(This visa used to be called the Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa and is now called the Global Talent visa. Same thing.)
People ask me why I moved to Inverness. Lots of reasons, of course. But one thing that seriously helped was a flexible visa to get me and my family into the United Kingdom. One reason the UK won over New Zealand or Ireland is that in those countries I’d have a visa that was tied to a company’s whims. Instead I can be self-employed, I can work for local or remote companies, and I can switch companies. In most countries you’d have to choose a big, conservative company for the stability, or risk having your employer go out of business (or close that office! or lay you off!) before five years was up.
With modern American politics as it is, who doesn’t want to leave the country? I keep meeting people who need to know about this, so I’ll tell you all about it.
I’ll also show you what I did that worked. There’s no guarantee the same would work for you. But maybe it’ll take some of the black magic out of the process. The application process isn’t perfect. But it’s quite good, all things considered.
I’ll go over what the visa requires, what the structure and criteria of the application look like and then some excerpts from my own personal application — that’s probably the most valuable thing here. You can find descriptions of the process elsewhere as well, such as this article by Tascha Choi.
Disclaimers: I am not a lawyer. I have made exactly one application under this program and it was successful. I am giving opinions. They are not legally informed nor legally binding.
I made my application as a software developer, and in the UK they say they’re “in IT.” When I talk about developers or technicians here, I probably mean you too. There’s a list of titles later, and it’s not complete. I’m certainly including Operations engineers, SREs, UI designers, data scientists, security engineers…
The UK has several different visas of different types. You can get an investor visa if you’re very rich and/or starting a business. You can get a normal (Tier 2) visa to go work for one specific company who has offered you a job. There are a lot of categories of visa. I know very little about most of them.
But if you’re considered sufficiently highly skilled, there’s a visa called a Global Talent visa. The idea is that you can come in and stay for awhile if you’re an amazing artist, or scientist, or… software developer (or similar technical role.) What’s “sufficiently highly skilled?” Based on what I’ve seen around, it looks like “good senior developer with managers to recommend you, plus some open-source work or a conference talk” is about the level they’re looking at. It’s not clear that the bar is even that high. In other words, if you’re a pretty solid senior developer, it looks like the United Kingdom would be quite happy to have you, thanks. If you’re a promising-looking early-career worker then they have a category for that, too.
“It looks like” is pretty vague. So let’s talk specifics.
The UK government web sites about this are surprisingly good, though they take some digging. Every year there were up to 2,000 Tier 1 Exceptional Talent visas awarded, though they’re removing that limit as of 2020 for Global Talent. There are various organisations that judge applicants depending on your industry - for software developers and other tech folks, the organisation you care about is called Tech Nation.
When Tech Nation isn’t endorsing visas, it acts like lots of other enthusiastic “look at all the tech companies we have!”-type government organisations everywhere. They help and publicise the local UK tech scene. They try to hook companies up with employees, grants and funding. They try to get more tech to happen in the UK.
That’s who you’re trying to convince to let you in. This is good news compared to any other visa process I can imagine. Do you feel like somebody put together a visa process specifically for you? I read about this and that’s how I felt. From what I can see, this is an extraordinary opportunity to get into the UK now and that it’s not difficult. That’s what I did!
To get in, you’re trying to convince a group of folks who love tech companies that letting you into the UK will help the UK tech scene. To me, that sounds like trying to get a job in Silicon Valley. They seem impressed by a lot of the same things.
Here are job categories (“specialisms”) that they are explicitly looking for:
- DevOps / SysOps engineers
- Principal software engineers/developers
- Experienced data scientists/data engineers
- Artificial Intelligence, Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning experts (AI, NLP, ML)
- Cybersecurity experts
- Hardware engineers
- Experienced front-end developers
- Operating systems engineers
- Experienced video game developers
- Experienced UX/UI designers
- Experienced Mobile App developers
- Experienced back end developers leading development of or contributing heavily to major new technologies or open source projects (e.g. blockchain, Scala, Golang, Elasticsearch etc)
- CTO or VP engineering experience managing teams of in-house employees at a growing digital business
- Virtual and augmented reality developers
Those are only the technician/software-type roles. There’s a whole separate category of tech-management and tech-business criteria that they would also love to have. And while some of these sound imposing (“contributing heavily to major new technologies”), some of them are pretty approachable (“experienced front-end developers.”)
When I quote bits such as the job list above, I’m usually quoting from the UK’s government’s own guidance document for this visa. It’s surprisingly readable. I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the UK government’s written materials.
There’s a structure for your application. There are a few choices you have to make, places where you have to tick one box or the other.
The first is: exceptional talent versus exceptional promise. “Exceptional talent” means you’re an established developer applying on your record. “Exceptional promise” is for newer developers hoping to get in based on what you will do. The guidance documents mention five years of industry experience as a good rule of thumb for which you choose. If you have “senior” in your title (or certainly “staff”, “principal”, “fellow” or “distinguished”) then you’ll be applying as “exceptional talent” rather than “exceptional promise.” Or if you’re junior or “plain” (not yet senior), you’re more likely applying for “exceptional promise.”
The guidance documents act as if there’s a whole different set of criteria for “promise” versus “talent” when really there isn’t. Instead, they have two versions of each guideline, based on whether you have already done it (talent) or might be expected to do it (promise.)
You have to pick one of two “key criteria” which basically boil down to “did cool stuff at work” or “did cool stuff outside of work.” You can mix and match a bit. I definitely did! But you’re picking either at-work or outside-work to be featured and primary in your application.
Then there are four “qualifying criteria,” and you have to pick two primary ones that apply to you. These are the four:
- Have made “significant technical, commercial or entrepreneurial contributions” in some role
- Have been “recognized as a leading talent” (or potential for same)
- Have “undergone continuous learning/mastery” in your career
- Have made or could make “academic contributions through research”
These are beautifully broad and vague, which is to your advantage as an applicant. You could easily have done more than two things like this, but you are picking two as the best and most featured in your visa application.
The reason these key critera and qualifying criteria matter is that you’re going to submit up to ten pieces of evidence. Your pieces of evidence should support the same criteria you chose.
You’ll also give them an up-to-two-page CV — that’s the same as a resume, if you’re an American outside of academia.
You’ll need to write a personal statement. That’s essentially a short letter about why you’d like to come to the UK. Mine is further down, so you can see what I wrote. It seemed to work fine, in that my immigration solicitor said, “yes, that’s great, use that.”
And then, finally and most importantly, you’ll need three (two when I applied) letters of personal recommendation. These may be the hardest thing you do for the application, and may also be the most important.
But What Do They Want?
Remember that it’s Tech Nation that does the judging here. You can find things they specifically look for in the guidance document - look for “Examples of Relevant Evidence - Tech Nation”. I find the list pretty revealing. For instance, here is their list of examples for the “outside work” key criterion:
- Evidence of contributions to an Open Source project
- Your GitHub profile demonstrating active participation in a collaborative project
- Your Stack Overflow profile showing significant contribution to discussions around code
- A link to one or more videos of talks or conferences that have had a significant viewership
- An op-ed or news article that exemplifies thought leadership, evidence of mentorship
- Evidence of mentorship (i.e. the sharing or teaching of skills and knowledge). Mentorship should have been done within an organised, structured and recognised mentoring scheme, which can be clearly demonstrated through evidence. Training a colleague or simply providing support or advice is not considered sufficient evidence for this criteria.
They have similar lists for other criteria. For instance, here’s the one for “recognized as a leading talent:”
- You have authored a well-reviewed book on digital technology or on programming or published material in a professional or major trade publication. You must include the title, date and evidence that you are the author of such published material and any necessary translation
- You led the growth of a product-led digital technology company or product, as evidenced by a letter from a leading industry expert describing your work, or as evidenced by news clippings, lines of code or similar evidence of your choice.
In other words, they’re tech folks and they’re impressed by a lot of the standard things you expect tech folks to be impressed by. This reads to me a lot like what you’d include on a resume/CV, or certain kinds of conference talk application, or bragging about your numbers in a group of software developers.
If you wind up applying, you should read the whole guidance document. It’s good. I also subscribed to the Tech Nation email newsletter just to get a feel for what they like. If you have time, it’s not a bad idea.
Warning in advance: they will not accept a W-2 (an American tax document) as salary documentation, so you’d need an offer letter or similar.
Evidence and Letters of Recommendation
The interesting part of the application, clearly, is picking what to impress them with. You certainly have more than ten things you could tell them about if you’ve been working for over five years in the industry. “Significant contributions” at work, “evidence of continuous learning,” “evidence of mentorship,” “evidence of thought leadership”: finding ten things in that category shouldn’t be particularly difficult. I would highly recommend you assemble more than ten things as possibilities so that you’re picking a “best of” from your career and/or non-work projects. Popular blog posts? Conference talks? Did you start a book club at work? Things with “no documentation” can still count if you can get a coworker (or ex-coworker) to write a letter saying you did it.
I would also recommend you assemble a list of interesting things you’ve done and then try to pick your key criterion and your qualifying criteria. The criteria are nicely vague so it isn’t too hard to fit them to your achievements, once you’ve picked some achievements.
I freely admit I’m playing on easy mode here. I wrote a book about Ruby on Rails, I’ve had a long career in software, I give conference talks and I even keep a portfolio of a lot of my projects. But you probably have the same kinds of contributions, even if they don’t look exactly like mine. You have a sympathetic audience and you’re looking for chances to let them say yes. Pretend they’re trying to justify letting you into the UK to their manager: what would they say are your impressive points? How might you help a tech company once you arrive? Even if you’re ‘only’ an accomplished software engineer, operations engineer or similar, Tech Nation has said they’d be glad to have you.
The three letters of recommendation are harder. I had the excellent fortune to be able to get one from the designer of a major programming language because I’ve worked with him on Ruby language tools. I also got one from the CTO-and-founder of my then-employer, and one from an international Ruby performance expert I’ve worked with pretty extensively. I had to pick two to submit in 2019, but you’ll need three for current applications.
That’s great for me and all, but what do you do? Well, for starters you can ask your manager, director or CTO. If you’re a senior engineer you may have made a favourable impression at your company and this is a great time to use that. Or if you’ve done work for an open-source project, you could ask a head or maintainer of that project for a recommendation. That’s what all three of the recommendations I just mentioned are. They all sound impressive when I introduce them by title, but they’re also all just people. By and large they’re happy to be asked. It helps if the people you choose are related to your evidence and criteria, of course. But it’s likely that whatever interesting things you’ve done, you’ve done them with people. Those are likely good people to ask.
There are a few things you can do to make it easier. You can ask more than three people. I did! You can put together a little template for the recommendation (“use as much or a little as you like.”) I did! If you get an excellent recommendation, you can steal that phrasing and use it in the template for other people for their letters. I did!
In any case, the letters of recommendation may take some prompting. The kind of people you want to ask are busy. That’s why it makes sense to send them a template for the letter. The less work they have to do, the more likely they’ll get the recommendation to you.
I said I’d talk about my own application, and I’ve done a little of that. It’s time for me to give more details.
Here are documents I submitted:
- My CV/resume
- My personal statement
- Evidence item zero: A cover letter with a list of other bits of evidence- this doesn’t have to be an evidence item, but it can be
- Evidence item 1: about a patent I’m listed on
- Evidence item 2: My 2018 W-2; they didn’t accept this, and won’t take a W-2. D'oh!
- Evidence item 3: about my conference talks
- Evidence item 4: about my time as AppFolio’s Ruby Fellow
- Evidence item 5: about Rails Ruby Bench, an open-source project I did for the Ruby language
- Evidence item 6: about Rebuilding Rails, my first book on software development
- Evidence item 7: about teaching at CMU west - not posted because it contains somebody else’s contact info
- Evidence item 8: about interviews with me
- Evidence item 9: about a Google Summer of Code mentorship I did
I think this is a pretty good variety and depth of work. I hope I’m overqualified for the visa (like, that I didn’t just barely squeak by.) I’ve seen less-accredited folks talk about getting in, online. I applied on “talent” not “promise” of course — I have far more than five years of experience. My “key criterion” was for “outside of work”, and my two qualifying criteria were for “significant contributions … as an employee” and “recognised as a leading talent.” Here’s how that broke down by evidence (I put this in my cover letter):
- Key criterion (non-work flavor): evidence items 6, 7 and 9
- Qualifying criterion 1 (significant contributions): items 1 and 5
- Qualifying criterion 2 (recognised as a leading talent): items 3, 4 and 8
And I listed the W-2 as verifying my salary and position, though they didn’t take it. Luckily I included some other evidence for that. Had they doubted my claims and thought it was relevant, they might have bounced the application back and asked for more evidence. I’m glad they didn’t! It can be hard to find a place to hang out internationally for a few extra months if you’re a family with kids.
I won’t be including things like passport photos or other full-on visa application bureaucracy; this isn’t a full guide, and my documents won’t help you in any case. My recommendation would be to get an immigration solicitor for the details here, though it’s possible to do it yourself. It doesn’t even look that hard to do it yourself, but a visa application is pretty high-stakes so a professional seems like a very good idea.
One thing I think I did well here is that it’s specifically evidence, and it’s specifically evidence that can help with a government organisation that’s also a group of tech-company enthusiasts. I favoured citing big companies like Google where I could, even though I worked mostly for startups. I mentioned a part-time job teaching for Carnegie Mellon West, because Carnegie Mellon has great name recognition. I mentioned projects that got good publicity and that sounded good.
You might well say, “but I don’t have that many projects that sound good.” That’s fair. I’m kind of amazed at how good it looked when I got done. But you probably have something that you can present in a similar way. So don’t treat this as a checklist you have to match. Treat is as a mix-and-match where you can choose an item or three from the ‘menu’ to use as inspiration for the general kind of thing to include. Whatever the best thing you’ve done is, it probably doesn’t look exactly like mine. That’s good.
As an American, I was shocked at how promptly the bureaucracy came together for my application. Getting a long-term visa into the United States frequently takes years even when everything works well. This took about three months once I had assembled the application. The UK government said at the time that they’ll get back to you within eight weeks. But any extra time you can give them is probably good.
They also have a few ways you can save a week or two, either by having massively in-demand abilities like “experience scaling” a company, or (this is the easy way) by settling anywhere other than London. My family wanted to settle in Scotland, which gave us the quicker scheduling quite easily. If you’re heading to the UK and you’re not sure about where yet, may I suggest Edinburgh? The Scots are nearly as friendly as even Californians. They want immigrants badly. Edinburgh is the best in Scotland for Internet or for tech companies. And like all of Scotland, the streets, buildings and landscape are all a kind of beautiful you don’t see back in the states.
We also paid rather a lot to the company that handles the US side of the visa application process (VFS Global.) We were travelling internationally and were trying to get a family of five through on short-ish notice. Improbably, it all worked out perfectly. I would highly recommend not doing the same. If you have someplace stable to live while you give them an extra few months to get things sorted, you can skip the stomach-churning nervousness as you try to determine what country to fly to next month.
I won’t give you much advice on VFS Global, fellow Americans, except to say that if everything goes well, the process will be almost entirely inscrutable. You will get no status updates until everything is finished. They will not respond by email or phone. They will absolutely not give guidance in advance or feedback afterward. We wound up working remotely with Alex Boyd, an excellent immigration solicitor in Glasgow, for the UK side. But your solicitor can only do so much with VFS Global. Mostly you’ll need to do that yourself, and it is likely to be the least pleasant part of the process.
And again, the worst thing you can do is to try to apply on a tight schedule. Give yourself extra time, as I did not.
For more details on the process, I recommend Tascha Choi’s article on the topic.
The Long Term, Settlement and Citizenship
What if you want to stay? Like, for a long time? As it turns out, my family and I do, so we’ve checked into that.
Once you’ve spent five years in the United Kingdom you can take a test to apply for Permanent Settlement, which is also (somewhat confusingly) called “Leave to Remain.”
The new flavour of Global Talent visa lasts for between one and five years. I got a bonus four months for applying from outside the UK, which they don’t do any more. But in any case, you can apply for an extension of your visa if you can show that you have, at any point in your stay, made at least some amount of money in your chosen profession. A letter from your accountant, for instance, is considered ample evidence of this.
So: you can apply, get an extension and apply for Permanent Settlement at the five year mark. From there, you can remain as long as you like provided you don’t spend two consecutive years entirely outside the UK. If you hang around in the UK for another year beyond that, you can apply for citizenship. While there’s a test, it’s the same test as for Permanent Settlement so you won’t need to take it again. You can just apply.
So the short version goes: apply for the Global Talent visa, stay a few years, get an extension, take the Permanent Settlement test, wait a year, apply for citizenship. The total time if you’re quick could be in the neighbourhood of six and a half years. Not bad at all!
You also get the right to vote with Permanent Settlement in the UK. It’s not exactly the same as being a citizen but it’s remarkably close when compared to an American equivalent like a Green Card.