Road to the UK's Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa
My last Computer Science exam at King's College London finished on May 19, 2017, meaning that my graduation is around the corner, as well as the expiration of my Tier 4 student visa in the UK.
I'm always so sure about what's next. Last year, I started to draft my life after my graduation, leaving myself a first choice and backup options. The most ideal option was to build a start-up upon my final year project. The second most ideal option was to get a proper software engineer/developer job in London, switching to the Tier 2 visa. There were also many other backup options like doing a PhD, moving to Trumpland, or going back to China and getting a job there, etc.
Initially, I was thinking of possibilities of combing different options: building the start-up alongside something that guarantees me a visa. A Tier 4 student visa does not allow me to be involved in any business activity, so I cannot simply start a company while studying for PhD. Getting a job in London sounds strong and stable, however, the Tier 2 visa also has its own limitation – your employer has to prove that your job cannot be filled by a settled worker, and workers coming to the UK to fill shortage occupations, your annual salary has to be over a certain amount, and so on (see all requirements here). Plus, there's lots of hassle if you need to change your job.
Never gonna give you up – what if I want to only pursue my first choice which is to build the start-up? Well, a visa is still needed, it's more risky (if the start-up fails) and some flexibility is required (as I need to have some sort of income, let's say part-time jobs). Only two visa categories were left for this option: Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur (let's say G-Ent) and Exceptional Talent (let's call it ExT). There were lots of conversation going on about which category I should choose back in early 2017, and it made me (sort of) professional talking about these two visa categories.
For me, getting the G-Ent visa is not hard as my initial start-up idea was chosen to join the King's20 Accelerator run by King's Entrepreneurship Institute back in Summer 2016. Students who have great ideas may be endorsed by the institute, and the visa application only requires the endorsement (and of course, the bank statement for your maintenance). G-Ent visas are only valid for one year but can be extended for another year. After that, you have to switch to the Tier 1 Entrepreneur visa, which requires access to £50,000 investment funds from up to 24 months before the Tier 1 Entrepreneur application (this only applies to those who are switching to Tier 1 Entrepreneur from G-Ent). This seems a bit risky as the start-up might fail or you may not be able to have access to the £50,000 funds. If this happens, you have to return to your home country unfortunately. Considering this, I had a look at the ExT visa category.
ExT sounded really promising to me as I could stay up to 5 years and 4 months (as I had to apply from outside the UK, otherwise 5 years), and I could basically do anything except getting public funds, working as a doctor/dentist or a professional sportsman/coach (all details here about Tier 1 ExT). The only drawback was I had to pay the NHS surcharge for 5 years, all at once (currently ~£200/year, but the Tories are planning to raise it to £600...).
In the ExT program, you can apply as either a recognized leader (exceptional talent) or an emerging leader (exceptional promise). It is also a 2-stage application – you first need to apply to the Home Office for endorsement in your particular field, then you can apply for the visa with the endorsement. For me, I chose to go down the exceptional promise route as I wasn't a graduate and all my achievements did not fit into the exceptional talent route. [You can check the differences in Tech City UK's guidance, if your application is under the Digital Technology sector. For other professional fields, you can check the UKVI's policy guidance.]
** Update (Nov. 15, 2017): The UK Government is doubling total number of Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas (was 1,000, now 2,000 per year).
It all made sense to me and I was ready to prepare the documents for the stage-1 application back in February 2017. At that time, I met another person who was granted the ExT visa before. My confidence had never been that strong after the conversation with her, thanks to her encouragement. So eventually I got two recommendation letters from two different senior members of different established organizations in the digital technology sector, one in London and the other in New York. Additionally, I highlighted all the qualifying criteria in the guidance PDF and tried really hard to provide evidence for those criteria. This process included tidying up my GitHub profile, printing out each media coverage on both sides of a single A4 paper, and so on. I also put different documents into different plastic folders and labeled which document was related to which criteria, printed out the application form, got everything checked for several times, and finally put them into an envelope and sent them off to Home Office.
Unless you fit the fast-track criteria, the official waiting time for getting a decision is 8 weeks. May 3rd, 2017 was a really important date for me as I got an email from "Exceptional Talent Endorsements" with a PDF file attached. The email only said please find the decision letter, which was quite scary as I wouldn't know what the decision was. Luckily, the PDF file stated that "Tech City UK has advised that you meet their criteria...". After laughing inaudibly for a few minutes and sharing the message with a few close friends, I immediately started the stage-2 application, following the instructions on the endorsement letter.
The stage-2 application was actually more complicated than I expected, as there were so many details that couldn't be confirmed back then. Here, professionals for visa application were needed and I went to King's student visa advisor. [At this moment, I think having an advisor who is reliable to work with is really important – anything you're not sure about can be easily filled out with professional instructions. Also, an advisor can tell if there's any extra documents you need to prepare, based on your case.] We sat together and went through the whole application form on the Visa4UK website. After that things became easy as I only had to select a Post Office for BRP collection, book an appointment with a visa application center (VAC), and, spend $$$$.
If you are currently a Tier 4 student visa holder, you cannot switch it to the ExT visa inside the UK. You have to make a visa application from your home country and hand your application in person to the VAC. That's why I traveled back to China and stayed in Shanghai for almost a week. However, 7 days after my visa appointment, I got an email from UKVI requesting supporting documents. It turned out that the VAC failed to send all scanned documents to UKVI and the caseworker at UKVI also was not familiar with the process. After all sorts of communication, I got a notification saying my passport was handed over to the delivery service on the 12th working day. [So make sure your VAC successfully sends all docs to UKVI to avoid any possible delays!]
Now I can finally relax and enjoy family time, and wait to be back in London. Oh, don't forget to get the BRP and update the police registration if you are told to do so!
Good luck if you're applying for Tier 1 ExT visa!
- All UK work visas: https://www.gov.uk/browse/visas-immigration/work-visas
- Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) visa overview: https://www.gov.uk/tier-1-entrepreneur
- Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa overview: https://www.gov.uk/tier-1-exceptional-talent
- Tech City UK guidelines and application online: https://www.technationvisa.com
*DISCLAIMER: consulting immigration advisors are highly recommended. This article is not legal advice, it's only for your information.