An in-depth look at the UK's proposed points-based immigration system

With “freedom of movement” a relic of the past due to the UK’s exit from the EU, there is a need to construct a new immigration system¬—one that will equalise opportunity for immigration between EU and non-EU residents alike. The UK has responded by creating a new points-based immigration system that will take effect in January 2021.

  • Last updated May 27, 2020 10:05:02 AM
  • By David Carnes

The system is designed to attract skilled workers and talented students from all over the world. Existing immigration rules regarding family reunion immigration, border crossing checks and asylum claims will remain largely unaffected. To the extent that the points-based system is applied, however, both EU and non-EU applicants will be treated equally.

How the points-based system works

Prospective migrants to whom the points system applies will need at least 70 points to immigrate.

Skilled workers

The general basic requirements include:

- A firm job offer from an approved employer;

- Job duties that require an "appropriate skill level" (a software engineer with a job offer as a taxi driver would be unlikely to qualify, for example); and

- Proficiency in the English language.

Meeting these three minimum qualifications will earn the prospective migrant 50 points, 20 short of the benchmark. The other 20 points can be gained through:

- An offered salary of at least £25,600, down from £30,000 under the current system (20 points). Keep in mind, however, that the minimum salary in some fields exceeds £25,600, because the applicant must be offered the higher of £25,600 or the “going rate” in the profession. The purposes of this rule are (i) to protect migrants from financial exploitation and (ii) to protect the salaries of UK citizens and residents who must compete with migrants for jobs.

- A PhD in a field related to their job offer (10 points);

- A PhD in a STEM field (20 points);

- A job offer in a designated field, such as nursing, for which the UK is experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants (20 points).

Subject to certain restrictions, accumulating an additional 20 points due to having a PhD or accepting a job in a shortage occupation can be substituted for the minimum salary requirement. A nurse at a hospital who is offered only £23,000, for example, can qualify even without meeting the minimum salary requirement of £25,600.

Highly skilled workers

Migrants who are classified as “highly skilled” can take advantage of the Global Talent visa, regardless of whether they come from an EU or non-EU country. Even without a job offer, such individuals may migrate to the UK if they are endorsed by certain professional organisations such as:

- The Royal Society;

- The Royal Academy of Engineering;

- The British Academy;

- Tech Nation;

- The Arts Council England; or

- The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), for research applicants.

The number of entrants under the Global Talent visa program will be capped at a certain number of entrants per year.

Lower skilled workers

Lower-skilled workers, unfortunately, will be left out of the points-based system, if for no other reason than they cannot meet the “appropriate skill level” requirement. Such aspiring migrants will be left with few options other than asylum claims and family reunion-based immigration.


The points-based system also applies to prospective students at UK educational institutions (mostly colleges and universities). Their point totals will be sufficient for an educational visa if they:

- have received a firm offer of admission from an approved educational institution;

- speak English at the required level; and

- prove that they possess the financial resources to support themselves during their time of study in the UK.

Effect on lawyers

In terms of the system’s effect on domestic law firms (especially immigration law firms), two competing factors apply: (i) migrants will seek legal advice because they are confused by or don’t understand the new system, and (ii) the new system is stricter than the current one, which will likely result in more rejections and, eventually, fewer applications. On balance, immigration law firms might lose business in the long term.

What about aspiring migrants who are themselves lawyers? Suppose, for example, that a US lawyer seeks to migrate to London to practise international commercial law. Will his US law degree, which takes three years of postgraduate study, be treated as the equivalent of a PhD? Will he be treated as a “skilled worker” or as a “highly skilled worker”? Either way, optimism would be justified if he has a pre-existing job offer from a UK law firm.

The performance of points-based immigration systems elsewhere in the world

Points-based immigration systems have been implemented elsewhere in the world with generally positive results. Some of the most successful examples are described below:

- The Australian points-based immigration system, known as the General Skilled Migration program, has worked so well to alleviate labor shortages that the UK used it as a model for some aspects of its own new system.

- Canada’s system has allowed the immigration of over 200,000 migrants every year, a great many of whom possess skills that are vital to the Canadian economy.

- New Zealand’s points-based immigration system allows migrants trained in certain fields to move to New Zealand with no job offer and seek employment in New Zealand for nine months. If they succeed, they can obtain permanent residence.

Issues and uncertainties

The UK’s new immigration system is not without its detractors, most of whom criticize the system for being too stringent. Some of the most prominent concerns include:

- A possible shortage of low-skilled workers, construction workers, social workers, retail workers and farmers. Disruptions in the NHS are also possible, especially with low-paid workers such as healthcare assistants. These problems could be addressed, however, by redefining some or all of these occupations as “shortage occupations”.

- Scientists and other STEM field workers will find it easier to migrate to the UK.

Ultimately, many of the predictions concerning the effect of the UK’s new point-based immigration amounts to little more than educated speculation. It will take a while before we begin to see how the system actually works in practice.

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