2021 brought a major overhaul to the UK immigration system. Whether you agree or disagree with the new points-based system, one change hugely benefits international workers: switching from Tier 2 ICT to a Skilled Worker visa is now possible.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice. Always consult with a legal professional regarding your personal circumstances.
If you’ve read any of my articles on moving to the UK, you’ll know that my husband and I moved to London from the US in 2018 on a Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) visa. At the time, this was the among the easiest ways to bring non-EU workers into the UK.
Before the 2021 immigration reform, employers had to prove that no one in the UK or the EU could reasonably fill the position before hiring someone from abroad. This made it incredibly challenging for Americans and other non-EU residents to secure the old Tier 2 General visa to work in the UK.
Unlike the standard work visa, the Tier 2 ICT had fewer rules and costs for employers who wanted to transfer an employee to their UK office. While a company could technically sponsor their non-EU transfers on the general work visa, it was very uncommon.
It also was not possible to switch from a Tier 2 ICT to a Tier 2 General visa from within the UK. You’d have to leave the country for 12 months and then undergo the entire application process for the new visa.
This made it nearly impossible to change employers without having to move out of the country for a year.
While Tier 2 ICT visas were preferred by employers, they had another serious drawback for workers: the visa does not lead to permanent residency (also known as IRL, or Indefinite Leave to Remain).
Instead, you’d have to reapply for an extension. And if you didn’t earn a high enough salary, you’d have to leave the country after 5 years for a 12-month “cooling off” period before re-applying (high earners were exempt from the “cooling off” period).
So what’s changed?
In January 2021, the UK made several important changes to its work visa system.
First of all, the old Tier 2 General visa was replaced by the Skilled Worker visa, which uses a points-based system to determine eligibility.
The “preferential” system changed when the UK formally left the EU, effectively leveling the playing field for all foreign residents. There are no “bonus points” awarded for being an EU citizen–everything is based on your skills/qualifications and the job itself, including the salary.
Secondly, the Tier 2 ICT visa rules eliminated the “cooling off” period. Now, even workers who don’t earn a high salary can stay in the UK while they reapply for their visa extension.
Finally–and most excitingly–the new rules allow Tier 2 ICT visa holders to switch to the Skilled Worker visa without the “cooling off period”.
This change finally opened a path to permanent residency for those workers who could not or did not want to leave the country for 12 months.
Which is better: ICT or Skilled Worker visa?
As an employee, the Skilled Worker visa is by far the better option.
While the new rules for Tier 2 ICT visas will let you renew your stay indefinitely, you’ll never get the option to apply for ILR.
And while there is a Long Residence path to citizenship, it requires 10 years of continuous residence and an onerous amount of paperwork. If you travel a lot for work or pleasure, it could be difficult or impossible to obtain, as you can only have been out of the country for a total of 540 days in those 10 years.
With the Skilled Worker visa, you not only have a five year path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship, but also the option to change sponsors and work for a different company.
Even if you aren’t sure about staying in the UK long-term, it’s better to have the option available.
If you are transferring to the UK from overseas, I highly recommend asking your employer to sponsor you on the Skilled Worker visa instead of the Tier 2 ICT. It may be slightly more expensive and require more paperwork on their end, but not by much.
Plus, your “clock” for permanent residency doesn’t start ticking until you’re on the Skilled Worker visa. None of the time you spent in the UK on a Tier 2 ICT visa counts towards the five year residency requirement.
How do you switch from a Tier 2 ICT to Skilled Worker visa?
If you’re like us and already living in the UK on a Tier 2 Intra-Company Transfer visa, you can switch to the Skilled Worker visa without leaving the country.
Keeping in mind that every employer is different and your experience may vary, we were able to switch without any hassle.
As we neared the end date for our original transfer visa, my husband simply reached out to his company’s HR and asked if we could switch to the new Skilled Worker visa from the Tier 2 ICT instead of filing for a renewal.
He said that we wanted the option to get permanent residency, as we were leaning towards staying in the UK long-term–we had no plans of returning to the US any time soon.
Thankfully, my husband works for an amazing company that didn’t balk at the request. We knew it was more expensive for the company to sponsor us on new visas rather than renew our ICT, but they agreed regardless.
When the time came to apply for the Skilled Worker visa, we used the UK’s online application system. There was a special streamlined application for people who already held a valid UK visa and wanted to switch to the Skilled Worker visa, which was much less involved than our original application to work in the UK.
For example, because we had already proven our marriage status in our original Tier 2 ICT application, we did not have to provide our marriage license again.
After submitting our applications and paying the healthcare surcharge, we were taken to the UKVCAS portal to make our biometrics appointment. The portal also lets you upload digital copies of your required documents.
Once you’ve had your details confirmed and fingerprints taken at a UKVCAS office, you’ll need to wait up to 8 weeks for a decision. However, you can pay extra for an expedited decision within 5 working days, which is what we did.
What if my company won’t let me switch?
If you’re having trouble convincing your company to let you switch from the Tier 2 ICT to Skilled Worker visa, here are some suggestions:
- Let them know you want to stay in the UK long-term and build a life here
- Explain that the lack of permanent residency makes you anxious
- Offer to pay for part of the visa expenses (if you’re really desperate)
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