Virginia, US

Last week I wrote a short piece plotting the UK immigration system against the investment life cycle, setting out how entrepreneurs and start-ups can secure visas as they grow.

This week I want to talk about an excellent visa category that can help exceptionally talented people at each stage of their career in tech.

The Tech Nation visa is a spin off of the slightly obscure Tier 1 (Exceptional Talent) visa. The Exceptional Talent visa was a visa created by the team I worked for in the Home Office, before joining Fragomen. 

Various bodies in science and the arts had told us that people who are clearly great were missing out on visas because objective policy could not identify subjective brilliance. I really liked our response: if it’s that easy to spot brilliant people you can do it yourself… 

From there, the Exceptional Talent visa was created. Various renowned organisations, for instance, the Arts Council and Royal Society, were designated as competent bodies and given the power to endorse an annual total of 1,000 exceptionally talented migrants for visas. Those visas were then more or less granted so long as their immigration and criminal histories were clean.

In practice, it turned out that spotting and endorsing the exceptionally talented wasn’t easy as they thought and the number of entrants was low. Tech City, brilliantly, used that low take up to pitch for a share of the quota. They can now endorse 200 people per year, through the Tech Nation visa.

How can you get a Tech Nation Visa?

First off, you either need to be working in the technical or business sides of the tech industry. Secondly, you need to either be a leader in your field or have the potential to get to that level, known as exceptional talent or exceptional promise, respectively. That’s the start, but, it is not good enough to think of yourself as brilliant; two other brilliant people – normally holding senior positions in a tech firm or university - must be so convinced that they will write in support of your application.

So, how is exceptional talent defined and evidenced?

Any successful applicant has to either: 
  • Have a proven track record of innovation in the digital technology sector as a director, founder or employee of a digital technology sector company; or
  • Have been recognised for work outside their immediate occupation that has contributed to the advancement of the tech sector.
Do you tick one of those boxes?  Great, so next you need to tick two of these boxes by having:
  • Made significant technical, commercial, or entrepreneurial contributions in the digital technology sector as either a director, founder, or entrepreneur of a digital technology company;
  • Been recognised as a world-leading talent in the digital technology sector;
  • Undergone continuous learning / mastery of new digital skills (commercial or technical) throughout your career; or
  • Demonstrated exceptional ability in the field by making academic contributions through research.
This is a pretty high bar and intentionally so – the Tech Nation visa isn’t for everyone of course and Tech City only given 200 endorsements available each year. I can tell from speaking to clients that this uncertainty can leave even the most successful people in something of a spin – what does all of this mean in practice and can they qualify?

To my mind, the trick is to begin by working out what your story is. How have you innovated and what did it achieve? If you founded a company how much money did it make, how did it change the market or what public recognition did it (and you) receive? We are all learning constantly – but how did your learning change the way you think about and operate in tech?

Essentially, how compelling is your story and who can attest to it as a referee? 

This is all very subjective and difficult to define. I often feel like you get the best sense of likelihood of success when you meet a candidate and hear that story. You almost benchmark them against others you’ve met.

But the visa is a good choice for people in tech, despite the uncertainty. You can get up to five years stay in the UK upfront and then go on to apply for permanent residence. You don’t have the sponsorship constraints put on you by work visas and your family can live and work here too. Best of all you can take a job, become a contractor or found a business – the world’s your oyster.

Other visas can work well in Tech too of course, but this is probably the best if you can qualify.