UK immigration from 2021: frontier workers

Out-Law Guide | 23 Oct 2020 | 5:37 pm | 3 min. read

The UK government has published new guidance on the position of frontier workers following the UK's exit from the EU and the commencement of the new immigration system on 1 January 2021.

A frontier worker is an EU, European Economic Area (EEA) or Swiss citizen who is employed or self-employed in the UK, but living elsewhere. Their position will be complicated once free movement ends as while some may be eligible for a status under the EU Settlement Scheme, those who have spent less time in the UK may not be eligible.

Employees who are frontier workers before 31 December 2020 will be able to retain this status, but will need to apply for a frontier worker permit if they wish to continue working in the UK after this date. Frontier worker permits will not be available to cross-border workers who do not start work in the UK until on or after 1 January 2021. These workers will instead have to apply for a work permit under one of the routes in the new immigration system.

Employers of cross-border workers must now consider whether these workers will require frontier worker permits. While most employers will want to prioritise immigration statuses which can lead to UK settlement in the longer term, the frontier worker permit will be a useful option for those who frequently travel and may allow employers to retain skilled, mobile talent in and out of the UK.

Who will be entitled to a frontier worker permit?

The concept of a frontier worker may already be familiar to multinational employers with operations in the UK and UK employers who require a mobile workforce, such as those in the infrastructure or energy sectors.

The impending end of free movement has left the position of these workers uncertain, due to the UK residency requirements of the EU Settlement Scheme for workers from the EU, EEA and Switzerland.

While most employers will want to prioritise immigration statuses which can lead to UK settlement in the longer term, the frontier worker permit will be a useful option for those who frequently travel.

Employees who are frontier workers before 31 December 2020 will be able to retain their status, but will need to apply for a frontier worker permit in order to do so. Irish citizens will not need to apply for a permit, but can do so if they wish.

If an employee has previously been a frontier worker, they will be able to retain that status and apply for a permit if one of the following applies:

  • they are temporarily unable to work due to illness or an accident;
  • they were working in the UK but are now involuntary unemployed and are currently seeking employment in the UK;
  • they are currently in vocational training whilst unemployed, and the training is related to previous employment;
  • they are temporarily unable to work due to pregnancy or recent childbirth; or
  • they are on maternity or paternity leave, and will return to previous employment or find another job after that leave has ended.

The UK government intends to introduce a frontier worker permit later this year, with no deadline for making an application. This means that the frontier worker permit will offer a useful backup option for EEA nationals who may need to secure a status to continue working in the UK following the end of free movement. Given the uncertainty and restrictions imposed by Covid-19, the expected flexibility on frontier worker permit applications will be a welcome benefit for potential applicants.

Applicants will be able to apply for a frontier worker permit online from inside or outside the UK, and applications will be free of charge. If approved, the frontier worker permit will be valid for five years for workers, or two years for the self-employed. If an individual ceases to be a frontier worker, they will be at risk of having the permit revoked and being removed from the UK.

It is important to note that frontier worker permits will not confer leave to enter or remain in the UK under the 1971 Immigration Act: they will simply provide a right of admission to the UK. The permit cannot be used to obtain settled status in the UK in future so other routes available to applicants, such as pre-settled or settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme should be prioritised given the longer term benefits of a successful application.

Frontier workers after 1 January 2021

Until July 2021, frontier workers who held this status before 31 December 2020 will be able to enter the UK using a valid passport or national identity card. After 1 July 2021, they will need to hold a valid frontier worker permit as well as a valid passport or national identity card in order to enter the UK to work.

Frontier workers seeking to begin employment in the UK while resident outside of the UK after 1 January 2021 will need to apply using a route under the new immigration system.