A Guide To The UK’s International Sportsperson Visa For Footballers & Agents
Recent history dictates that no sportsperson travelling to compete in another country should underestimate the uncompromising nature of the immigration system.
Novak Djokovic was prevented from competing in the Australian Open after his visa was cancelled in 2022. More recently, Swiss Football Club, Servette, was knocked back in the UEFA Champions League after one of their star midfielders, Gaël Ondoua, was denied entry to the UK to play a qualifying game against the Scottish Rangers.
In the UK, the fact that a visa application has been required for all foreign professional footballers since Brexit – which provided the context for the introduction of the International Sportsperson visa – means the importance of forward planning when it comes to immigration matters cannot be understated. Agents, and the players they represent, should ensure they have a good understanding of the options available when considering a transfer from overseas to the UK.
This article provides an overview of the International Sportsperson visa, with a focus on foreign footballers coming to play in Premier League and EFL.
International Sportsperson Visa: the preferred route for the elite athlete
The International Sportsperson visa is designed for players considering a transfer to the UK and is aimed specifically at elite athletes. In the context of professional football, it allows the player to play for an English club for up to three years, with the option of extending the visa thereafter. The International Sportsperson visa replaced the Sportsperson (Tier 2) visa in January 2021, and the sporting part of the Temporary Worker – Creative and Sporting visa (Tier 5) in October 2021, and in doing so, closed down the option for certain professional footballers of travelling to the UK visa free. Please see here for more information.
When to apply
In order to apply for an International Sportsperson visa the player must first have received a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from The FA, and then have been issued a certificate of sponsorship by the English or Welsh club. The player should apply after a contract has been agreed but leave sufficient time for the visa to be processed before the start of the season. This timeline needs to be built into the agent’s negotiation with the relevant English club.
What is Governing Body Endorsement?
GBE is the first stage of the International Sportsperson visa application process. A professional footballer must be endorsed by The FA, who effectively confirm that the player is an elite athlete. The FA publish their criteria for endorsement in advance of the summer transfer window. Broadly, The FA will endorse a player if the Auto Pass Percentage is met. This is a metric which relies on the time spent playing international, domestic and continental football. It also accounts for the quality of the club for which the player previously played; both in terms of the domestic league in which they played and the club’s ranking within that league.
For top-ranking, international elite players, the GBE can be easily met, but those with less international experience can face difficulties. For example, Kaoru Mitoma, a Japanese transfer to Brighton & Hove Albion F.C., was unable to qualify for a GBE despite being a top player in the Japanese J League, as he did not have the required number of senior international appearances. The Elite Significant Contribution (ESC) exemption, introduced in June 2023 aimed to address this issue. An understanding of the ESC exemption is therefore essential for agents negotiating on behalf of players with fewer international caps.
Understanding the ESC exemption
In June 2023, an exemption to the GBE was introduced for Elite Significant Contribution players. These are younger players who have the potential to make a significant contribution to English football in the future. Whether a player qualifies under the minimum requirements for the ESC depends on the quality of league in which they have played in prior coming to the UK, and the FIFA ranking of the nation for which they have played.
English clubs are given a limited number of ESC players they can sponsor per season. For Premier League and Championship clubs this is a maximum of four ESC players. For League One and League Two clubs, the maximum is two. Whether clubs are granted their maximum number of slots in future seasons will depend on the percentage of minutes they give to England Qualified Players – players who would qualify to play for the national team, if selected. Agents need to be aware of the number of ESC players a club can sponsor, as this will factor into the negotiation process.
What role does the Club play in the visa process?
Most professional English football clubs hold an International Sportsperson sponsor licence. i.e. the ability to provide International Sportsperson with Certificates of Sponsorship which they can use in support of their visa applications. Once a player a club wishes to sponsor as an International Sportsperson has obtained GBE, the second stage of the process is for the club to issue the player with a certificate of sponsorship (CoS) for up to three years. This document is submitted with the player’s visa application and confirms the player’s contractual relationship with the club. Without a CoS, the visa will not be granted. It is essential assurances regarding the issue of a CoS are built into negotiations from the outset.
Can the player settle in the UK?
An International Sportsperson visa can be granted either for twelve months or less, or for a period of more than twelve months, up to three years. When the player is granted leave for a period of more than twelve months this provides a route to settlement (following five years’ continuous residence in the UK). An International Sportsperson can apply to extend their visa from within the UK.
There is scope for an ESC player to convert to a non-ESC player and remain with the club indefinitely, if a player is able to fulfil the GBE criteria after playing for the club for some time, however, the process can take up to 12 months). They can be retained on this basis as a non-ESC player and the club will be able to use the ESC slot for another player.
Can the player bring their family?
Applicants can be accompanied by a dependent partner and children. Agents should negotiate terms which ensure that all associated visa costs are covered by the English club.
The International Sportsperson visa presents certain intricacies that necessitate careful consideration at the outset of transfer negotiations. However, when approached with meticulous foresight and adherence to the outlined procedures, this visa category offers a well-defined route for professional footballers seeking to establish themselves in the UK and make it their new home.
Key points footballers and agents should bear in mind at the outset of the process are:
- Is the player able to meet the GBE requirements?
- Does the player need to rely on the ESC Exemption?
- What is the Club’s timeline for issuing a Certificate of Sponsorship?
- Will the Club support the player and his family in the submission of their visa applications?
 Stephen O’Flaherty, ‘A guide to the new immigration rules for players coming to the Premier League and EFL’, lawinsport.com, 3 Dec 2020, https://www.lawinsport.com/topics/item/a-guide-to-the-new-immigration-rules-for-players-coming-to-the-premier-league-and-efl
 Charlotte O’Connor, Owen Chan, ‘UK Football Visas – How The FA’s ‘Elite Significant Contribution’ Criteria Apply to Foreign Players’, lawinsport.com, 25 Oct 2023,
 See Paragraph ISP 12.1 – ISP 18.3 of the Immigration Rules.
This article was first published in Law in Sport in October 2023.