- First published 5 September 2019
- Last updated 10 September 2019: section 3 added about the 1 October 2019 change to when a Tier 2 applicant can start work.
Securing your first graduate job can be difficult and stressful, especially if staying in the UK depends on it. Andrew Humphrey is feeling your pain, but he explains that recent changes mean that applying for the visa is getting easier for students.
It may not feel like it, but switching from a Tier 4 student visa to a Tier 2 work visa in the UK is easier and more straightforward now than it has ever been.
Please do not misunderstand me. I know very well that applying for jobs, being interviewed and then being offered and accepting a job is a difficult process for any new graduate. It is especially stressful if your plan to stay and work in the UK depends on you getting that job and the attached visa sponsorship, and I blogged recently for UKCISA about some of the common problems with Tier 2 jobs and employers. I take my hat off to all students who can secure a graduate job with a Tier 2 sponsor, and I salute all the university Careers Advisers who support and guide you through the transition from student to worker.
But I am not a Careers Adviser. My area of expertise is the immigration side: your eligibility and opportunity to switch from your Tier 4 student visa to a Tier 2 visa for sponsored skilled work. And it is with this part of the process that there have been positive and welcome changes recently.
This blog post is just an update on these recent changes. For the full picture on switching to Tier 2, including eligible jobs, minimum salary and skill levels, see UKCISA's detailed guide to Tier 2.
There have always been some useful concessions for students switching to Tier 2 in the UK, compared to someone switching from another type of visa, or someone applying in their home country:
- The minimum salary is £20,800 for those switching from Tier 4, £30,000 for everyone else.
- The employer does not need to run the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) before issuing your Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS). This is the test of whether there is a local worker who can do the job which is required for most Tier 2 applications from outside the UK, and for some applications from inside the UK, but not for someone switching from Tier 4. As it happens, a recent government news story calls the RLMT "outdated" and says it will be soon abolished completely.
- The employer does not pay the £1000/year Immigration Skills Charge which is needed when someone applies outside the UK
- Your CoS is over and above the employer's restricted allocation of CoS.
This year there have been three further changes which will make switching from Tier 4 to Tier 2 easier for many people.
1. How soon you can apply
First, your window of opportunity for applying. PhD students have always been able to switch into Tier 2 after 12 months of study, but for other students until recently the earliest an employer could issue a CoS was the day your results were published. This often left students with only weeks or even days before their Tier 4 visa expired. So if the CoS was delayed or the job offer not yet finalised, they would lose their chance to apply in the UK with all the above advantages.
In January 2018 a change to the immigration rules moved this earliest date for issuing the CoS back in time from results day to the formal end date of the course, which was good. Then in March this year another change to the rules moved it back even further to 3 months before the formal end date of the course, which is even better. Most Tier 4 visas have an extra 4 months after the formal course end date -- what the Home Office calls the "post-study period" -- so this gives most people 7 months to obtain a CoS and make a Tier 2 application.
There is one scenario in which this change does not benefit you. If your job offer is conditional on your qualification, or on a specific result, your Tier 2 employer will probably still want to wait until your results are published before issuing the CoS. But that is about the requirements of the job, not the requirements of the Tier 2 visa.
2. Travelling before you apply
The second change is quite major, and not just for Tier 2 applications, but it has been slightly under the radar. It is not a change to the immigration rules but to the Tier 4 Policy Guidance which explains and interprets the rules.
For many years, people switching from Tier 4 to Tier 2 could not safely and confidently use their visa's 4-month (or 2-month or 6-month) post-study period to travel and re-enter the UK before making their Tier 2 application. Of course those who have already made a Tier 2 application cannot leave the Common Travel Area anyway while the application is pending, because that will withdraw their application, but even those who had not yet applied and who were in the post-study period could not safely travel and re-enter the UK either.
This is because a Border Force Officer could in theory not allow you to re-enter the UK using a Tier 4 visa for a course that was now finished. In practice it was often fine, but sometimes it wasn't. It was always very difficult to advise students in this situation, and depending who you asked there was a spectrum of advice from "don't risk it" to "it will be fine" via "it might be fine before graduation, but not after". UKCISA's advice was always the most cautious: if you were planning a Tier 2 application during the post-study period, do not try to travel and re-enter the UK.
And it wasn't just a problem of being refused entry. Even if you were admitted back into the UK, but as a Standard Visitor, that wouldn't help because visitors cannot switch to Tier 2. As a sidebar, the government's white paper on the proposed new post-Brexit immigration system for the UK from 1 January 2021 does include a proposal to allow some visitors to switch into skilled work but that's for the future.
So I am very happy to confirm that this annoying trap, which has been a thorn in the side of many generations of students and advisers, is now dead and gone. A welcome new section in the Tier 4 Policy Guidance called "After you have finished your studies" (pages 67-68 of the August 2019 update) confirms that
Once your sponsor has confirmed that your studies are complete, and you
are therefore in your post-study period, you may do the following:
- Enter and leave the UK
- Work full-time in the UK, if your conditions of leave permit you to
- Study in the UK
- Visit areas in the UK
- Apply to remain in the UK under an appropriate alternative route
(e.g. Tier 1 and Tier 2).
So now you can travel without worry during the post-study period and come back to the UK to make your Tier 2 application. I am not sure anyone needed the Home Office's permission to "visit areas of the UK" during the post-study period, but let's not be ungrateful for this welcome change.
When you re-enter on your Tier 4 visa during the post-study period, the Border Force Officer does still need to be satisfied that either you will be leaving the UK before your visa expires or "that you will submit an in-time application
to extend your leave in the UK." It will be wise to carry in your hand luggage some evidence that you will be soon be making the Tier 2 application.
So when you get your dream job, and the employer agrees to sponsor you for a Tier 2 visa, maybe treat yourself to a holiday or a trip home. As long as you come back on or before the end date of your Tier 4 visa, it really will be fine.
3. Starting work
Those who apply for Tier 2 after getting their results can start their Tier 2 job immediately. This is because Tier 4 leave that was granted before 1 October 2019 includes a work condition that allows you to start a permanent job if you applied for Tier 2 having "successfully completed" your course.
While the Tier 2 rules were amended in January 2018 and April 2019 to allow someone who has not yet "successfully completed" their course to apply for Tier 2 (see section 1 above), the Tier 4 work rules about taking a permanent job were never adjusted accordingly. It means that someone who applies for Tier 2 before getting their results can only work on a temporary basis until their Tier 2 leave is granted. This adds an unfortunate complication to hiring people under Tier 2.
Following some lobbying by international student advisers and UKCISA, the offending Tier 4 work condition will finally be changed from 1 October 2019. If your Tier 4 visa is issued on or after that date, at the end of your course its work conditions will allow you to start a Tier 2 job as soon as you have made the Tier 2 application.
Unfortunately, this change in the Rules from 1 October 2019 will not retro-fit the new work condition for people who already have their Tier 4 leave. Eventually, all those switching from Tier 4 to Tier 2 will have the new condition, but meanwhile it perfectly fine to ask your Tier 2 employer if you can start on a temporary contract, and then become permanent when your Tier 2 leave is granted. They may well suggest this solution anyway.
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For advice queries, please see UKCISA's detailed guide to Working after Studies or contact the International Student Adviser at your institution or UKCISA's students' advice line.
Andrew Humphrey is a freelance student adviser and trainer. He tweets at @andrew_humphrey.