New business immigration challenges – important tips for startups and SMEs

UK employers face major measures designed to stem a post-pandemic spike in immigration. The rise is largely fuelled by skills gaps, with the biggest immigration increase by far in healthcare visas.

Nonetheless, it is small businesses and families that bear the brunt of the UK government’s increase in salary thresholds to sponsor spouses or skilled staff.   

The minimum salary requirement to bring a partner to the UK on a family visa has risen to £29,000 and jumps up to £34,500 this autumn, £38,700 in Spring 2025. The Home Office’s own audit found that 40 to 50% of the UK working population will be unable to meet the new £29,000 threshold based on earnings alone. £38,700 will push the salary requirement to bring an overseas partner to the UK out of reach of 70% of British workers. Families will instead need to rely on large amounts of savings or human rights law, though by 2025 we may well have a new government, of course.

Sponsoring Skilled Workers also got tougher

Sponsoring a new employee on a Skilled Worker visa now means paying them more than half of what all workers in that profession earn. Employers sponsoring non-resident Skilled Workers must pay them a higher minimum salary since 4 April 2024 – the highest of the following three figures in most cases. The general minimum salary threshold for the visa has increased from £26,200 to £38,700 gross per year, the minimum hourly rate from £10.75 to £15.88 per hour and crucially, the government-set going rates for specific occupations have risen much higher – now pegged to the median pay for jobs in that occupation code according to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, instead of the bottom quarter of salaries for that job.

At the same time, the Home Secretary has ended the Shortage Occupation List of shortage skillsets that could be sponsored at 20% less than the going rate to fill skills gaps.

So, for example, with skills shortages for programmers and software developers, they were on the old Shortage Occupation List so firms could sponsor them on Skilled Worker visas on a salary of £27,200 (based on a 37.5 hour week). They now must be paid a minimum of the new going rate of £49,400.

Big brands and companies paying London salaries are likely to be paying the top half of salaries for employees, so will be less affected than smaller businesses, startups, firms in regions outside the capital. Having to pay an above-average salary for an occupation will also mean startups and SMEs may be more inclined to sponsor more senior staff now, as they might not want to sponsor more junior roles so far up the pay scale.

Nevertheless, firms can still use a few categories to sponsor non-resident talent on comparatively lower salaries, as well as employing talent on visas that do not rely on sponsorship by an employer and are thus free of salary thresholds.

 Below is a list of the most useful of such immigration categories, some of which may be relevant for the talent your business needs to grow in the UK.

Sponsoring hires already on the Skilled Worker route before 4 April 2024

Those already on the Skilled Worker route are exempt from the £38,700 salary threshold when extending their visa, changing sponsoring employer or applying for settlement. Their pay must progress on the higher of the updated 25th percentile of going rates (not the median), a salary threshold of just £29,000 or £11.90 per hour.

The Immigration Salary List replaces the Shortage Occupation List

The Shortage Occupation List of shortage skillsets that could be sponsored while paying 20% less than the going rate has been replaced by a much smaller list called the Immigration Salary List. This list of shortage occupations only affords a 20% discount on the general Skilled Worker visa salary threshold, not the occupation’s going rate so only includes 21 occupation codes with going rates under the usual £38,700 general salary threshold so still benefitting from a discount to it.

Sponsoring New Entrants on Skilled Worker visas

The minimum general salary threshold to sponsor those classed as New Entrants is just £30,960 with a 30% discount on the going rate for the relevant job. (Note that an applicant can only be sponsored as a new entrant for up to four years – and that includes any time they have spent on a Graduate visa).

Sponsoring Skilled Workers with relevant PhDs

The minimum salary threshold for eligible Skilled Workers with a relevant PhD is reduced to £34,830 (£30,960 with a STEM PhD).  Sponsors can pay 10% less on the going rate for their specific role (20% for a STEM PhD).

Health and care workers and staff on national pay scales

Employees on national pay scales, such as teachers or medical practitioners may be sponsored on the highest of a minimum salary threshold of £23,200 or the national pay scale for that role or salary band.

New health and care workers not on a pay scale have a general threshold of £29,000 and their occupation-based going rate increases along the bottom quarter of salaries for that job rather than the median. With a relevant PhD the threshold is £26,100 and for health and care workers with a relevant STEM PhD, on the Immigration Salary List or New Entrants, the general threshold increase is £23,200.

The benefits of a Scaleup sponsor licence

Organisations that meet the growth criteria to qualify for a Scaleup sponsor licence can sponsor eligible Scaleup workers on a general salary threshold which has risen from £34,600 to just £36,300 this year and lower going rates based on the 25th percentile. With lower sponsor licence fees and no Immigration Skills Charge to pay, Rishi Sunak’s flagship sponsor licence for high growth firms is a useful way to hire talent from abroad for those that qualify.

Global Business Mobility immigration alternatives

Firms can sponsor staff on Global Business Mobility immigration routes in certain situations, such as specialist workers fulfilling specific business needs, service suppliers, secondment workers and expansion workers. Though a £48,500 general salary threshold for most sponsored on this visa is higher than the £38,700 salary threshold for Skilled Worker visas, going rates for the Global Business Mobility routes will continue to be based on the bottom quarter of salaries for that job which now makes some roles cheaper to sponsor than on Skilled Worker visas.

Sponsoring staff on a Graduate Trainee visa continues to benefit from a £25,410 general threshold as well as a 30% discount to the going rate.

How about temporary immigration routes?

Workers can also be sponsored on other temporary immigration routes with less onerous salary requirements – usually on national minimum wage or market rates (for instance Creative Workers must be paid at least the national minimum wage and market rate – union rates for certain film and TV roles. Temporary sponsorship is available for Charity Workers, Creative Workers, Religious Workers, Seasonal Workers as well as those on Government Authorised Exchange and International Agreement immigration routes.

Who can firms hire without needing a sponsor licence?

There are no resident labour salary requirements when employing settled and Irish staff, or talent that has been granted permission under the immigration routes below.

EEA citizens who lived in the UK for five years before the end of 2020 and their family members can be hired without sponsorship, as well as Swiss citizens and their partners, if awarded settled or pre-settled status.

Ukraine nationals and Hong Kong BN(O) citizens have the right to work in the UK on their bespoke humanitarian schemes.

Commonwealth citizens with a UK-born grandparent are eligible to live and work in the UK under the Ancestry route to settlement.

The Youth Mobility Scheme has been expanded over the past year, reflecting post-Brexit trade deals and reciprocal agreements signed with various nations. The visa allows adults aged 18 – 30 (or 35 for some nationalities) to live and work in the UK for up to two years (three years for Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders).

The Graduate visa allows overseas students at a UK university to stay and work in the UK for up to two years (or three years for those with a PhD or other doctoral qualification.) NB: The Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the Graduate visa by 14 May 2024. Meanwhile, it remains a useful way to employ non-resident graduates on entry-level graduate salaries.

The High Potential Individual visa is similar to the Graduate visa, but for people who graduated from a list of top overseas universities in the past five years.

And finally, those who are leaders in the fields of digital technology, academia, research, arts and culture may qualify for a Global Talent visa and work in the UK for up to five years at a time. In most cases they must be endorsed by one of the government-appointed endorsing bodies. Founders seeking to bring a viable, innovative, scalable business to market in the UK can also apply to be endorsed for the Innovator Founder visa which has replaced the start-up and innovator visas.