Points-based immigration: how does it work?

Migration Matters Trust factsheet 1, 2017

Points-based immigration: how does it work?

By Lauren Distler

A points-based system  is a way of selecting migrants based on their attributes and assets, such as age, education, occupation and language proficiency. This type of system is essentially a “‘human-capital accumulation’ formula”, which seeks to increase a country’s talent pool or fill gaps in the workforce for the benefit of the economy. In the “pure” form of this model, the immigration system would select only on the basis of these qualities, rather than prioritising migrants with jobs lined up. However, most points-based systems today are “hybrid”, in that they either require or reward having a job offer.

Here, we compare the points-based systems of Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to give an insight into how these systems operate.


Canada’s pioneering points-based immigration system was introduced in 1967 with the objective of better regulating temporary migration flows. It replaced  the previous “whites only” system. Of non-humanitarian migration in 2015, 72% of permanent migrants were economic, and 28% family reunion.

 Individuals seeking to migrate to Canada as skilled workers must go through a two-step assessment process. First, applicants are marked based on six selection factors

  • skilled work experience
  • language ability (in English or French)
  • education
  • age
  • arranged employment and
  • adaptability (judged based on language proficiency, prior work or study experience in Canada, and/or having relatives in Canada).

To be eligible to immigrate to Canada, applicants must meet a minimum of 67 points out of 100. If they pass this first stage, candidates are then able to create a profile in Express Entry, a visa-processing program introduced by the Canadian government in 2015. Express Entry is a competitive pool in which candidates are ranked based on the criteria listed above, as well as factors like nomination by a province. Factors are weighted slightly differently than in the first round of points testing with, for instance, a decreased emphasis on arranged employment and a strong bias towards provincial nomination. A total of 1,200 points is possible, with the highest ranked more likely to receive an “Invitation to Apply” for permanent residence.


In the 1970s Australia adopted an immigration policy that grants visas based on skills and personal attributes, ending the racially based “white Australia” policy that had governed immigration since 1901. The points-based system was formalised in 1989.

In the past two decades Australian immigration policy has seen a shift away from population growth and towards a focus on skilled migration. In 2015-16 non-humanitarian migration was capped at 190,000 individuals, of whom 68% were classed as skilled economic migrants, and 32% as family reunion. Not all economic migrants are points-tested - only those entering through the “skilled-independent” programme, and those applicants nominated by a state, territory, or region.  In order to qualify for a visa, points-tested migrants must meet a 60-point minimum. Points are awarded based on

  • age
  • English language ability
  • number of years of skilled employment in the past ten years
  • educational qualifications
  • educational or training qualifications received from Australian institutions
  • other factors (community language qualifications, study in regional Australia or a low-population-growth metropolitan area, partner skill qualifications, professional year in Australia) and
  • nomination by a state or territory government or family sponsorship (only some visa classes  ). Nomination is weighted far less heavily in the Australian system than in the Canadian one.

An applicant must also nominate a “skilled occupation” from the Australian government’s Medium and Long-term Strategic Skills List.This does not make up part of the points system itself, but enables the government to adjust the type of migrants entering to suit Australia’s economic needs.

United Kingdom

The UK’s points-based system  was introduced by the Labour government in 2008, and replaced a complicated immigration process which had 80 different visa tracks. Unlike the Canadian and Australian points systems, the UK’s model includes almost all (non-EEA) economic migration, including students, temporary workers and employer-sponsored applicants. Visas are divided into five tiers:

  • Tier 1: High value migrants including investors, entrepreneurs and those with “exceptional talent”.
  • Tier 2: Skilled workers with a job offer including intra-company transfers.
  • Tier 3: Low-skilled workers. This category has never been activated, as it is assumed that residents and EEA migrants are sufficient to meet this economic need.
  • Tier 4: Students.
  • Tier 5: Temporary workers including reciprocal youth mobility programmes with select nationalities and five other sub-categories.

This list is a simplification of the tiered system, as since its inception there has been a proliferation of categories and sub-categories. Most visas require sponsorship and a fixed study/employment offer, involving separate applications to UK Visas and Immigration from both the sponsor and the applicant. The attributes needed and number of points awarded varies by tier. A defining feature of the UK system is that, for most categories, there is little to no flexibility in the number of points awarded, and it is not possible for points accrued in one area to offset deficiencies in another. Some critics have argued that this makes the UK points system “arguably largely symbolic”

Points are awarded on a less binary basis for Tier 2 visas, the main route for bringing non-EEA workers to the UK. The Tier 2 assessment system prioritises applications with job offers in occupational fields which the government has deemed to be experiencing labour shortages, as well as PhD-level positions. Other points are awarded based on the applicant’s qualifications, future expected earnings, type of sponsorship, English language skills and available maintenance (the funds they have to support themselves).

Unlike that of Australia, the UK immigration system does not have an overall cap on the number of visas granted, though quotas are placed on some categories.


The Canadian, Australian and British immigration systems are all hybrids that incorporate both skills-based and employer-led aspects. Britain is the only country of the three in which all economic migration is processed through a points system, though in most categories points are in reality awarded according to checklist of requirements, rather than on a sliding scale, which would enable more accurate differentiation between individual candidates. Britain’s points-based system also places a greater emphasis on sponsorship than the other two countries.


Work cited:

Buchanan, Kelly, "Points-based immigration systems: Australia" (Law Library of Congress, 1 March 2013) https://www.loc.gov/law/help/points-based-immigration/australia.php, accessed 29 May 2017

Donald, Adam, "Immigration points-based systems compared" (BBC News, 1 June 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29594642, accessed 29 May 2017

Gower, Melanie, The UK’s points-based system for immigration (House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper 7662, 18 July 2016) http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7662, accessed 29 May 2017

"Immigration to Australia: skilled points test" (Australian Visa Bureau News)

http://www.visabureau.com/australia/immigration-points-test.aspx, accessed 29 May 2017

Murray, Alasdair, Britain’s points based migration system (CentreForum, 2011) http://www.centreforum.org/assets/pubs/points-based-system.pdf, accessed 29 May 2017

"New comprehensive ranking system for express entry" (CIC News, 10 November 2016) http://www.cicnews.com/2016/11/canada-outlines-significant-changes-comprehensive-ranking-system-crs-express-entry-immigration-118652.html, accessed 29 May 2017

Papademetriou, Demetrios G. and Madeleine Sumption, Rethinking points systems and employer-selected immigration (Washington DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2011) http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/rethinking-points-systems-and-employer-selected-immigration, accessed 29 May 2017

"Six selection factors – Federal skilled workers" (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Communications Branch, 7 January 2015) http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/immigrate/skilled/apply-factors.asp, accessed 29 May 2017

"Skilled independent visa (subclass 189)" (Department of Immigration and Border Protection) http://www.border.gov.au/Trav/Visa-1/189-, accessed 29 May 2017

"Skilled occupations lists" (Department of Immigration and Border Protection) http://www.border.gov.au/Trav/Work/Work/Skills-assessment-and-assessing-authorities/skilled-occupations-lists, accessed 29 May 2017