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China in focus - An open door to the UK for business and work?

  • China
  • United Kingdom


    During the recent visit of the United Kingdom's prime minister, David Cameron, and the supporting trade delegation, the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Vince Cable, went to great lengths to emphasize that notwithstanding the coalition government's commitment to reducing net migration into the UK, and reports in the Chinese press that applications for visas were being regularly refused, the government is very keen for Chinese nationals to study, work and conduct business in the UK. If you are thinking of taking up that invitation, how do you go about finding out more?

    Information about immigration routes into the UK is available on the internet on the website of the UK Border Agency (“UKBA”) (, but knowing a little background information about the alternative routes will ensure you are not overwhelmed by detail.

    Applications and categories

    Visa applications from China are made online through an administrative partner, VFS Global. An online application will be followed up with an appointment to provide biometrics (photographs and fingerprints) and hand over supporting documentation. Biometric appointments take place in 11 locations within China. Waiting times for decisions are between five and 30 days of the biometric appointment depending on the type of application, but can be longer.

    Business visitors and tourists can come to the UK for up to six months provided they have obtained a visit visa in advance of travelling.

    Business visitors can attend meetings, conferences and interviews that have been arranged in advance of travel, arrange deals or negotiate or sign agreements, undertake fact-finding missions and conduct site visits. All activities must, however, fall short of working in the UK. Those with visit visas cannot switch into any other immigration category while in the UK, and time spent in the UK as a visitor does not count towards the time requirement for settlement. Those with funds under their control or available to them who want to spend longer in the UK and are able to set up a new business or invest in an existing one will need to look at the Tier 1 Entrepreneur and Tier 1 Investor categories of the UK's points-based system.

    Entrepreneurs will require at least £200,000 (US$315,000), placed in a UK financial institution or a recognized and approved institution overseas, which is available to invest, as well as relevant English language skills and savings. Although visas will be granted for three years, these will be curtailed, or extensions refused, unless evidence of investments, directorships or other involvement in business, and the creation of new jobs for UK or European Union nationals, is available.

    Those with at least £1 million of available funds, or £1 million of assets and a loan of £1 million or more, will be welcomed as investors, without the need to demonstrate English language skills. Initial visas will be for three years, with extensions available upon the production of appropriate evidence.

    Time spent in the UK as an entrepreneur or investor currently counts towards satisfying the residence criteria for applications for settlement after five years.


    Until recently, a Tier 1 (General) visa gave highly skilled and/or highly paid applicants a route to enter the UK for employment or self-employment without having a job offer in advance, provided they had sufficient points in relation to academic qualifications, past earnings, mandatory English language skills and savings. However, in July the government placed a worldwide cap on the number of visas available until April 2011.

    The cap was reached in December, and the UK immigration minister announced that Tier 1 (General) would be closed permanently for applications made outside the UK from 23 December 2010.

    Although the UK is committed to encouraging the "brightest and the best" to come to the country, the highly skilled route under Tier 1 (General) is not available and such applicants instead need to have significant financial assets available to invest in the UK under Tier 1 Entrepreneur or Tier 1 Investor.

    However, the government has recently announced they will introduce a new Tier 1 route for persons of exceptional talent. The indications are that this will cover applicants who have won international recognition in scientific and cultural fields, or who show sufficient exceptional promise to be awarded such recognition in the future. Applications by those with exceptional promise will need to be endorsed by a competent body in the relevant field. The 'exceptional talent' category will be subject to a limit of 1,000 places. Further details of how and when applications can be made are awaited.

    After the United States, the UK is the next most popular place to study for Chinese students. Those securing degrees can currently apply for a Tier 1 Post-study visa on completion of  their  studies. This is limited to a period of two years, allowing work or self-employment. No extensions are available, so those wanting to remain in the UK must switch to a different visa or leave. Highly qualified and well-paid former students are likely to qualify under Tier 1 (General), but in view of the closure of this route for out of country applications it is not clear if this route will continue to be available in country. 

    Until recently those in skilled employment have often switched into Tier 2, but this will be more difficult in the future with pressure on UK employers to employ UK or European Union nationals, and restrictions on sponsor employers' ability to support employees of other nationalities.

    Those with a job offer in the UK, or working for an international business with a business interest in the UK, may secure a visa under Tier 2, which will require their prospective UK employer to be registered as a sponsor with the UKBA. While existing employees of international businesses are likely to be able to use an inter-company transfer under Tier 2, if you have less than one year's service, or are a new recruit, you will not qualify and so the UK government's interim cap on migration means the door is currently closed for you to work in the UK. The number of available work visas has been announced but the details of allocation are awaited.

    The position may be clearer from February, when further announcements are expected. While it is hoped that the minister's declared commitment to encourage international business and the "brightest and the best" will enable those with job offers to secure visas, this is (regrettably) far from certain.

    Although the door to the United Kingdom is currently open to those wanting to study for degrees, or having money to invest, it is currently only ajar for those wanting to work, and looking to the future the financial imperative is likely to be predominant.