more manageable by following these tips.

  1. Check the register of Tier 2 Licence Holders

You might be someone whose sheer force of personality can compel a company to apply for a Licence simply to retain you (this might happen if you have previously been working for the company under your Tier 4 Student Visa).

However, if this is not the case, time is precious and you could waste time applying to companies who don’t hold a Sponsor Licence.

Therefore I would advise looking at which companies already have a Licence in place, by referring to the Home Office’s Register of Sponsors, which is regularly updated. At the time of writing, there is also a helpful website which allows you to interrogate the website so that, for example, you can search by location.

  1. Apply for work (and work experience) early

Before being able to ‘switch’ into Tier 2, you must have completed your course. According to the Home Office, this means you have ‘taken all exams and handed in all dissertation work’, which makes starting your job hunt after you have completed your studies nearly impossible.

Therefore you need to look for jobs as early as possible.

Given the importance of work experience, work placements will also need to be sought as early as possible and ideally with employers on the Tier 2 Register (so you can convert that work placement into a job offer!).

Students switching into Tier 2 exempt their employer from having to run the laborious Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT), so employers with a Sponsor Licence tend to be more disposed towards hiring students rather than other non-EU migrants.

  1. Know the minimum salary levels

You need to understand the various minimum salary levels in force and be confident that any potential job is remunerated accordingly.

What the Home Office call ‘appropriate rates of pay’ are minimum salary levels specific to any job and there are different levels for ‘new entrants’ or ‘experienced workers’.

Most students applying to switch into Tier 2 will be classified as a new entrant, which means a lower appropriate rate of pay will apply compared to an experienced worker.

This makes international students a more attractive proposition for would be employers.  For example, for the position of web designer the appropriate rate of pay for a new entrant is £19,500 compared to £25,700 for an experienced worker.

However, in addition to the appropriate rate of pay there are also ‘general minimum salary thresholds’ which apply across the board: £20,800 for a new entrant and £30,000 for an experienced worker. The employer must pay whichever is the higher of the appropriate rate of pay or the general minimum salary threshold.

So, using this example again, for a new entrant the general minimum salary threshold of £20,800 is higher than the associated rate of pay of £19,500. Therefore a student switching into Tier 2 must be paid at least £20,800.

However, this doesn’t mean that international students get the easier new entrant category through to Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR). In fact, you can only be a new entrant for up to three years, after which point you will be classed as an experienced worker.

Given there is a minimum five year route to ILR, this means that Tier 2 migrants are going to cross the threshold into ‘experienced’ workers long before hitting eligibility for ILR.

Students should also be aware that in order to qualify for settlement on the basis of their Tier 2 Leave, there is a separate minimum earnings threshold for settlement. This is currently £35,500 but will rise to £40,100 if applying for settlement on or after 6 April 2024.

Therefore, if you see a job as a web developer on offer for £21,000, you might give serious thought as to how sustainable this job will be going forwards in terms of visa sponsorship.

Firstly, after three years you would become an experienced worker and would need to be paid at least £30,000.

Secondly when it comes to ILR, after five years the job will need to be paying £40,100 (although you could delay your ILR Application by one year, six years is the maximum period of time you can spend in the Tier 2 General category).

Therefore, if you want to settle permanently in the UK then you need to give serious forethought to these minimum income levels.

  1. Look for other available routes

Check if a Visa in one of the routes below is available (all of which a student can ‘switch’ into from within the UK):

Exceptional Talent

This under-utilised category is for individuals working in science, engineering, humanities, medicine, digital technology, the arts, fashion, architecture, or film and television.

You would need to be endorsed by one of five Designated Competent Bodies, such as Arts Council England.

As a student you could also receive an endorsement as an Emerging Leader in your field and qualify on the basis of Exceptional Promise, rather than fully-fledged Exceptional Talent.

Successful applicants receive five years’ leave and can work for any employer.


This new route is for individuals seeking to start a new business in the UK for the first time.  There is no requirement to have secured initial funding but you will need an endorsement from a university (or an approved business sponsor).

Successful applicants are granted two years’ leave which is the maximum time which can be spent in this category. However, if the business does well then you could apply for leave as an Innovator, a visa category which leads to ILR.

Partner-based Visas

If you are in a relationship with someone who already has a right to be in the UK, for example, a British or EU national, or someone with ILR or Temporary Leave to Remain, then you might be able to stay in the UK on the basis of your relationship, even if you’re not married.

As a guide, if you aren’t married then you will need to have cohabited with your partner for at least two years. If you can stay in the UK on this basis then there could be a path to ILR not restricted by your employment.

UK Ancestry Visas

If you are from a Commonwealth country and have a grandparent born in the UK, then you are could be eligible to apply for a UK Ancestry Visa. Successful applicants are granted five years’ leave and can work for any employer.

  1. Everything changes in 2021!

Have you read this far without seeing a path to long-term UK residence? Then there may still be hope for those who graduate after 1 January 2021, with the following changes set to take effect.

Firstly, students will be granted an increased period of six months’ leave to remain after their course finishes, thus giving students greater wriggle room to find employment. PhD students will be granted 12 months leave.

Secondly, students will be classed as new entrants for up to two years even if applying from abroad. This means that students will no longer have to ‘switch’ from within the UK in order to benefit from access to jobs with a lower salary level.

The general minimum salary thresholds are also going to be reviewed, and one hopes the current level for experienced workers of £30,000 will come down.

There are also more general changes, not specific to students, which will make the new system more desirable for employers and individuals alike such as: the abolition of the RLMT and monthly cap; and a lowering of the minimum skill level from RQF Level 6 to 3.

These changes are likely to increase the number of employers looking to recruit non-EU nationals which will only serve to benefit international students.


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