New official guidance issued in 2023 has relaxed the rules on English football clubs bringing foreign youth players to the UK.
UK visa rules, however, remain complex, making professional advice critical to securing a visa to play football in the UK.
Who needs a visa to play football in the UK?
Under the UK’s post-Brexit immigration system, foreign nationals must have permission to work in the UK. In most cases, this will mean applying to the Home Office for a suitable visa.
For professional footballers, the primary UK visa option is the International Sportsperson visa. This visa allows the holder to work, ie play professional football for an English club, for up to three years. The visa can be extended for as long as the player continues to be eligible under the visa conditions. After 5 years, the player can become eligible to apply for UK settlement, provided they’ve had at least one visa that lasted longer than 12 months.
Eligibility for the International Sportsperson visa is determined by the player being endorsed by the relevant sporting body and meeting the visa requirements.
International Sportsperson visa requirements
The International Sportsperson is a highly exclusive route, limited to elite and established professional players and coaches operating at the highest level in their sport. As such, the requirements are strict and aimed only at those who can show high-calibre sporting credentials.
Applicants first require Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from their sport’s governing body. For footballers, this is the FA.
GBE criteria include the number of international appearances the player has made, the number of minutes the player has featured in domestic or continental competition, the success of the player’s previous club and the quality of the domestic league in which that club competes.
In order to recruit an international player, the football club must hold a valid sponsorship licence.
Once the player has been endorsed, the club can assign a Certificate of Sponsorship to the player, who can then make their application to the Home Office for the International Sportsperson visa. For the visa, the applicant must attain a minimum of 70 points under the points-based immigration system.
Exemption for ESC footballers
In June 2023, an exemption was introduced to the standard GBE requirements for the International Sportsperson route, aimed at making it easier for English Premier League and English Football League (EFL) football clubs to bring in up-and-coming foreign players, so-called ESC (Elite Significant Contribution) players.
Under the exemption, eligible clubs are allowed to sign ESC youth players who show exceptional ‘promise’ but who would not ordinarily meet the endorsement requirements for the International Sportsperson visa.
Under the rules, Premier League and Championship teams are permitted to bring in four additional international players, while League One and League Two teams can bring in two players, who qualify as ESC players.
ESC player visa rules
ESC players are those deemed to have significant potential at an elite level and who will make a significant contribution to English football.
ESC players will effectively attain endorsement equivalent to a GBE, despite not meeting the standard 15-point GBE criteria, which will allow them to play for an English club.
The FA’s ESC criteria apply to the Player Reference Period, which is the period up to 24 months prior to the date the ESC GBE application is made. During this period, the player must have satisfied one or more of the following:
- Played in one or more youth international matches for a country in the top 50 of the FIFA world rankings
- Played in five or more youth international matches for a country outside the top 50 of the FIFA world rankings
- Played in one or more continental youth competition matches
- Played in five or more domestic youth competition matches
- Played in one or more senior international matches for a country in the top 50 of the FIFA world rankings
- Played in five or more senior international matches for a country outside the top 50 of the FIFA world rankings
- Played in one or more continental competition matches
- Played in five or more domestic competition matches
Clubs will also have to evidence to the Football Association’s (FA’s) satisfaction that the player is an elite player and will make a significant contribution to the sport.
How many ESC players can a club bring in?
Limits apply to the number of ESC players a club can bring into the UK.
English clubs in the Premier League and the English Football Leagues up to League 2 have two spaces for ESC players.
Clubs in the Premier League and Championship can have two additional ESC spaces where they exceed 35% of weighted England Qualified Players (EQP) minutes.
Under the guidance, not every club will be able to use their maximum number of slots for the 2023/24 season. For future seasons, the number of ESC slots available to a club will depend on the percentage of minutes that the club gives to EQPs.
If after 12 months of signing an ESC player, the club applies for them to become a non-ESC player, their ESC space can in certain circumstances, be freed up for a different eligible player. For this to apply, requirements include meeting minimum thresholds in relation to international appearances autopass percentage, attaining 15 points or more for a GBE, or playing in 25% of the EQP qualifying matches and requisite percentage of available minutes.
DavidsonMorris are UK immigration experts, providing specialist visa advice to football clubs, football players and coaches on all aspects of UK Home Office applications. If you have a query about the visa rules for professional footballers, or require professional support with a UK visa application, contact us.
Visa to play football in the UK FAQs
What visa do I need to play football in UK?
The International Sportsperson visa allows elite foreign sports players, such as footballers, to play professionally in the UK.
Can foreigners play football in England?
Foreign nationals can play professional football in England provided they have a valid work permit. This would typically mean having Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) and an International Sportsperson visa.
Last updated: 20 June 2023