UK immigration routes for South African businesses

Whether you are starting a new business or expanding an existing business into Britain, there are a range of business immigration visas you can use, including the UK Start-up visa, the UK Innovator visa and the newly introduced Global Business Mobility visa route.

Darren Faife, MD of Business Immigration at Sable International, advices on the latest UK business visa options and requirements.

The UK’s new Global Business Mobility visa

The UK government has recently published changes to its immigration rules, introducing the Global Business Mobility visa. When announcing the route, the Home Office admitted that “immigration routes that may once have worked for business, no longer do; they have not evolved in tandem with businesses”.

The Global Business Mobility visa, which came into force in April 2022, provides new solutions for overseas firms transferring staff to the UK. It offers five pathways for overseas firms to establish a UK footprint or transfer staff to the UK:

  1. Senior or specialist worker – to meet specific business needs
  2. Graduate trainee – as part of a training programme
  3. Secondment worker – to UK firms in high-value contracts or investments
  4. Service supplier – to the UK in line with UK trade agreements
  5. UK expansion worker – to establish a UK presence

The first three are options for firms with a UK presence, the last two are for firms with no UK presence. However, secondments will be an option for both. The worker will require sponsorship in all cases.

In practice, the new visa route consolidates the existing intra-company transfer, Intra-Company Graduate Trainee, Representative of an Overseas Business and International Agreement visas.

Of the five pathways, only UK expansion workers and secondments (to use the new terminology) are changing significantly. The route that has changed most in the new rules is the UK expansion worker, which replaces the Sole Representative visa provisions.

Unlike the old Sole Representative visa route, the UK expansion worker visa is not a route to indefinite leave to remain (ILR). It can only be granted for one year at a time, and up to two years in total, before applicants would be required to switch into another route (e.g. Skilled Worker visa).

A UK expansion worker visa will also require sponsorship, unlike the old route, and will have the same minimum salary and skill level requirements as the senior and specialist workers route (formerly Intra-company transfer visa).

Prospective sponsors must not yet be trading in the UK, but must have established a “footprint” by registering the UK branch or subsidiary or by purchasing or leasing premises.

Organisations must also prove they have been trading for at least three years overseas and provide evidence relating to the planned expansion in the UK, including a business plan and evidence that they are able to fund the international expansion.

The “controlling mind” of the business must also remain overseas, meaning that any UK expansion worker must not be a majority shareholder in the overseas business.

UK Start-up visa

The Start-up visa is for entrepreneurs wanting to set up their first UK business and lasts two years.

This visa does not have education or financial requirements, but your business will need to be approved by an endorsing body that will need to confirm that the business idea is new, innovative and viable. After the initial two years, it is not possible to extend this visa, although it is possible to switch to the Innovator visa category if you meet the requirements.

UK Innovator visa

The UK’s Innovator visa allows business people to relocate to the UK provided they have an idea unlike anything in the UK market. An Innovator visa is valid for three years and there is no limit to the number of times you can extend the visa. After three years on this visa, you may apply for ILR, should you meet all the requirements.

Starting a business in the UK

Your first consideration when expressing an interest in setting up in the UK, is to prove your business is legitimate. This process includes:

  • Incorporating the UK entity
  • Creating a UK bank account
  • Registering for the relevant tax such as PAYE, VAT, and corporation tax
  • Registering for auto-enrolment (the UK’s compulsory pension scheme) for qualifying employees

UK Subsidiary or branch: Which business structure?

UK branches and subsidiaries are the most popular methods of business expansion into the UK. There are others – it depends on your unique requirements. Once your business is established, you are ready to hire your first staff member.

You must have a staff member already in place before you can apply for the company’s sponsor licence, as this staff member will need to fill “key personnel” roles as part of the licence application process.

Hiring foreign workers as a UK business

To hire foreign nationals, such as South Africans, to work in the UK, your business needs to register as a licensed sponsor. From here, you can issue a Certificate of Sponsorship which allows the employee in question to apply for a Skilled Worker visa or an Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) visa.

This is where you can be hired by your UK company. After living in the UK for five years on a Skilled Worker visa, you may be eligible for ILR. You may then apply for British citizenship by naturalisation one year after obtaining ILR or immediately after ILR should you be married to a UK citizen.

Ensuring compliance expanding a business into the UK

If you are looking to invest in the UK by way of a business immigration visa, ensure that you get expert support in navigating process, especially regarding UK immigration law and the issues that could lead to non-compliance. The UK government regularly implements policy changes that could have a significant impact on your business.

Sable International tracks all new and proposed regulations and the requirements of the Home Office.

  • By Darren Faife, MD Business Immigration, Sable International

Read: 104 countries you can travel to visa-free on a South African passport – and where there are still travel restrictions

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UK immigration routes for South African businesses