My Experience Switching from Tier 2 to Tier 1 Exceptional Talent UK Visa in 2020

Logistics

Let’s get the logistics out of the way:

  • This is not an official guide, for official guidance check gov.uk and Tech Nation guide
  • This is just my personal experience so take it with a grain of salt
  • Exceptional Talent (Tier 1) visa got renamed to Global Talent visa in Feb. 2020, but they are essentially the same visa. I personally like the Exceptional Talent naming as it feels more prestigious 😇

Background Story

You can safely skip this section 🥱 if you are here for the meat 🍖

In Jan 2019, a year before I actually applied to the visa, I took a step back to think about where I want to live and what I want to do moving forward. At that point in time, I have been in the UK for 1.5 years. I have just moved to London a few months earlier to work for Amazon Alexa as a software engineer whereas previously I was working for Amazon Dynamic Advertising in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Back then I reached the conclusion that I want to work independently to answer a few questions in my mind, gain more freedom, which I really missed by working as employee and just to explore. Equally important, I needed to maximize my ability to travel back and forth between wherever I am living and Cairo to see my family. The issue was that being on a Tier 2 as well as working for Amazon constrain me from registering a business or working as self-employed or travel as I please.

I started exploring the potential of moving to different countries and cities that would allow me to work independently, but that’s not the topic of this essay. Eventually, I reached the conclusion that the UK/London was probably the best country/city, which fits my personal living preferences (warm weather, travel time to Cairo, opportunities, liveliness, among other criteria) as well as the ability to work independently if I switch to another visa.

In the beginning, I quickly discarded the Tier 1 Exceptional visa because the official requirements on the UK gov. website made me realize that I needed to be, ahem, “exceptional”, which I didn’t think I am at the time (or now to be honest 😅). Unique, yes, but exceptional, I don’t think so. This left me with only one option, which was the Startup visa. In order to get that visa, you need to be endorsed and although I tried contacting a couple of the endorsement bodies, they either didn’t reply back, haven’t started accepting applications (since it was a new visa at that time), and so on and so forth.

Since I couldn’t progress on the Startup visa, I started digging again and try to understand if I can by any chance fit the Tier 1 Exceptional visa requirements. My viewpoint shifted from “I can’t apply to this visa” to “I can potentially get endorsed” happened when I was reading the Tech Nation very detailed guide on how to apply. In there, they listed the kind of example evidences that I can present in my application. Going through these, I realized I can present many of these evidences.

Impostor Syndrome

The most important idea I want to leave you with is don’t assume that you can’t apply, validate it (i.e. read the requirements, talk to other people who applied, look at previous applications, etc.), which I believe is an important lesson in life in general. As I said, if you have a quick look at the gov.uk website, you can easily reach the conclusion that the Tier 1 visa is not for you, but if you start digging a little deeper, you may realize that you can do it.

“Don’t assume, validate” - Ahmad Baracat

Benefits of Switching

To me, the main benefits of switching from tier 2 General visa to tier 1 Exceptional Talent visa are:

  • Not needing sponsorship, which makes it easier to switch companies
  • Freedom to apply to companies and startups that don’t offer sponsorship
  • Freedom to start your own businesses in the UK or be self-employed
  • Freedom to leave your company, stay in the UK or travel outside and be able to come back

The Process

  1. Application preparation
    1. Gather evidences: If you are a software engineer, these might include open source contributions, side-projects, invitations to speak at Conferences, articles written, etc.
    2. Write your personal statement
    3. Ask for reference letters
  2. Stage 1: you are essentially uploading your prepared application to a portal (to be assessed by Tech Nation if you are applying within the digital technology field)
  3. Stage 2: you are applying for the visa and filling immigration related questions such as criminal convictions, being deported from countries, etc. as well as choosing a biometric appointment
  4. Biometric appointment
  5. Receive your new Biometric Residence Permit (BRP)

The Timeline

Even though, your timeline may vary, I wanted to share mine to give you an idea of how it might look like:

  • Few days of side-work to prepare the application
  • 28th Dec 2019: Apply to stage 1
  • 20th Jan 2020: Receive Tech Nation endorsement
  • 23rd Jan 2020: Apply to stage 2 + Visa Appointment
  • 29th Jan 2020: Stage 2 successful
  • 31st Jan 2020: Receive BRP

Fees

  • £456: Stage 1 (if you don’t get endorsed you only lose this unless you applied to both stages together)
  • £1200: Health Surcharge (I applied for 3 years 3 x £400)
  • £171: Stage 2
  • £112: Visa Appointment

If you think £2K is a lot to switch visa, let me just remind you that you are essentially buying benefits of switching, which to me justifies the investment.

Tips

  • If you decide to apply, don’t wait, requirements may change and may get harder. For example, when I was reading the guidelines back in June 2019, I only needed 2 reference letters to apply. When I was applying in Dec. 2020, I got surprised that they increased it to 3 😅.
  • When asking for reference letters, make sure you make it so easy for referee to write it:
    • Remind them of what you did and what they should write about
    • Provide them with a template that they can easily fill
  • If you don’t have the referee resume, link to their LinkedIn on the reference letter instead. For example, one of my referee, being a professor, got very busy and it was hard to get them to reply to my emails.

Application Example

If you have checked the gov.uk as well as the Tech Nation guide and you think you might benefit from looking at how a complete application might look like, check my application example.