If you are an overseas graduate or students approaching the end of your degree, it's important to understand the visa options available to you if you are thinking about self-employment or start-up entrepreneurship in the UK.
Both the Graduate visa and Innovator Founder visa grant you the right to work for yourself and start a business in the UK after graduating. Make sure you know the differences!
So how are the two schemes different?
While most things you can do on these visas are fundamentally the same - you can found a company or register as self-employed or work for someone else (with some constraints) - there are differences in the application process and what kind of businesses are best suited to each, also well as the financial requirements, the duration of the visa, and your progression to settled status.
The Graduate route
Application for the Graduate visa is made directly to the Home Office. If you are awarded a Graduate visa, you will be able to remain in the UK for two years. This time will not count towards your settlement status. If you want to remain in the UK when it expires, you'll need to switch to a different visa type, e.g. Work visa or Innovator Founder visa. It is most suited to people who want to start freelancing or consulting, or to develop a more scaleable business idea while still work working, without having to produce a business plan and secure an endorsement.
The Innovator Founder route
This route involves an application for endorsement via a UK Endorsing Body. If you are successful, you will be awarded a visa for three years, and this time will count towards your right to remain. Endorsing Bodies will be looking for a business plan that articulates a clear business case and scalable business model, for an idea that's innovative relative to what's in the market already, scalable in terms of its ability to create employment for others, and viable in terms of whether it can achieve financial sustainability and you can make it happen.
Applications for the Graduate visa are made directly to the Home Office (UKVI) with no requirement for your University or any other organisation to support it.
As the Innovator Founder visa requires an endorsement from one of the UK's three official Endorsing Bodies (EB) - as well as the Government's own Global Entrepreneurs Programme - based on the quality of your business plan, and they each have their own priorities, acceptance criteria and support programmes. We can help you to explore which EB is right for you and to support you in preparing your application.
Is that everything?
As we've hopefully made clear throughout the information on this page, we are here to help you decide what the best visa option is for you in plenty of time before you graduate. Drop in to see us or drop us a line via email@example.com to let us know and we'll take it from there.
Why does Lancaster offer these schemes?
The University provides innovation and entrepreneurial learning and development opportunities that complement students’ degree education and equip them to develop new sustainable solutions that respond to commercial opportunities and tackle social and environmental challenges. We recognise the value our graduate entrepreneurs can add to regional, national and global economies and to society more widely by applying these capabilities to new ventures and we are keen to ensure that all of our graduates, wherever they are from, have the same opportunities to make a difference through their entrepreneurial intiatives.
All international graduates have the option to choose the Graduate visa, but Lancaster will support students preparing to apply for an Innovator Founder visa in order to ensure they have the widest set of options.
Am I eligible to apply?
If you are a current or recent holder of a General Study Visa from Lancaster University, then you are eligible to apply for either visa after you have graduated. Applications for the Graduate Visa are made directly to the Home Office (UK Visas & Immigration). You can find the details of this process on the gov.uk Graduate visa page.
Innovator Founder visa endorsements are made via an approved Endorsing Body. Make sure you understand the general criteria for endorsement (Innovative, Scaleable, Viable), as well as any criteria relating to your personal circumstances by reading the information on the gov.uk Innovator Founder visa page.
Can't I start a business as a student anyway?
Unfortunately not, and it's really important not to get caught out here as it could lead to your student visa being withdrawn.
The guidelines around what you can and can’t do as a Study Visa holder will have been provided to you when yours was issued, but to recap, these expressly prohibit you from registering as self-employed, registering a company, or undertaking 'business activity'. This can be extremely frustrating, particularly for international students who are already thinking about start-up ideas long before their degree is coming to an end, so we would strongly advise you, if you are in any doubt whatsoever, please contact us and we will help you to take constructive steps without putting yourself at risk.
What support can I access?
Regardless of which scheme you are considering, if you want self-employment to be among your post-graduate work options, we strongly advise you to get in touch as we can support you in weighing up the pros and cons and understanding the implications of your decision.
Equally, we can support you to develop and validate your business idea. While this is a mandatory part of the process for securing an endorsement for the Innovator Founder visa, again, we strongly recommmend you take advantage of this if you are considering it on the Graduate visa too.
And of course, your support needs will evolve over time. Even the best plans rarely survive contact with reality so once you've started a business, you will suddenly discover there are lots of other things you want to learn more about, whether it's employment contracts, import/export considerations, becoming VAT registered, or prototyping new products and services.
The key thing to remember is that you will always be an alumn of Lancaster University and can come back at any time and talk to us; if we can help you, we will!
Should I wait until I've graduated to think about this?
Like most things in life, thinking ahead tends to be sensible practice. The same is true of your post-graduate career options. If you would like self-employment in some form or another to be one of these options, even if it's only temporary or on a part-time basis, it's definitely worth understanding the visa options and their application processes and timelines ahead of time. If you do want to apply for the Innovator Founder visa, it could take some time for you to produce a business plan that merits endorsement, and you will only have a limited amount of time once you've graduated before your study visa expires.
You can of course leave the UK and apply from your home country, but you should bear in mind that a) this is likely to be more expensive, and b) it won't be as easy for you to access support in preparing your business plan remotely.
Can I switch between visas?
You can apply to switch from the Graduate visa to the Innovator Founder visa at any point before your Graduate visa expires. You may be able to do this from within the UK without having to first leave the UK and apply from your home country. However, you should clarify this with the UKVI as the issuing body as your circumstances may trigger specific conditions.
The main thing to consider in all of this is that if you start a company or register as self-employed while on the Graduate visa, you will no longer be able to apply for an Innovator Founder visa to continue working on it.
What will happen to my business when my Graduate visa expires?
If you've started a business on the Graduate visa, then after the two years are up, you would need to close that business and return to your home country. Alternatively, you could start the process of applying for an Innovator Founder visa for a new business idea. You would not be granted an endorsement to continue working on your original business as it would not be 'new'.
I'm not a Lancaster graduate; can you endorse me?
As we are not an endorsing body, we cannot do this. However, if you recognise that your business idea aligns with and has the potential to support our ability to deliver sustainable research impact through Knowledge Exchange and IP Commercialisation, then please drop us a line to discuss.
Is there are financial criterion for the Innovator Founder visa?
Every case is taken on its own merit and part of the endorsement preparation process will be about ensuring you have accurately projected your start-up costs and can meet the financial requirements you have identified.