Andrew Humphrey looks at some of the most common questions and conundrums about working with Student immigration permission.
This blog post was fully updated on 1 June 2021, based on an earlier blog post from 2017. The information in it, all references to Immigration Rules and Home Office guidance, and the links to other websites and guidance were all current and accurate on 1 June 2021. If you are reading this blog post after 1 June 2021, please also see our full guide to working during your studies where any changes or updates to the work conditions will be clarified. On the site menu Choose Info & Advice > Working.
People like me who work in the education sector have been mostly or fully working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. We also have opportunities for self-employment and for voluntary work. Plus, the tools of entrepreneurship and e-commerce are at everyone's fingertips these days. For me personally, as well as my job as a freelance adviser and trainer I do some voluntary English teaching for a refugee charity and I am a volunteer tour guide in London's Chinatown, paid in food. So that’s all great for me, but what about you?
In this blog post I break down what the Student work conditions actually say. Then I look at some real-world contemporary examples of work that students may want to do, and how they fit in (or do not fit in) to those work conditions.
First, when I say "Student" I mean someone with permission (a visa) to be in the UK under the Student route, or under the Tier 4 route that it replaced. There are some very tiny differences between the work conditions under Tier 4 and the Student route, but they are so minimal that they are not worth breaking down here. If anything I write about here was different for people with Tier 4 permission compared to those with Student permission, I would say so.
Most Students can work up to 20 hours a week during term time, although some are restricted to 10 hours, and some have a work prohibition. Check your visa vignette or biometric residence permit for your work conditions, and see UKCISA's guide to working during your studies.
If you can work, I'm sure you are keen to maximise your opportunities for paid work, for gaining work experience, and for the other social and cultural benefits of working. But have changes in technology, communications, business practice and work culture in the UK that benefit me also expanded the work you can do?
Yes. And no.
If you need to check whether a specific activity is allowed under your Tier 4 work conditions, it all starts with paragraph 6 of the Immigration Rules which defines "employment" for all types of visa. It says that “employment includes”:
paid and unpaid employment,
paid and unpaid work placements undertaken as part of a course or period of study
engaging in business or any professional activity
That word “includes” allows for other activities to be considered employment. The specific types of employment that a Student can take are listed in the Immigration Rules Appendix Student, paragraphs ST 26.1 to 26.8. This says that you can take “No employment, except…”, followed by a list numbered (1) to (8) of what you can do. These paragraphs confirm that:
“[Paid and unpaid] employment” is fine, within your 20 (or 10) hours per week restriction during term-time, and with no time limit in vacations.
There is a prohibition on working in professional sports including coaching, and on working as an entertainer.
- You can work as a postgraduate doctor or dentist if you are on a recognised Foundation programme.
A work placement “assessed as an integral part of the course” is separate from other employment, so you can do both at the same time.
Being “self-employed” or “engaging in business activity” is not allowed. Being self-employed normally means you are not on the payroll but rather you manage your own workload, pay and tax. If you are doing the work as a freelancer, contractor or consultant you are highly likely to be self-employed. There is guidance on the gov.uk website to help ascertain if you are self-employed. For "business activity" the Student route caseworker guidance gives three examples on page 95, including setting up as a sole trader. The three examples are “not an exhaustive list” but just some examples of "activities which meet the definition of a Student or Child Student engaging in business activity".
You can work as a student union sabbatical officer, as well as other permitted work.
If you have applied to switch to the Skilled worker or Start-up route, you can start the specific work that is allowed under those schemes. This is not so for the Graduate route. For details see --> Working after studies.
Neither the Immigration Rules nor any related immigration guidance go into any further detail. This means that if your proposed employment does not fit securely into this definition, or if it is a "grey area", doing the work would be risky. And what are the risks exactly? Well, the Home Office treats work conditions very seriously. They can remove you from the UK if you work too many hours or if you do work that you are not allowed to do. If you are removed, you may face a ban on re-entry for a certain period of time. The employer also faces penalties. Strictly speaking, your university or college is also obliged to report to the Home Office any students who are working illegally.
As an international student adviser, I am obliged to warn you about these dangers of illegal working, but please do not panic.
First, stay focused on your current main purpose in the UK: full-time study.
Second, remember that a Student visa specifically and explicitly does provide opportunities for work, but in effect just the sort of part-time and vacation work that international students have done for many generations. While this can be frustrating, it is very important to not take risks. It may seem preposterous for me to warn you against trading on eBay or babysitting, as I do below, but that is only because the Immigration Rules and guidance lack any nuance about work that does not fall fair and square into standard part-time and vacation work for an employer.
Third, beware of taking advice about working from other students or from people on internet message boards. For a professional student immigration adviser like me it is worrying and discouraging to see students asking anonymous strangers online for immigration advice when they have access to trained, professional and FREE immigration advice at their university. Your international student adviser is always the best source of information about any aspect of student immigration and visas, and they always have your best interests at heart. See also UKCISA's detailed guide to working during your studies.
What follows are some types of work that students ask about, and my replies about whether it is safe to do them within the Student work conditions. In every case I am referring back to the definitions above.
A quick note about income tax in the UK: income tax is normally deducted by your employer from your wages or salary under the Pay As You Earn scheme. If you receive income from other sources, for example tips, rent from a property you own, or other one-off payments this income may be liable for income tax. For more details see the UK government's guide to who needs to file a tax return.
COVID-19 concession to allow working more than 20 hrs during term-time
There is only one meaningful concession, and it is for NHS staff. Students employed by an NHS Trust in one of 18 specific professions may work more than 20 hours a week during term-time until 30 September 2021. They must also continue to study as directed by their Sponsor. For the list of professions and more details about this concession see paragraph 3.13 of the guidance Coronavirus (COVID-19): Student sponsors, migrants and short-term students, and the section "If you're working for the NHS" in Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for visa applicants and temporary UK residents.
A second and much rarer concession is explained in paragraph 3.14, and it applies where a Sponsor institution "suspends all study on [your] course as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak". In that case it is considered as your vacation time, and you may work more than 20 hours. Suspending all study would be rare. It means the course has stopped. It is not the same thing as switching study from face-to-face to distance learning, nor is it just that you do not have any timetabled classes for a while, for example during a dissertation period. If any kind of participation or activity is required, your course is not suspended. If in doubt, ask your Sponsor.
There are no other COVID-related concessions allowing Students to work more than 20 hours a week during term-time. Until term-time ends, you are limited to the normal 20 or 10 hours restriction shown on your BRP or vignette, regardless of the current required attendance on your course.
"Gig economy" jobs: Uber, Deliveroo, DPD, MyHermes, etc.
In February 2021 the UK Supreme Court found that Uber drivers are employees, not self-employed. You can read the Court's ruling here. This ruling will have future implications for all so-called "gig economy" workers, which the Fairwork website has discussed in detail.
For now, the key matter for a Student is that you can only be employed, not self-employed. If you are thinking of doing a gig economy job, it is important that you are clear about which you are. Speak directly to the company in question.
You cannot work (paid or unpaid) as an entertainer. “Entertainer” is not defined in the Immigration Rules, but the Home Office's Business Help desk has stated (in an email dated 3 September 2015) that "We take it to mean … taking part in entertainment in any way other than as an amateur". "Amateur" is defined in the Immigration Rules at paragraph 6 and it means “solely for personal enjoyment and not seeking to derive a living from the activity”. Therefore acting or performing as an amateur or just as a hobby is not working as an entertainer, and you can do it.
There is also an exception for any performance that is an assessed part of your course. This is a concession contained in the Student route caseworker guidance only (paragraph 6.8), not in the Immigration Rules.
See the separate information below on performing in television talent shows.
Resident warden “on call”
If your total number of hours on duty, including overnight, are within your weekly maximum 10 or 20 hours anyway (including any other paid or unpaid work you are doing), that is fine.
However if counting all the hours on call, including any when you are not actively working or even asleep, would take you over your weekly 10 or 20 hour maximum, we advise that you get individual advice from both the Housing Services and the Human Resources departments at the university before accepting the job. The university may consider the whole on-call period as your working hours and pay you accordingly, or they may not.
In 2016 the Human Resources magazine Personnel Today published an interesting article about this issue, including links to relevant Employment Appeal Tribunal cases.
Selling on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, at car boot sales, etc.
Anyone can sell their unwanted items, but if you are making or buying items in order to sell them, hopefully for a profit, this is "trading" and it would be self-employment.
Check the UK government's guidance on working for yourself says that “you’re probably not trading if you sell some unwanted items occasionally or you don’t plan to make a profit” and that online selling becomes “trading” if you sell or make items for profit or if you “sell online, at car boot sales or through classified adverts on a regular basis”. The information says “If you start working for yourself, you’re classed as a sole trader. This means you’re self-employed - even if you haven’t yet told HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).”
Volunteering does not count towards your maximum 10 or 20 hours if it meets the definition of volunteering in the Student route caseworker guidance (page 96):
Volunteers do not have a contract, they must not be a substitute for an employee, and they must not be doing unpaid work – for example, receiving payment in kind (although they are sometimes reimbursed for reasonable travel and subsistence expenses). [...] Volunteers usually help a charity or voluntary or public sector organisation.
Any other kind of unpaid or voluntary work that does not meet this definition will count towards your weekly 10 or 20 hours maximum.
The national Student Volunteering Week takes place every February.
Online business, e-commerce
You cannot run a business at all while you are a Student in the UK. The Immigration Rules give no exceptions for online businesses or for businesses where the clients are outside the UK.
Passive income: affiliate marketing, clicks on your YouTube videos, sponsored Instagram, etc.
While this is not one of the three named examples of “business activity” in the Student route caseworker guidance (page 95), it would reasonably be defined as a business activity, so it is best not do it while you are in the UK.
Someone who has become a YouTube celebrity after studying in the UK is Seong-jae Kong, known as Korean Billy. At our annual conference a couple of years ago Billy spoke to UKCISA about his time as an international student in the UK and how it has inspired his new career.
Working for an employer outside the UK
If you personally are physically outside the UK, any conditions of a UK visa you hold are irrelevant, including the work conditions. The UK government has no jurisdiction over and no interest in your work activites when you are not even in the UK.
You will of course need check what are your work rights in the specific country where you are working.
However any work you do when you are physically in the UK, for example working for a non-UK employer remotely or doing a "virtual internship" with them, counts towards your weekly 10 or 20 hour maximum. This is because the Student work restriction has no specific exception for work undertaken for an employer who is outside the UK.
A digital nomad is someone who harnesses technology, the internet and portals like Fiverr to create a freelance online working life that disregards coventional work factors like a workplace. They may even spend time living in different countries, either making a living from freelance work conducted and sourced online, or through sources of "passive income".
This a very attractive idea in theory, and technology makes it perfectly feasible, but in reality it is only possible if your immigration status in the country where you are staying allows you to do freelance work. Your Student work conditions do not allow it, so you cannot be a digital nomad while you are living in the UK.
Owning or dealing in shares, currencies and cryptocurrencies
This blog is about restrictions on working. Your Student visa does not restrict what you can buy or own, including shares and property. However some activity in these areas may be seen as "business activity".
You can buy and own shares, but if you own more than 10% of the shares in the company (including if they are held in trust for you) you cannot work for the company. This is one of the specific examples of “business activity” in the Student route caseworker guidance (page 95).
If you regularly buy and sell stocks, shares or currency in order to make money, this is highly likely to be seen as “business activity”, which seems reasonable. You might want to keep such holdings in "hold" mode while you are a Student.
If you make a dividend income from shares you own, you must pay income tax on this income.
Neither the Immigration Rules nor any related guidance makes any specific provision for cryptocurrencies. It would be logical and safest to assume that mining and active trading is a “business activity”.
Separately, HMRC has published dedicated guidance on how "cryptoassets" including bitcoin or cryptocurrency are taxed.
Direct sales and party plans: Amway, Avon, Tupperware, Thermomix, etc.
Consultants, Managers, Directors and Distributors for direct sales companies are self-employed, so you cannot do it. Such companies will not check your right to work because they are not your employer. They leave it to the individual consultant to monitor their own self-employment and any attached responsibilities, including whether their immigration status allows them to do the work.
Income from owning a property
Anyone of any nationality and any immigration status can buy and own property in the UK.
If you rent out your property, you must pay income tax on the income you receive from rent. Furthermore, renting out a property or buying a property as an investment could be seen as a business activity. I advise you get professional immigration advice before doing it.
Television talent shows, media appearances and contests of skill
The issues here are (1) whether you working as an entertainer (see above), and (2) is it employment anyway? You will need to get advice about it from the provider of the opportunity.
In this tabloid newspaper article about a Chinese couple who entered the "Britain's Got Talent" contest the producers of that specific programme say that participating in the contest is not considered employment and that winning the cash prize is not payment for employment.
If you decide to enter a contest that involves skills or performing, whether it is televised or not, check at an early stage whether the organisers have the same view that it is not employment. Of course, you will also need to check whether your academic schedule allows you the time to participate.
It is possible that a paid or compensated appearance on television or in other media may be seen as a "business activity". However international students do sometimes participate in the popular academic television quiz show University Challenge. A popular recent contestant was Eric Monkman, a postgraduate student from Canada. Monkman later returned to the UK to do a journalism internship and during this time (presumably now with a work visa) he was able to work on the BBC Radio 4 programme Monkman and Seagull's Polymathic Adventure.
Writing and publishing
When you formally publish your writing or other written or visual work, including self-publishing, you are usually hoping that that people will buy it and that you will earn some money. Therefore it is highly likely to be seen as a business activity and you may not do it under the Student work conditions.
To avoid this, if you want to publish your writing or other work purely as an artistic expression or leisure activity or to share it with the public, do it through a (non-monetised) blog, social media or personal website.
Focus groups, clinical trials
When you take part in a focus group, clinical trial or other similar experiment you are normally given some cash and usually some food and drink. The organisers will need to check your identity, usually your passport, but this is for their own statistical monitoring. They do not need to check of your right to work because they do not consider it work, but "paid volunteering".
However, it would not meet the narrow definition of "volunteering" in the Tier 4 Policy Guidance (see above), so it does count towards your weekly maximum permitted working hours.
And while it is not self-employment, HMRC advises that payments for taking part in very well-paid clinical trials could be seen as income that is liable for tax:
There will be no tax or [national insurance] liability arising on the individual if the sums received do no more than reimburse the individual’s reasonable costs of participating in the trial or research, including costs of travel and subsistence.
However should the sums paid exceed those reasonable expenses then the excess may fall to be chargeable to tax as Miscellaneous Income, potentially giving rise to personal tax liabilities of the individuals which should be notified to the Inland Revenue under Self Assessment.
Babysitting or dog-walking
Missing your young relatives? Wish you could have a pet in your student housing?
You can do dog-walking or babysitting while you are in the UK, but under the Student work restriction you can only do it unpaid. This might seem disproportionate or overly strict, but remember that providing any service for payment, including babysitting, dog-walking or anything paid “cash in hand” is likely to be seen as self-employment or, at the very least, a "business activity".
My advice is treat these activities not as paid work but as a social opportunity and as a chance to experience aspects of the local culture away from your student life.
If you miss your young relatives, why not offer to babysit for free. Think of the non-financial benefits: it's a fun and interesting opportunity to meet some local families and children and see how they live. Plus free WiFi and snacks usually come as standard.
Student housing normally does not normally allow pets, but the website BorrowMyDoggy.com connects you with local dogs who need walking and company, or where the owner just wants to give non-pet owners the chance to spend time with their dog. Walking a dog may give you an insight into the British public that you do not normally see, especially in cities: people will smile, stop to pet the dog, and ask you its name, breed, age, etc. I am a borrower with BorrowMyDoggy, and through them I have a great relationship with a Staffordshire bull terrier called Roxy.
Andrew Humphrey is a freelance adviser and trainer.
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