In an announcement at her Conservative Party’s conference on Tuesday, May said the post-Brexit immigration system will prioritise high-skilled workers, wherever they were from, over low-skilled migrants.
The new system “ends freedom of movement once and for all”, May said in a statement.
“For the first time in decades, it will be this country that controls and chooses who we want to come here.”
Immigration is a divisive issue in the United Kingdom, and reducing the number of newcomers was a major factor for many who voted in 2016 to leave the EU.
At present, EU nationals can live and work in the UK under the bloc’s free-movement rules, but that will change after the UK leaves next March.
May said that those wanting to live and work in Britain for the long term would need to earn a minimum salary and would only be able to bring their family if sponsored by their future employers.
The new system also includes a plan to speed up entry for short-term tourists and business visitors with a system of “e-gate visa checks” at airports.
May confirmed her government’s previous commitment that the 3 million EU citizens currently living in Britain can stay, even if the UK leaves the bloc without an agreement on future relations.
“For too long people have felt they have been ignored on immigration and that politicians have not taken their concerns seriously enough”, the prime minister said.
However, she conceded that immigration policy could be affected by Britain’s future trade deals.
“The ability of people from trading partners to deliver services and student exchange programmes will form part of future trade agreements,” she said.
The EU may seek to negotiate continued preferential treatment in return for Britain’s access to its single market, while other countries could also seek visa waivers as part of their own trade agreements.
Tuesday’s announcement follows a government-commissioned report that last month recommended a level playing field for people coming from overseas but restrictions on low-skilled workers.
The Conservative government has a long-standing goal of reducing net immigration below 100,000 people a year, which it has never come close to meeting. The current level is more than double that.
The government’s post-Brexit plan does not mention a figure but says immigration will be set at “sustainable” levels.
Businesses in areas such as farming, food manufacturing, hotels and domestic care, which rely heavily on workers from the EU, warned they could face employee shortages under the proposals.
British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said the immigration system should be “demand-led” rather than based on a “cut-off line somewhere arbitrarily on salary or types of skills”.
Pro-EU Labour Party MP David Lammy said ending free movement from the EU was “an act of national self-sabotage that will lock us out of the world’s largest single trading bloc that happens to be on our doorstep.”