My work visa experience

July 9, 2015

I’m often approached by fellow Americans or folks who live in non-EU/EEA, non-Commonwealth countries wondering how to go about getting a work visa in the UK. Here’s an account about the lessons I learned during my journey towards gaining a Tier 2 work visa to live and work in the UK.

In case it isn’t apparent, I work as a software developer. Specifically, I make web applications, primarily with Ruby on Rails. In my limited anecdotal experience, it is far easier to earn private sponsorship if you are looking for work in a STEM field, because specialized skills are in demand.

I completed Makers Academy on December 5, 2014 after three months of intensive, full-time studying. Immediately after the course, I spent 4 weeks cleaning up my Github (it is very common for developers, especially junior developers, to submit their github profiles as a project portfolio), learning a few new technologies and languages (I dabbled with Node, Angular, React, Clojure, PHP, and a handful of Rack-based Ruby microframeworks), and compiling list after list of companies I was interested in working for, interview questions, and so on.

Lesson One: Build a network, and lean on it.

This first point applies to anyone looking for any kind of job, really, but I think it is especially critical if you’re looking for visa sponsorship, because you need to be an exceptional candidate.

I think the key advantage to enrolling in bootcamps – any bootcamp, as long as it’s run through a few cycles of the course before you get there – is the network behind them. This sounds really, really cliché, I know. But when I started job-searching in mid-December, I got almost no leads. HR departments were starting to cool down operations for the Christmas holiday, and my earnest inquiries for junior developer roles fell to the bottom of priority lists.

At the very end of December, a friend of mine from Makers Academy put me in touch with his friend, who at the time worked as an analyst at Company A. This friend was able to put me in touch with the lead developer at Company A, who, after exchanging a few emails, realized that we had previously met at a job fair. This lucky break put me through to the second round (of five rounds) of interviews with Company A, before the Christmas holiday.

Sure, we all know people who know people who work in these types of companies. But when it comes to landing that first junior dev interview, it’s not about just knowing someone. It’s about knowing someone who can personally vouch for your software development skills. A good friend may insist on your brilliance, but if this friend also happened to be one of your coursemates when you learned to code, their word probably carries more weight, because they can speak about you in technical terms. “My friend graduated with first-class honors” is great, but “My friend taught herself Angular in one evening and saved our final project from the ultimate mound of spaghetti jQuery” is better.

If you don’t have a bootcamp network, it’s obviously not the end of the world. But the onus is on you to get out to tech events in London. Go to at least two different meetups a week, and make an effort to go to the pub afterward and get to know new people. Find a technology or language that you’re passionate about, and find out if there’s a Slack or Gitter community around it. Go to hackathons and show off your tech skills. If you have friends who currently work in tech, bribe them with pints or coffees and get their advice on who you should be talking to in order to land your first role.

Lesson Two: Know your options

Not every company in the UK can sponsor Tier 2 visas, which is what people commonly refer to as the “work visa”. When I got my first job offer with my current company, Third Space Learning, it turned out that TSL actually did not possess a sponsorship license. This is the document that entitles a company to be able to sponsor employees.

There are three types of visas that are potentially applicable to you if you’re looking to work in the UK:

  • Tier 2 General Visa: For full-time skilled workers looking to be hired in the UK. It costs £564 to apply for a visa that lasts no longer than 3 years, but the company will usually cover this fee. This is renewable for up to 6 years, with another fee for the renewal application. It costs the company £199 per employee sponsored. There are a limited number of Tier 2 visas issued each year, and all decisions are made by UK Visas & Immigration. Companies need to possess a license for sponsorship at the time that they decide to hire you.

  • Tier 2 Intracompany Transfer Visa: If you currently work for a company trading in the US that also has a branch in the UK, you could potentially apply for intra-company transfer. I don’t know too much about this option, as I have never done it.

  • Tier 5 Government Authorized Exchange Visa: The “internship visa”, as the Tier 5 GAE is commonly known, is the second-best option if you have your heart set on working as a junior developer in the UK. It is very important to recognize that the Tier 5 visa is not meant to be a lite version of the Tier 2. As an intern, your role is to gain training and experience, not to do the work that a full-time employee could be doing, i.e. your role is “supernumerary”. To go this route, you need an offer of employment from a company as usual, and you also need to apply for sponsorship from what UKVI call an “overarching body”. Basically, the UK Government has a decentralized process of issuing internship visas. There are a handful of companies that are licensed (just like a regular Tier 2 sponsor) to issue visas, and they sponsor the intern on behalf of the company that is actually employing them. So, for example, while I worked for TSL, my official sponsor was AIESEC, and every few weeks I had to check in with my adviser at AIESEC. This is to ensure that companies are complying with labor regulations. The company employing you will have to pay AIESEC or a similar organization around £120 a month for the duration of your internship.

There is one more visa that warrants a mention, the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent Visa. I honestly know nothing about this. I don’t know anyone who has ever received this type of visa, but I guess it’s theoretically possible.

If you’re currently on a Tier 4 Student Visa, it is actually easier to switch to a Tier 2 Work Visa because companies do not need to perform the Resident Labor Market Test (RLMT), and the application process is a bit more streamlined and less costly. If you’re in this situation, move quickly because you will only have 4 months after you complete your degree to find a job. You may have to make a day trip to a Priority Service Center if you have fewer than 8 weeks between receiving an offer and your visa expiration date.

The Tier 2 Visa process

Once a company has decided to extend you an offer, they must perform the RLMT, which lasts for 30 days. The job that you are looking to fill needs to be listed on their website publicly, and if any other candidates from the UK or EU/EEA apply and have similar qualifications, the company may be obligated to interview them. In some cases, companies can extend a verbal offer or a conditional offer of employment, but obviously this is not guaranteed. If all goes well during the 30 days, around the 13th of the subsequent month, the government will send the company an official statement allowing them to proceed with the sponsorship process and extend an official offer. Afterward, you will need to leave the UK to file your individual visa application with biometric data, which takes around 3 weeks to turn around.

The rough timeline: From the day that you have your final (successful) interview, you should budget about 1.5 months until you can receive a written offer of employment, and about 2.5 months until you can start your first day of work. You can return to the UK within 2 weeks of your visa start date, in case you need to find a flat, etc.

Lesson Three: Demonstrate that you are an exceptional candidate.

The key risk that a company takes on when they decide to sponsor you is that you may leave the company before 3 years or 5 years. In addition to the cost of employee turnover, they’ve also lost the fee they paid upfront to UKVI, and any fees they may have had to pay solicitors to oversee your visa application process. So, a company that is considering hiring you wants to know two things:

  1. Is this person going to start delivering value quickly?

  2. Is this person likely to stick around for more than a few months?

In the interviews, you need to have an answer ready for the second question especially. Why do you want to stay in the UK? What’s so important here that’s keeping you here? If you’re from the US, don’t you know that tech salaries are WAY higher there right now?

In consulting, there’s a concept called the “Airport Test”. Consultants spend a lot of time traveling in pairs or groups, so any candidate who comes in for an interview needs to be someone that the interviewer can see themselves spending six hours with in an airport terminal, waiting for a delayed flight. A tech interview is a little bit different – you probably won’t be traveling (unless you’re going for a consultancy like 8th Light, Thoughtworks, etc.) but you do need to show that your personality fits in with the company’s engineering culture.

When I was finishing Makers, Samantha and Ruben repeatedly emphasized the importance of having a clean portfolio. At the time, I didn’t really understand why, but looking back, I can verify that this was some stellar advice.

The final and most critical factor in getting hired is that your technical ability has to be rock solid for a junior developer. The companies that are most willing to bear the cost of sponsoring a junior developer is likely one that cares about keeping employee turnover low, which means that developer satisfaction is reasonably high in their priorities list. This is a bit of a generalization, but happy developers are generally developers that are intellectually stimulated everyday and have the freedom to produce high-quality code if they wish to.

This means that your Github needs to contain code samples that are well-tested, well-documented, and demonstrate, at the very least, that you know what best practices are. Have good commit messages, variables that are clearly named, and don’t litter comments all over the place. READMEs are really important. They should specify exactly which dependencies you need, how to install them, and how to run your application (or test suite, if it’s not a full-fledged application).

Closing thoughts

Many of these tips are not specific to finding employment as a US citizen in the UK. They’re generally applicable for anyone who wants to land a good junior developer role. But because employers are more hesitant to sponsor a visa for a junior developer, and therefore more discerning about candidates to whom they would extend this offer, it is even more important that you stand out in the applicant pool. Present the best version of yourself possible, and if you’re not happy with your current skill level, take a few weeks to hone them. Seek code reviews from more experienced developers if possible. Read blogs written by really smart developers. Don’t go a day without committing something to Github. Try to convince your prospective employer through your actions that, for the bargain price of a junior developer, they are actually getting someone much more passionate, informed, and self-motivated than the usual crop.

It is also worth flagging that many tech companies in the UK have a three-month period at the beginning of a junior developer’s employment with them. This might be called a “trial period”, an “apprenticeship”, “graduate training”, or something similar. If a company has this scheme, don’t be surprised if they balk at sponsoring your visa, because you are not a full-fledged employee until your trial period is complete. It is disheartening to get to the final stage only to be told that a company does not want to go through the process of securing a visa for someone who may potentially not make it past three months, but don’t lose hope. Find confidence in the fact that you did make it this far, and that the next company who wants to employ you may decide that you’re so awesome, they’re going to take a chance on you.

I hope this helps. If you have any thoughts to add, feel free to tweet at me. Happy job-hunting!