UK Startup Visa Application – A step-by-step guide and 5 expert tips to increase your chances of success

For people that wish to start a business and settle in the UK, there are a few options available, but not all of them are going to be viable. By far the most successful of these is the Startup and Innovator visa which can provide you with the opportunity to create your own business while establishing your settled status in the UK. 

While these visas are a good way to begin your life and business in the UK, they need to be carefully prepared so that you have the best possible chance of success. If you don’t provide the correct information or evidence at each stage of the process, the chance of being granted this visa is slim. 

To help achieve the best results and provide the support needed, this comprehensive guide will outline all of the necessary steps you need to take to complete a successful application. It will also provide useful tips and guidance on what your business needs to do to be considered favourably by the Home Office and meet the visa criteria.

Overview of UK start-up visa

The start-up visa opens the door to ambitious entrepreneurs from outside the EEA and Switzerland who want to start a new business in the UK. A few distinct features of this visa makes it an attractive alternative to other UK entrepreneur visa routes.

  • Can apply without funding or strong business experience: There are no requirements for extensive funding to apply for the visa. If you are talented and ambitious enough you can apply with little or no prior business experience.
  • Non-graduates are welcome to apply: You don’t need a have degree or be a graduate to apply for this visa.
  • Valid for two years: The startup visa is valid for two years. You can’t extend this visa but you can switch to another category such as innovator visa or work permit.
  • Paid employment is allowed: Whilst you are in the UK with a startup visa, you can carry out paid work for another company whilst you build your own business.
  • Can bring family members: You can bring your family members which include spouse and children under 18 years old.
  • International Tier 4 students are eligible: Although Tier 4 (General) student can’t take part in certain business activities as a student (except Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur categories or as a Tier 4 student on the doctorate extension scheme), they can, however, carry out preliminary business activities such as writing business plans and applying for a startup visa.

Who can apply for a start-up visa

Before you plan to apply you must check that you meet the eligibility criteria or visa requirements. Some of the key points are:

  • Age: You are at least 18 years old
  • Citizenship: You are from a non-EEA country
  • First UK business: You must have not set up a UK company before. There are some exceptions for someone who is already in the UK.
  • Business Plan: You have a sound business plan that could help the economy of the UK
  • Endorsement: Your business plan must have received an endorsement from one of the endorsement bodies assigned by the UK government. More details will be discussed below.
  • Maintenance fund: You have £945 in your personal bank account for the next consecutive 90 days before you submit your visa application. You do not need to provide evidence of maintenance funds if the letter from your endorsing body confirms you have been awarded funding of at least £945.
  • English language: You must also have met one of the English proficiency test requirements: 1) A test result of approved English language tests at the level of at least CEFR B2 in reading, writing, listening, and speaking (IELTS 5.5-6.0). 2) Alternatively, you have an academic degree that was taught in the English medium of instruction and is recognised by UK NARIC as being equivalent to a UK bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree or PhD. 3) If you are a citizen of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, New Zealand, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the USA.
  • General grounds or refusal: You must not fall for refusal under the general grounds and must not be in the UK in breach of immigration laws.

Main benefits of a start-up visa

The key benefits of a startup visa are:

  • Work flexibility: You can work for outside companies alongside developing your startup idea. This gives you a particularly good chance to acquire additional skills and do better in your startup venture.
  • Bring Family Members: Another advantage is you can apply for your family at the same time·
  • Switch from/to other visa routes: Start-up visa replaces the Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur visa. You can switch from Tier 1 Graduate Entrepreneur Visa, any Tier 2 Work visa, Tier 4 General Student visa, and Standard Visitor visa subject to some restrictions. You can also switch to other categories from startup visa as well.
  • Apply as part of an entrepreneurial team: You can apply as a sole founder, or working together as part of an entrepreneurial team.
  • No restrictions on business category: Unlike the previous Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) category, there are no business category restrictions, for example, relating to property development. The core criteria idea needs to be sufficiently innovative, viable and scalable.

Some limitations of a start-up visa

The major limitations are:

  • Extension: Start-up visa can’t be extended after 2 years. You can switch to another category such as Innovator visa, Tier 2 work visa or Tier 4 General student visa.
  • Settlement: You can’t get settlement with this visa. However, you can switch to innovator visa which gives you the option to apply for settlement.
  • Public funds: You can’t get assistance from public funds such as housing or child benefit etc.
  • Restricted work categories: You can’t work as a professional sportsperson, for example, a sports coach or work as a doctor or dentist in training.
  • Specific qualities of business Idea: Startup and innovator visa categories are not designed for people who are establishing a business which is not innovative, viable and scalable.
  • Already trading business: You can not join in an already trading business. The Tier 2 skilled work route may be more appropriate. You can not seek to invest in an already trading business – the Tier 1 Investor category may be more appropriate. 

How do I get a start-up business visa

Here are the key steps you need to take to get and retain your start-up visa.

Step 1 – Prepare your startup business idea

You need to develop a startup business idea considering your background, passion, technical or entrepreneurial strength and future potential. Remember that you also need to satisfy the endorsing bodies to get your idea endorsed. The next step will go into more detail.

Step 2 – Get your business idea endorsed from a relevant endorsing body

For your startup visa application, you need to apply for an endorsement from a registered endorsing body in the UK. Endorsing bodies are either a UK higher education institution or a business organisation that have a track record of assisting UK businesses through their accelerators programmes or acting as business hubs. You can check the full list of approved endorsing bodies and some information about their criteria on the UK Government startup visa website.

Each endorsing body has its own set of criteria, and many of them require that you join their programs before they considering an endorsement. The general requirements for endorsement are that the applicant’s business proposal shows:

  • Innovation: You have a genuine, original business plan that meets new or existing market needs and/or creates a competitive advantage.
  • Viability: You have or are actively developing the necessary skills, knowledge, experience and market awareness to successfully run the business.
  • Scalability: In your start-up idea, there is evidence of structured planning and of potential for job creation and growth into UK national markets.

After your endorsing body is satisfied with your business idea they will issue an endorsement letter containing at least the following items:

  1. the name of the endorsing body with the endorsement reference number
  2. the date of issue, which must be no earlier than 3 months before the date of application
  3. the applicant’s name, date of birth, nationality and passport number
  4. confirmation that the applicant has not previously established a business in the UK (unless the applicant’s last grant of leave was under the Start-up or Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur category)
  5. a short description of the applicant’s business venture and the main products or services it will provide to its customers
  6. confirmation that the applicant’s business venture meets the endorsement criteria in paragraph W5.2 of Appendix W
  7. the name and contact details (telephone number, email and workplace address) of an individual at the endorsing body. The contact person will be responsible for verifying the endorsement letter as per the request of the Home Office

In accordance with UK immigration rules, your endorsing body must be reasonably satisfied that you will spend much of your working time in the UK developing your business venture. The full details can be read in the official Home Office endorsing guidance.

Step 3 – Prepare your visa application

Whether you apply by yourselves or through a law firm, based on the visa requirements you will need the following documents to be prepared.

  • A current valid computerised passport with necessary blank pages
  • Tuberculosis (TB) test results if you are from certain countries
  • Bank statements of the last three months with savings of £945 held for a consecutive 90-day period
  • An official endorsement letter from your selected endorsement body
  • English language proficiency certificate at CEFR B2 level for all four modules (for example IELTS with minimum 5.5 band score).
  • A certified English translation of your supporting documents if they are not in English or Welsh.

You also should supply these documents to make your application stronger:

  • Academic qualifications
  • Work experience documents

To bring your non-EEA family members including your spouse or a child under 18 years of age, you must also show an additional amount of £630 for each for the consecutive period of 90 days before applying. They will have to pay the same visa fees as you regardless of whether they are from inside or outside the UK.

To make your visa application decision-making process faster, you should consider submitting evidence that can build credibility, your previous education, work and immigration history and your declarations made to other government departments regarding your previous employment and other activity in the UK.

Step 4 – Apply for the start-up visa

The earliest that you can apply for a UK start-up visa is three months before you travel. It can take a minimum of three weeks to receive a decision on your visa application. Unless you live in North Korea, you must submit an online application on the UK Government visa application portal.

You can check the current application fees on the official startup visa information portal. When you apply for a Start-up Visa, you will have to pay the UK Immigration Health Surcharge or a fixed amount per person per year. You can check the full amount on the UK immigration health services website.

You will need to have your fingerprints and a photograph taken at a UK visa application centre in the country from which you are applying. You must do this to get a biometric residence permit (BRP), which is needed as part of your Start-up Visa UK application.

Step 5 – Keep making progress on your start-up idea

Under the startup visa route, after you and your family move to the UK and start developing your start-up business ideas, your endorsing body will usually assign a “mentor” who will speak to you every 6 months to monitor progress. This monitoring will continue for 2 years for start-up visa (at least at 6th months and 12th months of your visa approval). You must stay in the UK for a minimum of 6 months a year.

If your endorsing body is not satisfied with your progress, they are required by the Home Office to withdraw their endorsement. This could then lead to the Home Office taking action to curtail your visa and your right to stay in the UK.

What endorsing bodies expect in your application?

Endorsing bodies is a key player to receive and retain your start-up, innovator visa and follow-up endorsement for making the settlement application. They will at least check the following before deciding to endorse you.

Business idea: Your business idea needs to pass the three fundamental tests set out by the Home Office. They will see if your business idea is sufficiently innovative, viable and scalable.

Commitment: They need to confirm that you are fully dedicated to your start-up idea and you will dedicate most of your time working on the idea of staying in the UK.

First UK business: Endorsing body will check if you have set up a UK company before. Most application categories do not allow previous company creations when applying for a start-up visa except Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) categories or as a Tier 4 student on the doctorate extension scheme.

How can you increase your chances of success to secure uk start-up visa

Step 1 – Prepare yourself to be a real startup founder

Nothing can replace your experience as a startup founder working towards solving a customer problem and developing particular products or solutions for a specific group of customers who will love to use your product or services and pay for them. So you need to focus more on solving a real customer problem with a remarkable solution that will generate revenue and contribute to the UK digital economy.

Step 2 – Validate your startup idea before contacting endorsing bodies

Most of the endorsing bodies won’t validate your business idea until it passes the mark for the basic tests – sufficiently innovative, viable and scalable. There are no hard and fast rules and each endorsing body will measure on their own scale. So it would be useful to get help from experienced third-parties. The following questions can be used to validate your start-up idea:

  • What problem are you focusing on
  • Who are your customers or market segment
  • Can your business idea help the UK economy by creating new jobs or significant revenues

After these basic test you can ask these questions to pass the validity tests.

I. Innovation Criteria

1 ) Is there a need for the business in the UK market that is not already fulfilled?

2) Is the business offering something more than merely competing with similar local traders? If so, what are the Unique Selling Points or USPs?

3) Does the idea bring something new to the UK/global business market?

II. Viability Criteria

1) Do you have supporting market research?

2) Is there a long-term plan for the business?

3) Does the applicant have realistic, sustainable product goals?

III. Scalability Criteria

1) What is the growth strategy for the business?

2) Does the business aim to generate £1m in gross revenue by year 3?

3) What is the total amount of funding required in the first 3 years?

Step 3 – Understand the specific requirements of endorsing bodies

There are a few limitations with the endorsing bodies. You need to filter them out if you think they are not relevant or won’t be available in future when you need to make an innovator visa application.

Select a higher education institute or a business endorsing body: Most UK universities are endorsing bodies, who help their current students or alumni for a given period. For example, some universities will only endorse alumni who have graduated in the past 12 months. If you have a plan to apply for innovator visa it might be a better alternative to contact business endorsing bodies instead who can endorse your application for both startup and innovator visa (beyond 2 years).

Select endorsing body working in a specific industry: Some endorsement bodies are very specific to endorse applications targeting to a particular industry. For example at the moment, Cylon Lab only endorses start-up applications from for cybersecurity and deep tech domains.

Is the endorsing body endorsing only their internal applicants? Most endorsing bodies only accept applications from their client or participants of their start-up programmes held at particular times of the year. So you need to ensure that they are open for applications.

Step 4 – Justify why you want to set-up your start-up business in the UK

Whichever endorsing body you select or whatever startup idea you work on, always justify your plan to come to the UK. Certain cities in the UK have strengths in certain industries, for example, London has a very strong support base for the Fintech startups. You can do some online research to find out which city you should be based in after you arrive in the UK. This will strengthen your argument to apply for a start-up or innovator visa.

Step 5 – Get help from expert UK-based business consultants

There are certain aspects of doing business in the UK which might not be found elsewhere. If you can consult a UK based business consultant you will get the added advantage of understanding the market trends and growth factors. If you are mentored by a UK-based business your potential endorsing body can see that in your endorsement application.

How can I get UK citizenship through investment?

A few visa routes are available to get settlement and citizenship by investing in a new business or expanding an overseas business into the UK market. Start-up visas don’t directly lead to settlement but within two years you can switch to other categories like innovator visa or work permit visa which can give you options for settlement. You may also consider a sole representative visa which is designed for the existing overseas businesses who want to set up a branch in the UK.

You don’t need to show any funding to apply for a UK startup visa. But after you get your start-up visa you must invest your time and money to develop the idea further. We estimate that a further investment of GBP 10,000 to GBP 15,000 is needed to fully develop your product or app. With this developed idea you can apply for the innovator visa. If you want to apply for an innovator visa directly without getting a startup visa first, you will usually need a minimum of GBP 50,000 funding available to invest in your business. Innovator visa gives you permission to stay another 3 years to make reasonable progress in your business by working solely on your venture (Innovator visa doesn’t allow any outside work). Then you must fulfill any two of the below-listed conditions to obtain a settlement or Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR):

  1. At least GBP 50,000 has been invested into the business and actively spent furthering the business plan.
  2. The business has engaged in significant research and development activity and has applied for intellectual property protection in the UK such as registering a design of a mobile app, hardware or software application.
  3. Double the amount of business and customer portfolio
  4. Reach minimum annual revenue of GBP 1 million
  5. Reach minimum investment of GBP 500,000 and GBP 100,000 in exports
  6. Create 5 full-time jobs at GBP 25,000 per annum salary.
  7. Create 10 full-time minimum-wage jobs for 1 year.

From the above list, we can see that options 1 & 2 are more feasible for most of the applicants. Other options might not be realistic for practical reasons. After you get your ILR and stay 1 more year lawfully you can apply to naturalise or become a British citizen. This can take a total of about 5-6 years (up to 2 years in startup visa, 3 years in innovator visa and 1 year in ILR) with a minimum investment of GBP 50,000 and other applicable fees and associated living costs. The investment can be your own money or raised from third-party investors who can be attracted to your business by demonstrating some progress and its potential to grow further.

Help is available at UK Startup Lab

At UK Startup Lab, we can support you from the business idea generation, validation, applying for endorsement and making the visa application through our experienced legal advisers. We can help you with all stages of your start-up and innovator business with the following packages.

Startup Starter

Our starter packages are designed for new entrepreneurs. You will get essential training for making your idea ready to be presented to the endorsing bodies. You will have the essential help to become a passionate startup founder.

UK Startup Lab will assess your CV and check your eligibility and potential to proceed with the start-up visa route. If your chances of success are 70% or above you will be offered a place in our Startup Starter programme which will need a one-off upfront payment. Under this 3-months tailored training programme, you will be offered to create your best startup business ideas. Then these ideas will be presented to selected relevant endorsing bodies. You will also set up an income-generating website, online marketplace or an online store which will pay off within a year or so. Our experts will give you hands-on guidance and assistance with this.

VISA Process

If any of the endorsing bodies shows interest in your application we will invite you to take up our next Visa Process package. Under this package, you will pay an initial upfront payment to process your endorsement and submit an online visa application by our legal adviser. If your visa application is successful you will pay another instalment for further training and to follow up your progress for up to another 6 months in order to prepare to switch for innovator visa application or other visa routes. If for any reason, if your startup visa application isn’t successful you don’t need to pay this 2nd instalment payment. Note that our package will cover the legal adviser fees but you need to pay the Home Office visa fees which can be calculated from the UK Government’s start-up visa website.

Business Growth

After you come to the UK, you need to grow and scale your business. Under this package, you will get 2 years of business support including 1:1 consultancy, UK legislative policy setup, review of your business plan and growth plan, cost analysis and participation in selected workshops and networking events. This can be tailored according to your business sector and need. 

How much does it cost

For the estimated cost of the above packages check out our services. You can also contact us if you need a bespoke quote or advice on calculating the total cost of your application (including your family members).

Contact us today

The UK is one of the most attractive destinations for start-up founders. If you’d like to join as one of them email us today at info@ukstartuplab.com or upload your CV by filling in the contact form. We would be happy to assess your potential and let you know your chances of success and eligibility for our programmes.

You can also sign-up to our newsletter or follow us in social media to get the latest news, updates, and insights about the startup, innovator or other business visas. We wish you the very best for your startup venture in the UK!

Official Links

Gov.uk Startup and Innovator links:

https://www.gov.uk/start-up-visa

https://www.gov.uk/innovator-visa

Official Guidance:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/start-up-and-innovator-endorsing-bodies-guidance

List of official start-up visa endorsing bodies:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/endorsing-bodies-start-up