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How Tech Start-ups Can Recruit The Overseas Talent They Need To Grow

One of the greatest challenges UK tech start-ups face when looking to scale-up is getting the right talent to help them achieve their commercial ambitions.

According to research published by the Silicon Valley Bank, 57% of tech start-ups cite access to talent as their most important public policy issue. A 2015 report by PwC stated that a whopping 78% of UK tech companies see a skills shortage in digital expertise as one of their main barriers to progress.

Theresa May's announcement last week that the UK is pulling out of the single market and clamping down hard on immigration from the EU, is going to make the situation even more difficult, if not impossible. Further impediments to being able to recruit top talent may see start-ups choosing to set up in Paris, Berlin, or even Eastern Europe, which has a rapidly growing tech sector.

The truth is Britain cannot supply enough of the skills needed by the burgeoning tech sector itself. Even if we focused all education efforts on developing great STEM and tech graduates, results would not be seen for years down the line, and businesses need people today. In fact, for many, yesterday.

According to EU Start-ups, the UK currently employs over a third of tech talent and London, where 40% of start-ups have at least one overseas founder, is the most common destination for EU tech jobseekers.

No entrepreneur ever achieved success without a positive attitude and fortunately there remains a great deal of government support for tech start-ups, not only in London but throughout the whole of the UK. After Brexit, regardless of its current stance on immigration, Theresa May and her Cabinet will have to offer some delectable benefits to employers to ensure they continue to grow, and more importantly, continue to stay in the UK.

Tech City and the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa

Tech start-ups can recruit employees from outside the UK by taking advantage of the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa. One thousand of these visas are issued every year with 200 reserved for the tech industry. The visas are endorsed by Tech City UK, which was launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010.

One advantage of hiring someone who possesses a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa is that as an employer, you do not have to obtain a UK Sponsor Licence or complete a Resident Labour Market Test to recruit the visa holder. The visa lasts for five years, at the end of which, the holder can apply for Indefinite Leave to remain.

Eligibility for a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa.

To successfully apply for one of the 200 visas available under the Tech Nation Visa Scheme, the applicant must be from outside the EEA.

The process is two-fold; the applicant must be endorsed by Tech City as an exceptional tech talent. Secondly, they must obtain entry clearance into the UK.


To be endorsed for a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa in the tech sector, applicants must meet at least one of the following two mandatory criteria:

  • Have a proven track record of innovation in the digital technology sector, as the founder or director of a tech company or an employee working in a new digital field or innovation; or
  • Have received outside recognition of their work which has contributed to the advancement of their sector (i.e. mentoring or teaching).

They must also meet two out of four of the following qualifying criteria

  • Have made a significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contribution to the tech sector as an entrepreneur, direct or founder of a tech company.
  • Be recognised around the world as a leading talent in the digital technology sector.
  • Undergone continuous learning / mastery of new digital skills (commercial or technical) throughout your career;
  • Demonstrated exceptional ability in the field by making academic contributions through research (e.g. journals or awards).

The applicant can apply under the exceptional promise category if they can prove they are on-track to achieve the required mandatory and qualifying criteria in the near future.

Fast-tracked applications

In 2015, the government recognised the importance recruiting top talent is to the tech industry. After obtaining direct feedback from the digital business community, it created the following fast-track criteria for applications under the Tech Nation Visa Scheme.

  • The applicant plans to make a contribution in the North of the UK (i.e. plan to work in or set up a company in one of Tech North's seven cities: Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and Sunderland or the surrounding regions).
  • The applicant has specific skills needed in the UK
  • The applicant is part of a team of up to five people, which allows start-ups to recruit entire teams in order to scale-up quickly

Under the fast-track route, Tech City UK can provide a decision on endorsement within 18 days.


If the applicant successfully achieves endorsement, the Home Office must consider whether there is any reason for the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa to be refused. There is no English language requirement or financial maintenance criteria relevant to the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa.

If the applicant is successful, they are free to accept a position in the UK or be self-employed.

Final words

The number of applications under the Tech Nation Visa Scheme has dramatically increased over the past 12 months. The top countries for tech visa applicants were the USA, India and Nigeria.

This route offers a genuine opportunity for tech start-ups to recruit talent from abroad, without the need to invest in a Sponsor Licence and its ever increasing compliance obligations.

The team at Reiss Edwards consists of some of London's leading immigration lawyers. If you require expert legal advice on obtaining a Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa under the Tech Nation Visa Scheme, or recruiting someone who plans to apply for endorsement under the Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) Visa route, please call us on 020 3744 2797.

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