Posted 25 March 2019
Interview by Indi Davies

Hwasoo Shim’s advice for international students wanting to work in the UK

For international students hoping to stay on and work in the UK, a lot can be unclear about the process of finding work and landing a visa. We’ve been talking to people working in creative industries who have gone through the experience (see our last piece with Ivyy Chen), collecting advice for those about to embark on the journey themselves. Hwasoo Shim, who came to London from South Korea to study for a BA in Graphic and Media Design at UAL, now works as associate creative director at branding agency BrandCap. He tells us how he made it work.

I’m originally from South Korea and moved here in 2007. I started my working visa from 2012 and I now have permanent residency, and am currently waiting for my British passport.

Almost every week I’m contacted by international students in the UK asking for advice. Mostly they ask about which companies will sponsor international workers, how to prepare a portfolio, how you prove to a company that you’re worth hiring, and how you ask a company about a visa without sounding like you’re nagging them for it.

The thing I always say to current students is that it’s not as difficult as you think. From my own experience, here are the things I would advise to others in the same position:

Download’s list of companies that sponsor international workers has a list of all of the companies in the UK that sponsor certain visas (including the general tier two visa, which is standard working permit). It’s all open source and you can download it, but it’s a little bit tedious – there are tens of thousands of companies on there, and it can be complicated with the different types of visas. But if you just note down 10 agencies or studios you’d like to work for, then you can use this list to search for them – that was what I did.

Taking a year out can help
During my studies, I took a year out to get industry experience with internships and freelance work. This is a chance to test the water – you can see whether companies might want to support you.

“The biggest help is confidence.”

Don’t be scared have confidence
It sounds like a very daunting process, but you just have to do your homework. Don’t be too scared – there’s no need. Most of the time, when I talk to international students, they can become quite submissive, because they think a company will have to pay loads of money to hire and sponsor them, but this isn’t always true.

The biggest help is confidence. You have to show them that you’re pretty much the same as the other talent in a company. If you’re applying for jobs, make sure you don’t come across as someone just looking for a visa. It’s about selling yourself: who you are and what you can bring to the company.

In some cases, companies might be looking for international workers
Most of the international students I speak to are quite nervous, because they feel like they’re pestering, that they don’t have a good enough portfolio. They can get really scared and then they don’t try.

But remember: If an agency already has a licence for international workers, they might have to fill that slot every year. For example, some companies with a license are given a slot for three or four people annually. They have to use it, otherwise it’s a waste of time and resources.

Be honest with the company
For me, I think there’s nothing wrong with asking for a visa, because you have to put it all out there. Be upfront and honest about it. There’s nothing you need to be sorry about.

If you’re applying for a full-time job, I think it’s good to state that early on. But if you’re a student looking for an internship, you don’t need to mention anything about the visa at that stage.

Let’s say you finish your studies in January, but then your visa runs up until later in the year. During that time you still can do internships and work experience, or even work in a junior role.

“If an agency already has a licence for international workers, they might have to fill that slot every year.”

Transitioning from student visa to working visa might take time
I was working as a freelance designer after graduating. And then when my student visa ran out I went back to Korea, then came back again with the working visa. This gave me time to work things out with my visa, and do some freelancing.

There was no one talking about all this information at the time; I had to just find it by myself. I had make phone calls, and then sometimes I had to pay a bit of money to visa immigration lawyers and companies to get advice as well. But, having said that, these things change almost every year. The biggest thing is going to be that after 2024 The Home Office will open a new service, office and system. However, I don’t think it's going to impact on international students or permanent residencies.

It’s best to plan ahead
The problem with trying to arrange work and a visa from afar, is that you have to go to as many interviews as possible in person. Skype calls can be limiting. While you can go away like I did and come back after preparing, it’s better to have a solid plan after graduation. Plus it can get very complicated if you have to come back and forth quite a lot – as well as being expensive!

I know there’s loads of international students panicking about this in their final year, but you don’t have to do loads of homework. Do some research about the companies you want to work for, see whether they have a licence or not, then focus on making your portfolio as outstanding as possible. Then, ideally you can land an internship that might well lead to a junior role.

“When I went to interviews, I went in with the mindset that I belonged in London.”

Don’t give up – you have a right to be here
It’s been an interesting journey talking to people about this, because sometimes it can be really tough for international students wanting to stay here. It can feel like too much work. I was talking to someone recently who said, “Well, most people who want to stay just can’t.” This can be down to competition and a lack of understanding from companies about how they deal with visas.

For me, from the very beginning I just said to myself: “Okay, I’m gonna stay here. I’m gonna get a job.” There’s no difference between international and non-international students. We’re just the same people, doing the same thing, with the same interests, and working with the same company.

At the beginning, it was really challenging and this was mostly due to the culture shift. But I made sure that when I went to interviews, I went in with the mindset that I belonged in London. Technically yes, on my passport and papers I’m international, but as long as I’m here, I’m part of this society.

You came to stay, study and live here. You have to embrace the fact that you’re here, and you’re already part of this community.

Mention Hwasoo Shim
Mention BrandCap
Interview by Indi Davies