Many businesses have employees who work for their company in the UK but who are primarily resident in another EU country.

When the Brexit transition period came to an end on 31 December 2020, EU free movement laws that had facilitated these sorts of cross-border working arrangements also came to an end and a new UK skills-based immigration system has now come into effect.

For businesses that wish to continue to engage EU employees to work in the UK some or all of the time after 31 December, the new Frontier Worker Permit could be the answer.

Who is a frontier worker?

For these purposes, a frontier worker is:

  • an EU, EEA or Swiss citizen;
  • who is employed or self-employed in the UK but who lives elsewhere; and
  • who began working in the UK before 31 December 2020.

For example, a Belgian employee from your office in Brussels who works in the UK one week per month but who is well established in Belgium, whose role is based in Brussels, and whose family and friends are also in Belgium.

Please note that Irish citizens will not need to do anything in order to continue to work in the UK from 1 January 2021 and will not, therefore, need to apply for a Frontier Worker Permit.

What is a Frontier Worker Permit?

A Frontier Worker Permit will allow the holder to enter the UK in order to work. It will be valid for five years for workers and two years for people who are self-employed and can be renewed.

Application and key dates

The new scheme launched on 10 December 2020 and frontier workers can now apply online from inside or outside the UK. Applications will be free, employers will not need to have a sponsorship licence, and there will not be any qualifying criteria relating to skills or salary. There is no deadline for making an application but frontier workers will need a valid permit in order to enter the UK for work from 1 July 2021 onwards.

As noted above, only individuals who were engaged to work in the UK before 31 December 2020 will qualify for the new frontier worker permit.

What about EU workers recruited after 31 December 2020?

From 1 January 2021, the current system of recruiting non-EU nationals has now been extended to include EU nationals. If businesses wish to employ EU workers from abroad to work for their organisation in the UK, they will need to sponsor them (unless the EU worker has already secured status under the EU Settlement Scheme). In order to sponsor EU workers, a business must first obtain a sponsor licence, if they do not have one already.

What is a sponsor licence?

A sponsor licence gives a business permission to employ workers from abroad to work in the UK. Subsequently, it allows migrant workers to apply for a work visa to facilitate employment in the UK. Once a business is granted a sponsor licence they will be listed under the Register of Sponsors. The number of licenced sponsors has significantly increased in the last five years as more businesses have discovered the invaluable benefits. A sponsor licence allows businesses to gain access to a global pool of talent and have the ability to find the best talent to fit their business.  

When applying for a sponsor licence, a business will need to specify which tier or tiers they are applying for:

  1. Skilled Worker - the Skilled Workers route was previously known as the Tier 2 (General) route. It allows businesses to recruit migrants from abroad to fill a skilled vacancy in the UK.
  2. Intra-Company - the Intra-Company route was previously known as the Intra-Company Transfer (ICT) route. It allows established workers of multinational companies, to be transferred by their overseas company, to work in a skilled role for a linked entity in the UK.

Is this the new system?

The new work visa system became effective from 1 December 2020 in preparation for the new post-Brexit immigration system which took effect in full from 1 January 2021. Some of the key changes that businesses should expect include:

  • Reduction in the skill threshold for the skilled workers route. This has been reduced from RQF level 6 (bachelor’s level) to RQF level 3 (A-level).
  • Abolition of the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) which was the process of advertising a job for a period of 28 days to settled workers before the job could be offered to a migrant.
  • The salary threshold has been reduced from £30,000 to £25,600 or the going rate for the skilled occupation.
  • Removal of the cap for Restricted Certificate of Sponsorship which means there are no restrictions on the number of migrant workers a business can employ from abroad.

In order to prepare for the new immigration changes, employers should review their recruitment plans to assess whether the above routes would be relevant for their employees.