Remote working in the United Kingdom
Magrath Sheldrick, London
Magrath Sheldrick, London
Reform of immigration laws around the world has been accelerated by the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020–2021 Covid-19 pandemic. In most cases, these reforms have consisted of temporary emergency measures to protect public health, including travel bans, compulsory testing, quarantine and other conditions that may, in ordinary times, be considered draconian, extreme and contrary to national interests.
Recently, however, reform of laws around remote working in many countries has been seen as a progressive complement to policy aims of attracting inward investment and promoting international interest.
As a general principle, most jurisdictions currently adopt a simple legal delineation between visitor activities (not including local paid work) and employment activities, for which a local employer sponsor is required. ‘Remote working’ is not generally permitted, unless the specific activities fall within a limited set of approved permissions. Working for an overseas company ‘remotely’ is generally not recognised within visitor schemes and could put an individual in legal jeopardy if such activities came to the attention of the relevant authorities.
A new trend is emerging that recognises remote workers as ‘digital nomads’ who, rather than threatening the integrity of local immigration rules, may offer something beneficial to the host country, particularly as they spend their foreign salaries in local economies without threatening the local labour market. Consequently, several countries (not including the United Kingdom) have developed digital nomad schemes, or alterations to local visitor rules, to welcome this new cadre of international workers.
The UK’s approach
As flexible working arrangements become the new model for employers around the world, employees may now look to take their workspace abroad. We consider whether this remote working practice is permitted in the UK under the country’s immigration rules.
Working as a visitor in the UK
Visitors cannot work in the UK unless expressly allowed under the permitted activities set out in Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities.
Unless outlined in this appendix, visitors are not allowed to:
- take up employment in the UK;
- work for an organisation or business in the UK;
- establish or run a business as a self-employed person;
- undertake a work placement or internship;
- directly sell to the public; or
- provide goods and services.
Visitor activities must not amount to undertaking employment or doing work that amounts to filling a role or providing short-term cover for a role within a UK-based organisation. Where the visitor is already paid and employed outside of the UK, they must remain so.
A visitor may conduct general business activities in the UK. For example, they may attend conferences, seminars, meetings or interviews. They may also give one-off or a short series of talks (provided they are not commercial events), negotiate and sign contracts, and carry out site inspections.
Additional provisions for intra-corporate activities allow an employee who is employed by an overseas company to advise, consult, troubleshoot or provide training, skills and knowledge within the same corporate group in the UK. A limited number of other provisions in the visitor rules also apply to scientific, academic, legal, religious, creative and sports fields.
Only in very limited circumstances may a visitor receive payment from a UK source for any activities undertaken in the UK.
Remote working for visitors
The immigration caseworker guidance makes specific reference to remote working. It sets out that visitors are permitted to undertake activities in the UK relating to their employment overseas; for example, taking phone calls or sending emails. However, the main purpose of the trip must be for a permitted activity.
A visitor cannot come to the UK for the main purpose of working remotely. A caseworker or border officer must be satisfied that an individual is not planning to live in the UK through frequent and successive visits, and if they are working remotely, that they are genuinely employed overseas and not seeking work in the UK.
Obtaining a visa to work in the UK
The UK has no immigration provision for individuals to work remotely in the UK for a non-UK entity. To obtain a work visa (eg, Skilled Worker, Intra-Company Transfer) an individual must be sponsored by a trading UK company for an eligible role. The company must be an approved sponsor by the UK Visas and Immigration Agency.
Temporary workers may come to the UK under different categories, including Youth Mobility, Government Authorised Exchange and Seasonal Workers.
Following the UK’s departure from the European Union and the end of free movement, EU nationals who do not otherwise have status in the UK do not have the right to live and work in the UK.
UK immigration laws are ripe for reform in this area if we are to recognise the international nature of flexible working and accept that such reforms may not be a threat to our system of immigration control or the integrity of our labour market.
The UK government will introduce reforms in 2022 and it is possible that the scope of permissible activities may include remote working. The Migration Advisory Committee – the group of professional economists tasked with advising the government on immigration issues as they affect the labour market – has recommended that ‘the Home Office should explore how the visit rules could be adapted to facilitate time-limited, essential work travel to the UK’.
Whilst such changes would undoubtedly fall short of a full digital nomad scheme, they may be a step in the right direction.
When determining whether it is permitted for an individual to work remotely in the UK, one must consider the main purpose of the visit, what business the individual will be doing in the UK, and the length of the trip. It is unlikely that the current visitor rules will permit an individual to travel to the UK for the sole purpose of working remotely if they intend to stay for a long period of time. However, if an individual instead wished to visit the UK for a short holiday, it would be acceptable for them to pick up phone calls or emails in relation to their overseas employment. If an individual wishes to do productive work for a UK company, they must first obtain a work visa.
 Immigration Rules Appendix Visitor, para v, 4.5.
 Immigration Rules Appendix Visitor: Permitted Activities, No 5.
 Immigration Rules Appendix Visitor, para v, 13.3
 UK Home Office, Visit guidance (Version 11.0) p 31 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1019544/Visit.pdf accessed 3 December 2021.
 MAC Report on Intra-Company Transfers (October 2021).