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Applying for a sponsor licence under the UK Expansion Worker route

08 June 2022

The sponsor licence requirements for businesses seeking to set up in the UK under this route differ in some significant respects from those applicable to other sponsor licence applicants. In this article we highlight these and provide an overview of how the process works.

The UK Expansion Worker route enables up to five (at any one time) senior managers or specialist employees of an established overseas business to set up a UK branch or wholly-owned UK subsidiary. Unlike the predecessor Representative of an Overseas Business route for sole representatives, a sponsor licence is required. Since the UK business acts as the sponsor under this route and will not already be active and trading at the time of application, there is a modified sponsor licence process to follow.

Step 1: Determine whether a UK Expansion Worker licence is appropriate

A UK Expansion Worker licence will only be appropriate to apply for if:

  • The overseas business intends to set up a commercial trading presence in the UK, either as a branch or wholly-owned subsidiary;
  • There is a UK ‘footprint’ in terms of the UK branch or subsidiary having been registered with Companies House, or of having secured premises in the UK; and
  • The UK business is not already active and trading in the UK.

If the overseas business does not intend to establish a branch or subsidiary in the UK but has a contract with a UK business, then the Service Supplier or Secondment Worker routes may be relevant options. This would require the UK client business to act as the sponsor.

If a UK trading presence has already been set up, then the UK Expansion Worker route will not be appropriate. The Senior or Specialist Worker and/or Skilled Worker routes should be considered instead.

Step 2: Prepare the application

Before applying for a UK Expansion Worker sponsor licence, the business must:

  • Decide who will be the key personnel for the licence;
  • Compile supporting documents; and
  • Determine UK HR systems and policies.

Key personnel

The following roles must be allocated before making the application:

  • Authorising Officer (AO) – this is the individual in the UK business who is ultimately responsible for oversight of activities under the licence, including the appointment of key personnel and ensuring compliance with sponsor duties;
  • Key contact – this is the main point of contact for the Home Office; and
  • Level 1 User – there must be at least Level 1 User, as this role oversees the day-to-day activities of the licence on the Home Office’s Sponsor Management System (SMS).

Additional SMS Level 1 Users and Level 2 Users (who only have limited access to the SMS) can be added once the sponsor licence has been granted.

The general rule is that all key personnel must be based in the UK. However, because businesses under the UK Expansion Worker route will not be active and trading in the UK, the Home Office has introduced a ‘provisional’ sponsor licence rating process to cover the situation where the proposed AO needs to be sponsored to enter the UK.

If the provisional sponsor licence process is used and the application is successful, then the licence will be granted with the capability to sponsor only one worker (the AO) initially. This is done through setting a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) allocation of one place. A CoS is in effect an electronic work permit, which an applicant for immigration permission must include the reference number of as part of their application.

The AO must be nominated in the application as the Level 1 User, and must create and assign a CoS for themselves. They must then apply for entry clearance under the UK Expansion Worker route.

Unlike the previous sole representative route, there is no prohibition on a UK Expansion Worker migrant (AO or otherwise) having a majority interest or control over the overseas business.

After the AO’s entry clearance application is approved (and irrespective of whether they have yet travelled to the UK), the AO must update their details on the SMS to include:

  • The type of permission they have (UK Expansion Worker);
  • the expiry date of their permission;
  • their Home Office reference number (this can be their Visa Application Form number, their biometric residence permit number, or any other reference number provided by the Home Office to the AO); and
  • their UK address (when they know this).

They also need to ask for the licence rating to be changed from provisional to A-rating. Once the A-rating has been granted, a request for a CoS allocation of up to an additional four places can be made. This would take the number of individuals who could be sponsored under the licence up to five, including the AO.

The AO must ensure they enter the UK on their entry clearance within 28 days of the start date noted on their CoS.

If the UK business has a locally recruited person who can act as the AO, then they can apply for an A-rating (rather than a provisional rating) and request a COS allocation of up to five places as part of the licence application.

Supporting documents

The supporting documents for a UK Expansion Worker sponsor licence are also different from other licences in the following respects:

  • Only a UK footprint (as described above) needs to be shown – it is not necessary for example to have a UK business bank account already set up with an institution regulated by the FCA and PRA;
  • Evidence must be provided that the overseas business has been active and trading throughout at least the three years immediately before the application, unless the application is being made by a Japanese business under the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, in which case the overseas business must only be genuinely trading at the time of the application and will only be allowed to sponsor one worker at a time; and
  • Business planning and financial evidence must be provided to demonstrate a credible expansion plan to establish a UK business of the same type as the overseas business, within two years.

There are limited exceptions to having to provide the overseas trading and credible expansion plan, for example where the overseas business is listed on certain London or international stock exchanges, or if the viability of the UK expansion is verified by a UK government department.

HR systems and policies

Sponsor licence holders must fulfil certain compliance duties, recordkeeping duties and reporting duties. The UK business must put in place HR policies that cover the sponsor licence duties and be prepared to comment and/or show them to the Home Office.

Step 3: Complete and submit the application

The form for the sponsor licence application is an online form, which must be submitted by the AO. The supporting documents for the application must then be submitted to the Home Office within five working days.

Step 4: Comply with any requests from the Home Office and await a decision

The Home Office may ask for additional information or documents and may also visit the UK premises (if premises have been secured) to check that the appropriate HR systems are in place.

Sponsor licence applications are currently taking two to three months on average to consider. Processing can take longer if there is higher than usual demand, additional queries are raised or a pre-licence visit is considered appropriate.

A pre-licence priority service is available at a cost of £500 per application. This service allows for straight-forward applications to be considered within 10 working days of fee payment or submission of a fully complete application and supporting documents (whichever is later), however availability of this cannot be guaranteed.

Points to note about a UK Expansion Worker licence post-grant

If the application is successful, a UK Expansion Worker licence is granted for four years and cannot be renewed. The expectation is that the UK business should normally be set up within two years.

It is not possible for more than five people to be sponsored under the UK Expansion Worker licence at any one time. So, if one of five sponsored workers stops having UK immigration permission for any reason, it would be possible to ask for an additional CoS allocation of one, to replace that person. It would not be possible to request a COS allocation of two, as that would mean that six people could be in the UK at the one time.

It is ideal to plan a UK Expansion Worker sponsor licence application as early as possible due to the detailed supporting documents required and the high general demand for sponsor licences at present. If you need assistance, please get in touch with a member of our Immigration Team.

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