Visas: What does a gig economy worker need to come to the UK?

With no stand-alone work route that allows a freelancer to work in the UK, Alex Christen explains what visa someone needs if they want to come and work in the gig economy

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Gig economy workers tend to be self-employed individuals who use technology platforms to provide short term services to businesses. It’s essentially the opposite of traditional long-term employment. Gig economy workers aren’t always tied to one business either, offering their services to a range of businesses on a freelance basis. 

The employment rights for gig economy workers have been under the spotlight in recent years, but what about immigration? Does the UK’s new immigration system cater for those wanting to come to the UK to work in the gig economy?

The short answer is that there are significant gaps. There is no stand-alone work route that allows a freelancer to work in the UK. Instead, they must work their way through the visa routes to see which might apply. Some of the routes require the worker to have a sponsor who will vouch for their compliance with the Home Office rules and this doesn’t often work for gig economy workers.

What are the options?

Anyone wanting to come to the UK on a freelance basis should first check if they are eligible for a route that gives them the right to work in the UK in any role, without a sponsor.

If they are an EU national, they may still be able to make a late application under the EU settlement scheme, or for a frontier worker permit, but there are challenges with these routes. Both require the applicant to have been working in the UK before end of 2020 and significant absences from the UK since then will pose an issue, unless the absences are for a prescribed reason. More importantly, the EU Settlement Scheme technically closed on 30 June 2022, but late applications will be considered in limited circumstances.  

Non-UK nationals should look at routes such as the ancestry route, which allows Commonwealth citizens with British grandparents to apply for a five-year ancestry visa, after which they can apply for indefinite leave to remain. 

Then there is the youth mobility route, which allows young workers from certain countries to work in the UK for two years. These are relatively niche, as is the high potential individual route which allows graduates from top global universities to stay in the UK for two to three years. Sadly, the entrepreneur and investor visa routes have closed, and only those wanting to create an innovative, new business enterprise in the UK can apply under the business development categories. 

The service supplier route is possibly the closest route aligned to self-employment, as it enables an eligible individual to come to the UK for a limited period to provide services to a UK company. However, the eligibility criteria are strict and the individual must be sponsored by the UK company, adding a layer of inflexibility.

Some work can be done under the visitor route, but this is very limited and the individual must not be paid from a UK source.

Gig economy workers need to be sure of their employment status as well. If someone is technically an ‘employee’ (or even a ‘worker’) because of the way they provide their services to a UK business, this could call into question whether the immigration route they have chosen to come into the UK still works. This won’t be an issue if they have chosen a route that allows them to work in any role in the UK in any capacity, but it is always better to seek advice in advance.

Alex Christen leads the business immigration team at Capital Law