Sports immigration: buying and loaning players from overseas in the summer transfer window and beyond
2nd June 2021
The vast majority of footballers who are not UK or Irish nationals (and do not already have settled status) now need a visa to come to the UK to play football from overseas.
There are currently two visa routes for sportspeople – T2 Sportsperson and T5 (Temporary Worker) Creative or Sporting Worker, both of which require the purchasing club to:
hold an A-rated sponsor licence (which allows sponsorship under the relevant sports-specific route);
obtain an governing body endorsement (GBE) from The FA in respect of the player; and
assign a Certificate of Sponsorship to the player.
Only once the above steps have been completed can the player submit their visa application.
The GBE requirement makes the sports immigration regime more onerous than the general Skilled Worker route, as players and coaching staff are required to operate at the highest level in their relevant countries in order to be eligible. The rationale for this is to encourage development of, and opportunities for, home-grown talent.
For further information on the differences between the two visas, the process of sponsoring players and some practical tips which remain relevant, see our January transfer window article.
The FA has now released its revised GBE criteria, effective in respect of all applications from 4 June 2021 onwards. The revised criteria is substantially the same as before, although the player criteria sees the three most significant changes:
both the transfer/loan agreement and the player’s contract (in draft or final form) must now be submitted with any GBE application;
the men’s criteria no longer includes a discrete points-scoring system for youth players – that is, players born on or after 1 January 2000. Instead, youth players are now only assessed against the “senior” criteria, albeit they can accrue “new” points for making a debut appearance for the first XI. The Exceptions Panel (which has been retained across the board for the summer transfer window) will now determine youth player applications with a greater focus on their potential; and
where a club wishes to extend the period of a player’s GBE or transfer the player from the Temporary Worker route to the T2 Sportsperson route, or the player is being transferred to another club in the Premier League or Football League or in the WSL or Women’s Championship, the men’s and women’s player criteria both now have an additional “automatic pass” limb based on the player’s domestic minutes.
The FA has indicated that it will review this criteria ahead of the January 2022 transfer window.
We are expecting further reform of the sports immigration system, after the government recently announced that the two distinct visa routes above will be replaced with a new, single “International Sportsperson” route. We will provide further details when we know more.
Where a club wishes to obtain a player on loan from a club outside the English football pyramid (including players in the Scottish or Welsh system) and that player requires a sportsperson visa, the loanee club would need to obtain a governing body endorsement and assign a Certificate of Sponsorship as if they were seeking a permanent transfer of the player’s registration.
Where a loan occurs between two clubs within the English football pyramid, no new governing body endorsement is required and the loaning club remains the player’s sponsor for the duration of the loan. The loaning club therefore retains responsibility for the player for sponsor management and notification purposes.
We have seen clubs asking to what extent they can bring players into the country as visitors. Crucially, a player cannot play any domestic matches as a visitor; their ability to take part in other footballing activities is also tightly constrained.
On the face of it, players can use the visitor route for a host of non-match-related matters, such as making personal appearances, taking part in trials/short periods of training and negotiating a contract.
There a two key technical points to note:
the player can take part in a trial as a visitor, although it must not take place in front of a paying audience; and
the player cannot be paid beyond reimbursing them for travel and subsistence expenses.
There is also a much broader caveat, which severely restricts the usefulness of the visitor rules for football clubs. Firstly, it is not possible for a player to enter the UK as a visitor and switch to the T2 Sportsperson route in-country, so the player would have to leave again to make such an application. While it is possible for the player to enter as a visitor and switch to the Temporary Worker route in-country:
the Certificate of Sponsorship must have been assigned to the player before they entered the UK as a visitor – otherwise, the player must leave the country to start the visa process; and
The FA will not issue a GBE (which is needed to assign a Certificate of Sponsorship) for a player to trial with a club.
In reality, therefore, the visitor route is only really of assistance if the club:
genuinely wants to trial the player or discuss contractual terms and is content to let the player return to their country of residence to make an application should an agreement be reached; or
has already agreed terms with the player, wants to or can only sponsor them as a Temporary Worker, and would like them to arrive quickly for certain personal appearances, for example, photo shoots.