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I am a US citizen and currently live in the US. I have wanted to try living abroad for some time now, and the United Kingdom seems like a good option to do so, except for some possible visa concerns. I am also looking into getting a graduate degree (professional masters) soon, so I thought that doing so in the United Kingdom would be a good way to pursue both goals simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the student visa has the following restrictions (source, emphasis mine):

You cannot:

  • claim public funds (benefits) and pensions
  • work in certain jobs, for example as a professional sportsperson or sports coach
  • be self-employed
  • study at an academy or a local authority-funded school (also known as a maintained school)

This is a concern for me as a big part of my life is working towards owning and running my own business, but this restriction may prevent that. In practice, this means working on my own and occasionally with others to create the product that would be sold, and other preparatory activities such as market research. Even if it is unlikely to eventually succeed, doing this activity is important to me on an emotional level. Furthermore, even if I am allowed to do such preparatory activities on this visa, it is important for the success of such an endeavor to be able to quickly launch a product when it is ready in order to enter the market at an appropriate time, so it is important that I do not have to wait for immigration paperwork to go through before doing so. All of my businesses would be online and service customers in as many countries as possible, so they would not impact the UK market any more than they would if I launched them within the United States.

As such, I have two very related questions:

  • Are my concerns about how this visa would affect my goals accurate/warranted, or does this only apply in more traditional freelance scenarios (e.g. owning a business that doesn't have a unique product such as a tradesperson)?
  • If they are, what other visa options, if any, exist that would not interfere with my goals?

I looked into work visas, and although they seem to allow some level of self-employment, they are very tied to holding a particular full time job, which would interfere with the goal of getting a graduate degree, even if only insofar as not having enough time to perform the duties of the job and work towards the degree.

It is worth noting that the job that I am qualified for are on the list of acceptable jobs for skilled worker visas. More specifically, I am currently working towards an undergraduate degree at a US university and I am considering the UK for a graduate degree after in the same field. This undergraduate degree applies to the field on the list, and I have worked multiple internships in the field, quite successfully. Should I decide to stay in the US after I graduate from my undergraduate degree I do not anticipate any trouble finding a good job in this field even without a graduate degree, so presumably I could find one in the UK too unless the job market is much harder.

I also looked into entrepreneurship visas, but they have strong requirements for working towards the business full time, which is not what I want to do right now.

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    Do you qualify for a global talent visa or otherwise eligible for claiming a right of abode?
    – xngtng
    Jun 25, 2022 at 8:49
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    A side observation: I feel you may be trying to pursue too many goals simultaneously. From your Q I can count 1) Moving to the UK, 2) Pursue a professional masters, 3) Start and grow your own business, and possibly 3.5) Undertake employment (perhaps to sustain living). Doing two of them at the same time are reasonable, but it gets exponentially harder the more items you add to your list. While not strictly necessary for an answer, you might get better help if you can hint on the priority order of the items above.
    – B.Liu
    Jun 25, 2022 at 20:28

1 Answer 1

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Notice to readers: IANAL. This answer summarises information available in June 2022. Immigration rules change often and it is advisable to verify whether the information below remains current with legal professionals. The answer also assumes one is not seeking work or building a business as a professional sportsperson.

Short answer: Being on a Student visa will make it very difficult to start and run your own business. Other possible visa routes, depending on your priorities, include the Start-up, the Graduate, the High Potential Individual, and the Global Talent visas; to name a few.


Long answer:

Are my concerns about how this visa would affect my goals accurate/warranted, or does this only apply in more traditional freelance scenarios (e.g. owning a business that doesn't have a unique product such as a tradesperson)?

Yes, being in the UK under a Student visa will make it very difficult to start and run your own business. In the Home Office Guidance for case workers handling Student visas, it is mentioned that:

[Page 94/107] Students who are allowed to work must not:

  • be self-employed or engage in business activity[...]

[Page 95/107] A Student or Child Student will be considered to be engaging in business activity if they are working for a business in which they have a financial or other significant beneficial interest in a capacity other than as an employee.

Some examples which would be considered to be engaging in business activity are below. This is not an exhaustive list, but provides examples of activities which meet the definition of a Student or Child Student engaging in business activity:

  • setting up a business as a sole trader or under a partnership arrangement and that business is either trading or establishing a trading presence
  • being employed by a company in which they hold shares of 10% or more (including where the shares are held in a trust for them)
  • working for a company where they also hold a statutory role, such as a director

If they are, what other visa options, if any, exist that would not interfere with my goals?

It depends on what your goals, and more importantly, priorities are. From your question, I interpret you to have the following goals:

  1. Move to the UK
    • Ideally on a visa route that has little paperwork requirement and processing time;
  2. Pursue a Master's degree; and
  3. Start and grow your own business,
    • which may or may not involve other employment in parallel.

If your Master's degree takes priority over your proposed business - all Skilled Worker visa holders, as UK employees, are entitled to the right to request flexible working, which can be in the form of reduced work hours. You need to be in employment for 26 weeks before initiating a request, and your salary still needs to be above the threshold if you reduce your work hours.

If your proposed business takes priority over your Master's degree, a Start-up visa allows you to study during the duration of the visa (see page 7/27 of this document - "study subject to subject to [sic] the ATAS condition in Appendix ATAS"). You need to convince an endorsing body that your business idea is viable for them to endorse you, which may take some time.

If you are willing to stagger your Master's degree and business development activities - a Graduate visa permits you to be self-employed. You need to have first completed an undergraduate/postgraduate degree in the UK to be eligible.

There are a few other visa routes that support both self-employment and studying, though they generally have stringent eligibility requirements. One is the High Potential Individual (HPI) visa, which is available to those who recently obtained a degree from a non-UK university that is ranked highly in league tables. However, you are not allowed to enroll in a course that normally qualify you for a Student visa - according to the Home Office guidance on HPI visa:

[page 21/26] study is permitted, except study with an education provider which is a Student sponsor, and which would meet the approved qualification and level of study requirements of the Student route which are set out in Appendix Student

Another is the Global Talent visa, available to those in academia/research, arts and culture, and digital technology. The exact requirements are omitted for brevity (and due to its sheer complexity), though if your proposed business is in digital technology, being accepted into one of the start-up incubators/accelerators does lead to your application being fast-tracked (unfortunately no perk in terms of the application form and supporting documents).

Other possible paths, which you may or may not be eligible for, include a claim to right of abode, a UK Ancestry visa, or Irish citizenship.

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    Note that HPI visa does not allow the holder to study a course that would ordinarily qualify for a student visa (now studying part-time or as a nonregular students sometimes do not qualify for the student visa and so could be allowed under HPI).
    – xngtng
    Jun 26, 2022 at 19:03
  • @xngtng Good spot. It seems that a part-time MSc in a university that normally sponsors student visa will still qualify one to apply for a Student visa as the course is at RQF level 7. If the OP is referring to these courses when they say "professional Master's" they might be indeed out of luck. Updated answer to incorporate your comment.
    – B.Liu
    Jun 27, 2022 at 0:37

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