Examining the process by which footballers are granted permission to work within the United Kingdom

Within the European Union workers from all industries and professions are able to move freely between European Union Member States without the need for work permits or visas. Footballers, for the purpose of EU law, are regarded as workers the same as anybody else and so can rely on the EC Treaty. As a consequence a club playing in England can procure the services or European footballers without the need to apply for a work permit for that player. During a transfer window an English club can buy a European player one day from a fellow European club and have them play for them within a few days such as we saw last weekend with Arsenal’s new defensive signing Nacho Monreal starting his first competitive game against Stoke City.

However, football players who are from outside of Europe are required to obtain a work permit if they wish to ply their trade in English football. This is not an easy process and not all footballers who wish to apply for work permits will automatically be granted them as there is specific criteria by which the UK immigration authorities will judge the application. Under the rules work permits will only be issued to international football  players of the highest calibre who will be able to make a significant contribution to the development of the game of football in the United Kingdom at the highest level.

It is the responsibility of the purchasing/new club to make the application for a work permit on behalf of that player. In most cases the club will have agreed a purchase price with the current owner club and a contract with the player with the final stumbling block being the work permit itself. In order to establish on an initial application that the player is an international player of the highest calibre the following criteria must be met:

  1. A player must have player for his country in at least 75 per cent of its competitive A team matches of which he was available for selection, during the two years preceding the date of the application
  2. The player’s country must be at or above 70th place in the official FIFA world rankings when averaged over the two years preceding the date of the application

For the avoidance of doubt a competitive A team international match is defined as or consists of one of the following:

  • World Cup Finals game
  • World Cup Qualifying group game
  • Football Association confederation tournament game, for example:
  • The FIFA Confederations Cup
  • The UEFA European Championships and Qualifiers
  • The African Cup of Nations and Qualifiers
  • The Asia Nations Cup and Qualifiers
  • The CONCACAF Gold Cup
  • The CONCACAF The Copa Caribe
  • The CONMEBOL Copa America
  • The OFC Nations Cup and
  • The UNCAF Nations Cup

It is therefore up to the club to provide written confirmation of the player’s international appearance record of the proceeding two years highlighting the number competitive A matches from the list above. This information can usually and should be obtained from the National Governing Body which that player represents and then provided to the UK Border Agency. The UK Border Agency will not be able to make a decision until the player’s international appearance record is provided and proved.

But what happens if a player has not been granted a work permit? Well if a footballer does not fulfil the above criteria and has his application for a work permit turned down by the UK Border Agency there is the possibility for his prospective new club applying to appeal the decision. This appeal would be heard by an independent panel and it will be the job of the panel to assess whether the player is of the highest calibre; and whether the player is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in the UK.

It is often the case that when clubs sign young players who have not had the opportunity to play for their national side due to their age the work permit will be granted due to the ability and potential shown by that player in their fledgling career. An example of this would be the case of Joel Campbell who on 19 August 2011, Arsenal signed from Deportivo Saprissa in Costa Rica. However, it was revealed on 27 August 2011 that Campbell had failed to obtain a work permit to enable him to play in England. Arsenal hope that a succession of loan deals will help Campbell qualify for a work permit in the future and to that end he has spent last season on loan at French side Lorient, where he scored three goals in 27 appearances, and this season he is on loan at Real Betis. Campbell has made 16 appearances for Costa Rica, netting seven times.


Moreover, if the footballer has been injured during the requisite time period meaning that he has been unable to represent his country as above then this would also be taken into consideration when assessing the application or appeal. Of course the club would need to provide supporting evidence in their application to ensure a successful outcome. This was the case just last week as Stoke City were poised to complete the signing of midfielder Brek Shea from FC Dallas. Shea was required to have played in 75 per cent of the USA’s international games in order to be awarded a work permit, but he had only featured in 14 games over the past two seasons. However, that was largely due to Shea undergoing an operation last August to remove a bone in his right foot, forcing him to miss several internationals. Stoke City, thanks in part to the evidence provided by their Manager Tony Pulis at an appeal hearing at Wembley were able to successfully argue mitigating circumstances and the work permit was allowed.

Of course not all work permit applications and appeals are successful. For instance in January 2012 QPR failed in their attempt to sign the Brazilian striker Henrique after he was denied a work permit. Although QPR had reached agreement with São Paulo over a deal for the Brazil Under-20 international, it all hinged on the player being given granted a work permit. However, because he had limited experience in club football and had not yet made his debut for the senior Brazil team his permit was denied.

Clubs work very hard to bring in young talented players and you can be sure that for every transfer deal that fails on account of a work permit there were several more that were contemplated but otherwise discontinued by clubs upon legal advice provided by experienced immigration lawyers. Just because fans do not hear about them, does not mean that they do not happen.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.