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The lifecycle of an international athlete: key immigration issues when entering the UK

Posted: 19/09/2017

In the second in Penningtons Manches’ series of blogs for international athletes and their advisers, immigration expert Hazar El-Chamaa outlines the key legal points to consider when coming to compete in the UK.  

This comes in the wake of athletes being denied entry on arrival or facing delays for failing to take into account immigration requirements. Given the risks of adverse immigration history and reputational damage, it is important to get legal advice early on to make sure any issues are resolved well in advance of a scheduled event.

Below we set out the key immigration and visa issues to be aware of. The information is relevant to both long-term stays (eg footballers staying to perform a five year contract) and shorter visits (eg tennis players staying for a few days/weeks to compete in a tournament).

Key questions and considerations

Do I need a visa before travelling to the UK?
The answer to this question is no if:

  • you are an EEA or Swiss national; or
  • you are a non-visa national (eg USA) and entering as a visitor or under Tier 5 for a period of less than three months. See below for other requirements that must be met. 

In almost all other cases the answer would be yes and a visa would need to be obtained in your home country under the relevant route before travelling to the UK.

Which route should I come in under?
There are three possible relevant routes to the UK: Visitor; Tier 2 sportsperson; or Tier 5 temporary worker sporting sub-category. Choosing between them will depend on whether the activity you wish to undertake in the UK amounts to work (paid or unpaid) and the duration of your stay. Below we set out the relevant considerations for each route.


Standard visitor - this is a popular route for an athlete who is only coming to the UK to:

  • take part in a sports tournament or sports event as an individual or part of a team (this excludes participating in a professional domestic championship or league as this is regarded as employment);
  • make personal appearances and take part in promotional activities;
  • take part in trials provided you are not in front of a paying audience;
  • take part in short periods of training provided you are not being paid by a UK sporting body;
  • join an amateur team or club to gain experience in a particular sport provided you are an “amateur”  in that sport.

Points to note:

  • you must be able to demonstrate that you are genuinely seeking entry for the above reasons;
  • you must have sufficient funds to cover all reasonable expenses of visit;
  • the maximum period of stay is six months;
  • you must not be paid unless entering under Permitted Paid Engagement (see below);
  • you must not carry out any prohibited activity i.e. activity must not amount to work (paid or unpaid).

Permitted Paid Engagement:

This is a sub-category of the Visitor visa under which professional athletes can enter the UK to carry out an activity related to their profession and be paid.

Points to note:

  • this is only available to “professional” athletes;
  • the activity must relate to the athlete’s profession;
  • you must be invited by a sports organisation , agent or broadcaster based in the UK;
  • the maximum period of stay is one month.

The athlete’s personal or technical staff employed by them overseas can enter under the visitor route to support their activities provided they are attending the same event. This is applicable if the athlete is entering under either the standard or permitted paid engagement visitor route.

Tier 2 (Sportsperson) and Tier 5 (Temporary Worker - Sporting)

These two routes are available to a professional athlete (and their staff) who will be coming to the UK to take up employment provided the criteria set out in the table below is met.

Points to note:

  • duration of stay;
    • Maximum 12 months – Tier 5 Sporting;
    • Maximum six years – Tier 2 Sportsperson; 
  • Tier 2 sportsperson leads to settlement in the UK on completion of five years residence. Minimum salary thresholds must be met at that stage;
  • cooling off period of 12 months applies on re-entry under the Tier 2 route: this applies if you were previously sponsored under Tier 2 for more than three months and your proposed annual salary package will be less than £159,600. This means that you will not be able to return to the UK under Tier 2 until the 12 months have passed from when you were last in the UK. 
Criteria Tier 2 (sportsperson) Tier 5 (sportsperson)
Be sponsored by a sporting body; sports club; events organiser; or other organiser operating in the sporting sector.             √             
Sponsor must have the sponsor licence for the relevant category from the Home Office. To check this, follow this link.




Endorsing body criteria

Be endorsed by the Home Office approved sport govering body for your specific sport. This needs to confirm that:

  • you are internationally established at the highest level;
  • your employment will make a significant contribution to the development of your sport at the highest level in the UK;
  • your post could not be filled by a suitable settled worker.



English language requirement:
This can be met if you either: are a national of a majority English speaking country; hold a qualifying degree taught in English; or hold an approved English language test certificate.

            √              √ 

Maintenance requirement:
This can be met either: by your sponsor certifying this when they sponsor you; or by you providing bank statements showing you hold minimum required funds as set by the Home Office for at least 90 days.

            √              √ 

How to apply?
As your application will need to be supported by your sponsor it is important to make sure they are involved in the application process. As the visa application can be complicated we also recommend that you obtain legal advice and assistance ahead of making any visa application.

Further information on how to apply can be found here.

How far in advance should I make my application?
You can apply a maximum of three months ahead of your anticipated start date in the UK.

How long will it take to process?
Visa processing times vary between countries but usually a decision should be made within two-three weeks and can be expedited for a fee. Visa processing times for your country can be found here.

Can I bring my family?
Yes if you are entering under Tier 2 or Tier 5 and provided any children are under 18. If entering as a visitor they will need to apply to enter as visitors in their own right.

What you can and cannot do if entering under Tier 2 / Tier 5:
There are certain conditions imposed on your stay in the UK. You will not be able to rely on public funds or start up a business. Your family members will also not be able to rely on public funds. Your spouse/civil partner however is able to work but not as a doctor or dentist in training or a professional sportsperson.

I don’t meet the requirements for these three routes, are there any alternatives?
Most immigration categories now have a prohibition on undertaking employment as a professional sportsperson (including as a sports coach). However, it may be that your family circumstances qualify you to enter under other immigration routes. Below we highlight the most common options:

  • UK ancestry visa : applies if you are a national of a Commonwealth country with a UK born grandparent. The visa if granted will be valid for five years and can lead to settlement in the UK;
  • your partner is a British/EEA or Swiss national: this can be your spouse or unmarried partner (if you have lived together for two years). If your partner is British there is a financial threshold and English language requirement that will need to be met which is set by the Home Office.

Beware! Take care over the application:
Not only can rejections be damaging to future applications, (previous visa refusals will need to be declared on any subsequent visa applications) but the position may not be held open if you are not able to obtain your visa and enter the UK in time. For example, an athlete may be due to participate in Wimbledon or drive in the British Grand Prix but a visa refusal or failure to obtain a visa in time may result in them being unable to take part in the event.

This blog is for your information only. Please always seek legal advice if you are uncertain about any of the points or steps.

This article was first published as a blog on leading sports law website LawInSport in September 2017.

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