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Understanding the sponsorship process

If you’re recruiting an overseas worker using a sponsored route like the Skilled Worker route or the Global Business Mobility route, you’ll need to get a sponsor licence first so you can sponsor your new recruit.

Our guide to the sponsorship process

We’ve split this guide into three sections:

  • Applying for your sponsor licence – how to apply, what the costs are and what the processing times are
  • Setting up and maintaining your licence – how to use the Sponsorship Management System and what your ongoing duties are as a sponsor
  • Issuing a Certificate of Sponsorship to your new recruit – how to issue a certificate and what it’s used for

Guidance for each step of the process

How to apply for a sponsor licence

If you're an employer in Scotland who wishes to hire a migrant worker, you'll need to obtain a sponsor licence to become a Home Office registered sponsor.

To obtain a sponsor licence, follow these three steps:

  1. Submit an online application to the Home Office – you can save a draft as you go.
  2. Pay the relevant fee.
  3. Send supporting documents electronically to the Home Office – including proof that your application has been submitted and proof of payment.

For full guidance, see UK visa sponsorship for employers on GOV.UK

Apply for a sponsor licence on the Home Office website opens in a new window  

Which licence to apply for

When applying for a sponsor licence, you’ll be asked to choose whether to apply for a:

a) Skilled Worker licence for bringing existing staff to Scotland with a view to them remaining here permanently and bringing new staff into the organisation, or a

b) Global Business Mobility licence for multinational businesses that wish to establish a presence in or transfer staff to the UK. This licence can allow certain eligible workers to be transferred to Scotland. It does not usually lead to the staff remaining in Scotland permanently. Workers must usually already work for the overseas/connected company, subject to certain exceptions.

If you qualify for both licences, consider applying for both at the same time. This will save you having to make a separate application in the future if your recruitment plans change. There’s no additional cost for this, and it should only require a small amount of additional supporting documents.

Application fee

The fee to apply is:

  • £536 for small organisations or those with charitable status, regardless of the licence you’re applying for
  • £536 for medium or large sponsors applying for a worker licence only
  • £1476 for medium or large sponsors applying for a worker or worker and temporary worker licence
  • £940 for medium or large sponsors to add a temporary worker licence to an existing worker licence

Find more about application costs on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

Your organisation must usually meet at least two of the following three conditions if you are to be defined as a small organisation:

  • The average number of employees must be 50 or fewer.
  • Annual turnover must be £6.5 million or less.
  • The balance sheet total must be £3.26 million or less.

Find the definition of a small company (sections 381-385) on opens in a new window  

Required documentation

The supporting documentation is very important. Your application will be refused (and your fee lost) if you don't send the correct documentation or if you don’t send it in the correct format. The Home Office is extremely strict on this. So, it’s important that you check the documentation carefully against the Home Office policy guidance before you send it.

If your documents are not original documents, then they need to be certified as true copies in a specific manner. Not all solicitors or advisers will be aware of this, and you should draw this to the attention of the person certifying the documents for you.

The Home Office may also conduct checks with various bodies, such as HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Register of Companies, to verify any information that you provide.

They may also conduct an on-site compliance visit as part of your application and are likely to continue on-site audits throughout the duration of your licence.

Find out what documents you need to send on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

Processing times

The Home Office's estimated processing time is normally eight weeks (about two months) from the date they receive the electronic documents and application form, but this can be longer in some cases.

You may also be eligible to pay an additional £500 to have your application expedited to receive a decision within 10 working days.

You cannot employ an overseas (migrant) worker until you have a sponsor licence. Even then, there are other steps that need to be taken first. Apply well before you wish your new recruit to start work.

Once you have a licence, you will be able to issue Certificates of Sponsorship much more quickly.

Apply for a sponsor licence on the Home Office website opens in a new window  

Sponsor rating

Depending on your application, you will be given either an A-rating or a B-rating.

If you’re designated as a B-rated sponsor, you must follow an action plan set out by the Home Office to become an A-rated sponsor. You’ll need to pay for this and become an A-rated sponsor or you may lose your licence.

Once you receive your licence, you’re entitled to issue Certificates of Sponsorship to future employees who are eligible for sponsorship, as they'll need this to make their visa application.

Extending your sponsorship licence

Your sponsor licence will be in place for an initial period of four years, as long as no action is taken against you by UK Immigration and Visas (UKVI) in relation to your sponsor duties. After this, you’ll be able to extend your licence for a further period.

Using the online Sponsorship Management System

The Sponsorship Management System (SMS) is an online portal where you can carry out most of the activities associated with being a sponsor.

Help is available for businesses and educational institutions that sponsor foreign workers and students, including:

  • Sponsorship policy guidance
  • Guidance for employers who wish to apply for a sponsor licence and sponsor workers through the Worker and Temporary Work immigration routes
  • Guides to using the business helpdesk and educator's helpdesk
  • Codes of practice
  • Sponsorship Management System user manuals
  • Technical details for bulk data transfers
  • Lists of licensed sponsors

Find guidance on sponsorship and using the online portal from GOV.UK opens in a new window  

Assigning roles

Regardless of whether you are applying for a Skilled Worker licence or a Global Business Mobility licence, as part of your sponsor application you must assign key roles to people in your organisation who will organise and maintain the sponsor licence on the SMS.

You can assign these roles to a single person or to a combination of people. The roles include:

  • Authorising officer – this must be an employee or ‘office holder’ of the company and should be the most senior person with authority to hire overseas workers. They are responsible for sponsor licences, but do not necessarily carry out the day-to-day activities unless they are also a level 1 user.
  • Key contact - this person normally acts as the key contact between your organisation and the Home Office.
  • Level 1 user – they are responsible for day-to-day activities, including organising and maintaining the sponsorship licence, as well as assigning and withdrawing Certificates of Sponsorship for employees. Your level 1 user may be the same person as your authorising officer, or different. You must appoint a level 1 user when applying for your licence, and you can add more after your licence is granted.
  • Level 2 user – these are similar to level 1 users, but with some restricted access.

Your duties as a licenced sponsor

As a licensed sponsor, you’ll have a variety of duties. Failure to meet your responsibilities can lead to your sponsorship licence being revoked or downgraded to a B-rating, your Certificate of Sponsorship allocation being reduced or financial penalties.

If your sponsor licence is revoked, it will impact on your ability to employ any overseas (migrant) workers in the future. If your failure to carry out your duties causes you to employ someone illegally, this can result in a civil penalty or fine of up to £20,000 per worker.

Duties include:

  • Recordkeeping: at all times, you must keep a photocopy or electronic copy of the relevant page of each sponsored migrant's passport or Biometric Residence Permit and contact details. You must be ready to provide this information to the Home Office if they ask for it. You can find full details of documents you must show for your workers opens in a new window on GOV.UK.
  • Reporting: using the Sponsorship Management System, you must report within 10 working days if a sponsored migrant does not turn up on their first day of work, if their contract is terminated early, if they are absent from work for more than 10 days without your permission, or if there are significant changes in their contract of employment, such as a promotion or a change in core duties. You can find full details of the things you must report about your workers opens in a new window on GOV.UK.
  • Ensuring compliance with the law: this includes both UK wider law and immigration law. For example, you must only assign Certificates of Sponsorship to migrants you believe will meet the requirements of the category you are assigning it in.
  • Not engaging in behaviour which is not conducive to the public good

See full details of sponsor duties and compliance guidance on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

Advantages of renewing your sponsor licence

If you’re thinking of letting your sponsor licence lapse, think carefully before you do — there are many advantages to renewing instead.

Under the UK immigration system, employers need to have a sponsorship licence in place to sponsor overseas skilled workers in the UK. Once granted, this licence lasts for four years. You’ll normally renew your sponsorship licence at that point but if you are considering letting it lapse, there are some issues to consider first.

If you’re sponsoring any skilled workers, you must renew you licence to continue to employ these individuals. If you don’t, you won’t be able to assign any more Certificates of Sponsorship to new employees, and usually the permission of any workers that you are sponsoring will be curtailed to 60 calendar days.

If you’re not currently sponsoring any workers, you may still want to consider renewing. It’s far easier to renew a licence once you have it in place than to apply for a new one in the future.

If you let it lapse, then need to sponsor a migrant worker in the future, there will be more paperwork, admin and effort involved. You’ll need to prepare an application for a licence from scratch. Plus, sponsoring a skilled worker will take far longer if you have to wait eight weeks or more to obtain a sponsor licence.

Find more information about renewing your licence on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

What is a Certificate of Sponsorship?

Once you’ve decided who you want to recruit and sponsor to come to the UK, you’ll need to issue a Certificate of Sponsorship through the online Sponsor Management System.

A Certificate of Sponsorship is a virtual document and not a physical certificate. To assign the certificate, your Level 1 or 2 user must create a unique reference number.

You should give this number to your overseas worker because they’ll need to it to apply for their visa.

They may also need other information from you for their application. The certificate does not guarantee a visa or the right to work in the UK, and each certificate can only be used once.

Types of certificate

There are two types of certificates under the Skilled Worker Route:

  • Defined Certificate of Sponsorship – this is for Skilled Workers who are outside of the UK and will be applying for their visa from overseas.
  • Undefined Certificate of Sponsorship – this is for Skilled Workers who are already inside the UK and will be applying for their visa to work for you from inside the UK.

You can apply for a Defined Certificate of Sponsorship as and when you need it. You cannot apply for an annual allocation of this type. This is done through the Sponsorship Management System and certain information needs to be provided. Decisions on this type of certificate will normally take around one working day if the application is straightforward.

You can apply for an annual allocation of Undefined Certificates of Sponsorship. These should be used if the skilled worker is already in the UK.

If you’ve already used up your allocation of certificates, you can apply to increase the allocation.

It's important to understand the difference between the two types of Certificates of Sponsorship. If you assign the wrong type of certificate or provide incorrect information on an application for a Defined Certificate of Sponsorship, UK Visas and Immigration may revoke your sponsor licence.

Access the Sponsor Management System on the Home Office website opens in a new window  

Issuing the Certificate of Sponsorship

Once you are comfortable that the role you intend to sponsor a migrant worker to do meets the minimum skill and salary requirements, you can refer the matter to your designated level 1 user of the Sponsor Management System. They can issue or apply for the relevant Certificate of Sponsorship for the person you have selected.

The level 1 user should:

  • Apply for a Defined Certificate of Sponsorship (if the individual is outside of the UK)
  • Assign the relevant Certificate of Sponsorship to the migrant worker, to allow them to make the necessary application to work in the UK

How your overseas worker uses the Certificate of Sponsorship

Once you have created a Certificate of Sponsorship and assigned it to an employee, they must use the certificate to apply for a visa. This application will usually have to be made before they can start working for you.

When applying for their visa, they’ll need to demonstrate that they have a valid Certificate of Sponsorship (by providing the certificate number in their visa application) and that they meet the additional requirements to qualify for the visa.

If the individual is abroad, they will need to apply at their local UK Visa Application Centre in the country that they are in. Processing times for visas from overseas vary, but UK Visas and Immigration estimates that most applications will be processed within three weeks of them receiving all the documents for the visa.

Find out more about visa waiting times on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

Most UK Visa Application Centres also offer priority services to expedite overseas applications. These are subject to an additional fee. The individual should check the specific UK Visa Application Centre they will use to determine what services are offered, and the local charges for them.

Learn more about getting a faster decision when applying outside the UK on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

If the worker is already lawfully inside the UK (for instance, on a student visa), then they can usually apply to the Home Office in the UK (but they should check whether the rules permit switching into a different visa category before they apply).

Applications from inside the UK generally take longer than those made outside of the UK, but it is usually possible to pay an additional fee to have your visa application expedited.

Learn more about getting a faster decision when applying inside the UK on GOV.UK opens in a new window  

In some cases, an individual's visa does not allow them to switch or change visa categories within the UK. Those who fall into this category will usually have to leave the UK and make their application from abroad.

This may also mean that any period spent in the UK prior to making their new application from overseas will not be counted as part of the 'continuous residence' required for Indefinite Leave to Remain.

Applying for your licence early

Because visa application times can vary, it’s important that you apply for your sponsor licence as soon as possible once you’ve made the decision to hire an overseas worker. This gives you enough time to apply, wait for a decision, get your licence set up, issue a certificate and wait for your new recruit’s visa application to be granted.

How the sponsorship process affects how you make a job offer

You can make a job offer before issuing a Certificate of Sponsorship. However, allocating a Certificate of Sponsorship and providing the unique reference number to your overseas worker does not guarantee that they will be granted entry to the UK or permitted to remain here.

So, it’s essential that any offer of employment you make is subject to permission to work in the UK being obtained by your potential employee (overseas migrant worker). This can sometimes be a lengthy process, and you may need to amend your standard offer letters to reflect this.

Get support from TalentScotland

Got a question about hiring talent, immigration, visas, sponsorship, or something else? Get in touch with our helpful team and we’ll let you know about the support we can offer.