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A look back at immigration developments in 2023, and a look ahead at what's to come

Posted on 20 December 2023

The year 2023 has been a bumper year for immigration. While in other parts of the world immigration law is fairly stable, in the UK, the Government can (with some exceptions) change the Immigration Rules fairly easily and without advance notice, meaning UK immigration requirements are frequently changing. We consider some of the most notable developments of the past year below.

Reflecting on 2023

1. Minimum salary rise for Skilled Worker and Senior or Specialist Workers

In the UK, only those paid over a certain salary threshold are eligible to apply for a "work permit" visa to enable them to be sponsored by their UK employer to work in the UK. In April 2023, the minimum general salary thresholds for Skilled Workers and Global Business Mobility (''GBM'') Senior or Specialist Workers were increased. For Skilled Workers, the minimum general salary threshold was increased from £25,600 per annum to £26,200 per annum. For GBM Senior or Specialist Workers, it was increased from £42,400 per annum to £45,800 per annum.

The UK Government has recently announced that it plans to raise the minimum salary for Skilled Workers even further to £38,700 per annum from next Spring. The detail remains to be seen, including whether the increase will apply to those who already have Skilled Worker visas and are applying to extend them. For more information see our breakdown on the new skilled worker visa permits.

2. Launch of the Innovator Founder route

In April 2023, the UK launched the new Innovator Founder visa aimed at individuals wishing to set up an innovative, viable, and scalable business in the UK. The Innovator Founder route replaced and consolidated the old "Innovator" and "Start Up" routes, with the aim of providing greater flexibility to attract entrepreneurial talent to the UK.

Under the Innovator Founder route, the Government removed the requirement previously imposed on those applying under the Innovator visa category of having at least £50,000 to invest in the business. In addition, Innovator Founders are not restricted to working solely for the UK business which they have set up and can undertake secondary employment, provided the role meets the relevant skill threshold (at least RQF level 3 (equivalent to A-level or above)). Finally, the visa now only requires a minimum of two, rather than three, contact points throughout the three-year visa. This should reduce administrative concerns and allow applicants to develop their business under a less pressured timescale. For more information see: Launch of the Innovator Founder visa route

3. Changes to rules for indefinite leave to remain (ILR) on the basis of Long Residence

In certain circumstances, individuals who have spent at least 10 years living in the UK may be eligible to apply for ILR under the long residence rules. In April 2023, the rules governing such applications were changed to exclude any time spent in the UK as a visitor, short-term student or on the seasonal worker routes as eligible time to count towards the qualifying period for ILR.

Moreover, to qualify for ILR under the 10-year long residence route, applicants must not have spent any more than six months out of the UK at any one time, and no more than 18 months outside the UK in the whole 10-year period. The Home Office Caseworker Guidance was updated to clarify that that six-months equates to 184 days, and the 18-month period to 548 days. Consequently, the maximum total absences limit for ILR under the long residence rules is 548 days in total over the 10 years.

4. Five more countries added to the UK Visa National List

Citizens of certain countries, such as the USA, Canada, Australia, and EU countries, can travel to the UK as visitors without first obtaining a visitor visa. Such individuals are known as "non-visa nationals" and their eligibility to enter the UK is assessed upon arrival at the UK border.

Citizens who are required to apply for a visitor visa prior to travelling to the UK are known as "visa nationals". A list of visa national countries is maintained in the Immigration Rules.

In July 2023, the Government added five more countries to the visa national list: Dominica, Honduras, Namibia, Timor-Leste, and Vanuatu. Consequently, citizens of these countries can no longer travel to the UK as a visitor without first obtaining a visitor visa.

5. Introduction of the ETA scheme

In October 2023, the Home Office launched a new system for non-visa nationals wishing to visit the UK called the Electronic Travel Authorisation Scheme (''ETA Scheme'').

Under the ETA Scheme, non-visa nationals wishing to visit the UK will need to apply online for permission to travel to the UK in advance of check-in and arrival in the UK. The new scheme is similar to entry systems already in operation in other countries, such as the USA's ESTA system.

It is important to note that the ETA is not a visa which permits entry to the UK; it is solely permission to travel to the UK. The non-visa national will still be assessed at the UK border as to their eligibility to enter the UK.

The ETA Scheme is being introduced in phases. As of 15 November 2023, it has been applicable only to Qatari nationals travelling to the UK. However, the scheme is set to broaden in February 2024, to include Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is envisaged that by the end of 2024, all visa nationals will need to apply for an ETA prior to travelling to the UK as visitors.

Please see Launch of the UK's new Electronic Travel Authorisation scheme for more information.

6. Rise in visa and nationality fees

In October 2023, there was a substantial increase in visa and nationality fees: work and visit visas rose by 15%, family visas, settlement and citizenship by 20%, and student visas by a significant 35%. This surge in visa fees, coupled with an imminent increase in the Immigration Health Surcharge from 2024, has led to escalated costs for visa applicants and employers sponsoring workers.

7. Changes to the EU Settlement Scheme

This year has seen various changes to the EU Settlement Scheme (''EUSS''), the most notable being as follows:

  • Late Applications -  From August 2023, the Immigration Rules were changed to reflect a shift in policy in relation to applications submitted late to the EUSS. While the deadline for EU nationals living in the UK prior to Brexit to apply for status under the EUSS was 30 June 2021, the Home Office continued to accept applications after this date, showing a flexible approach in enabling EU nationals to preserve their rights to reside in the UK.

    On the 9 August 2023, the Home Office's policy in relation to late applications hardened. Since this date, the Home Office assesses whether there are reasonable grounds for the delay in submitting the application before moving on to consider the substance of the application. If the Home Office considers that there are no reasonable grounds for the application being submitted late, the application is rejected as invalid, and the application is not further assessed on its merits. Due to being rejected as invalid, the applicant is not granted a right of appeal, and the only recourse will be to apply for judicial review of the decision. Following this change, the statistics show the majority of late EUSS applications are now being rejected as invalid.

  • Automatic two-year extension of Pre-Settled Status - From September 2023, those in the UK with Pre-Settled Status will have their permission to remain automatically extended by two years before it expires, without needing to make an application to the Home Office.

  • Automatic grant of Settled Status - From 2024, the Home Office plans to automatically convert Pre-Settled Status to Settled Status, for those who are eligible. The exact eligibility criteria and details of the process are still to be released, but it is thought that the Home Office will be reviewing DWP and HMRC records to make their determination.

    Although this seems to indicate a positive change, we advise that eligible individuals continue to apply for settled status as soon as they are able to do so, and in any event before their pre-settled status expires, to avoid any mistaken refusal of automatic Settled Status by the Home Office.

  • Removal of a right of administrative review - From October 2023, applicants who are refused status under the EUSS no longer have the right of administrative review to have their application reconsidered. Administrative review is a more straightforward way of challenging a refusal decision, rather than pursuing a formal appeal or judicial review, which are both time-consuming and expensive remedies.

8. Changes to Student visa rules

In July 2023, the Government announced that the right of international students to bring dependant family members with them to the UK will end, unless studying on a postgraduate course designated as a research programme. The Government has also removed the ability for students to switch into a work visa route before their studies have been completed. However, students studying a full-time course at degree level or above can apply to switch to a work visa before their course has completed, provided their work start date is on or after the date when their course ends. PhD students are eligible to switch after 24 months of study.

9. Expansion of Youth Mobility Scheme

The Youth Mobility Scheme is the UK's "working holiday" visa. It allows young adults from certain countries to enter the UK for a period of two or three years to live and work in the UK.

From June 2023, the age range for eligible nationals of New Zealand to apply for a Youth Mobility Scheme visa was increased to 18-35 (instead of the usual 18-30) and they became eligible for a three-year visa, an increase from the standard two years.

From January 2024, an enhanced age range of 18-35 will also apply to nationals from Australia, Canada, and the Republic of Korea. In addition, Andorra and Uruguay are being added to the list of countries participating in the scheme, and there will be an increased quota of visas available for nationals of Japan and the Republic of Korea, as well as a more flexible application process. Further expansions to this visa route are expected in due course as the UK continues its trade negotiations with other countries.

Looking ahead to 2024

  1. Anticipated UK general election: All eyes are on the general election to see whether a potential Labour government will adopt a stricter or more liberal immigration policy. The Labour Party has been seeking feedback from stakeholders on a future immigration system, but full details of any Labour immigration policy remain to be seen.
  2. Increase in illegal working fines: Employers hiring workers without work permission will face fines tripling from £15,000 to £45,000 for a first breach, and from £20,000 to £60,000 for repeated breaches. Landlords' fines will also increase significantly from £80 per lodger and £1,000 per occupier for a first breach to up to £5,000 per lodger and £10,000 per occupier. This policy is part of the UK government's efforts to deter irregular migration.
  3. Transition to digital status by Home Office: The Home Office is shifting to a digital default system. Individuals will create a UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) account during their visa application process. They can then log in to the View and Prove service on GOV.UK to access their online immigration status, also known as an eVisa.
  4. Major Increase in Immigration Health Surcharge: The contribution made upfront by applicants coming to the UK for six months or more to access NHS services in the UK is set to increase substantively on the 16 January 2024. The main rate is due to increase by 66% from £624 to £1,035 per visa year, and the discounted rate from £470 to £776 per visa year.
  5. Simplification and expansion of the UK's business visitor visa from January 2024: The permitted business activities for business visitors will broaden to allow intra-corporate work, remote work, expanded roles for legal professionals, and simplified rules for Permitted Paid Engagements.
  6. Hike in minimum salary for Skilled Workers and GBM routes, and will the Shortage Occupation List be scrapped? The cost of work visas in the UK is considerably higher than other developed countries and has been continuing to increase. The minimum salary threshold for the Skilled Worker visa will increase by nearly 50% from £26,200 to £38,700, exempting most health and care workers. The Shortage Occupation List (SOL) is to be replaced with a new Immigration Salary List, scrapping the 20% discount applied to the minimum salary for visa applicants applying for shortage occupation roles.
  7. Financial requirements for family visas: The minimum salary threshold for a family visa will also be raised from £18,600 to £38,700, significantly impacting couples wanting to move to the UK.
  8. Refugees: The Government's controversial policy to send those seeking asylum in the UK to Rwanda has continued to create headlines throughout 2023. With the Supreme Court's finding that Rwanda is not a safe country for such individuals, it remains to be seen whether the Government's attempt to assert Parliament's judgement that Rwanda is a safe country through the passing of the Safety of Rwanda (Immigration and Asylum) Bill will be sufficient to circumvent the Court's judgement.

If you would like more information on how best to manage these issues for you and your family, please get in touch with a member of the Immigration team.

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