UK visa rules for SPFL transfers explained: Hearts, Hibs, Celtic, Rangers & others endure SFA and Home Office process

Scottish clubs must plough through paperwork to satisfy three different organisations
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Shopping for food is a costly and sometimes arduous business since Brexit. Shopping for footballers is no less daunting. Scottish clubs must now endure a lengthy process when signing any non-British player, involving approval from the Scottish Football Association and the UK Home Office before international clearance from FIFA.

Hearts and Hibs are fairly well-versed regarding the paperwork and how to plough through it. Recruiting Japanese forwards Yutaro Oda and Kyosuke Tagawa, plus the incoming Costa Rican attacker Kenneth Vargas, has seen Tynecastle officials delve deep into immigration law. Likewise at Easter Road prior to the arrival of men like Dutch striker Dylan Vente and Australian defender Lewis Miller.

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Celtic and Rangers have also gone through the process with the Australian winger Marco Tilio and Brazilian striker Danilo respectively. It is no different for Aberdeen, St Mirren or any other team in Scotland. Hearts are in the midst of it right now as they attempt to finalise the capture of Vargas from CS Herediano. Tagawa arrived in Edinburgh on Monday and his signing should be announced imminently.

So, how exactly does it work? How do you get a foreign player into the country, secure documentation and clearance to actually let him pull on a jersey and play in the cinch Premiership? First, you need support from the SFA. Application for a Governing Body Endorsement, or GBE for short, from Hampden Park costs £100 and is the initial step before requesting a visa or work permit from the UK Home Office.

The Scottish Football Association Governing Body Endorsement Requirements for Men’s Football document is extensive and lays out that part of the procedure in full. Sections two, three and four read: “A club can apply for a GBE for a migrant at any time during the Season. In order to apply for a GBE, a club must hold a valid Sponsor’s Licence under Tier 2 and/or Tier 5 of the PBS [Home Office Points Based System]. In order to apply for and obtain a valid Sponsor’s Licence, a club must have obtained an endorsement letter for a Sponsor’s Licence from The Scottish FA.

“If a Club’s Sponsor’s Licence is revoked, any migrant who has obtained a GBE in order to play for/manage/coach the club may have his leave curtailed and may have to make a change in employment application which must be granted before the migrant can undertake any employment duties for the new club.

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“If The Scottish FA grants an application for a GBE for a migrant in accordance with these criteria, the club is permitted to assign a Certificate of Sponsorship to the migrant for the period covered by the GBE. The GBE must be presented to the Home Office when the club applies for entry clearance on behalf of a migrant, which must be done within three months of a Certificate of Sponsorship being assigned.

The UK Home Office must grant visas and work permits for foreign players.The UK Home Office must grant visas and work permits for foreign players.
The UK Home Office must grant visas and work permits for foreign players.

“Any Certificate of Sponsorship and a copy of the migrant’s biometric residence permit must be submitted to The Scottish FA by the club within 3 months of being assigned. Clubs must keep a copy of the relevant page of the migrant’s passport evidencing their entitlement to work and contact details for the migrant, which must be provided to The Scottish FA upon request. The club will also have to comply with any other criteria set by the Home Office in order to secure leave to remain under Tier 2 or Tier 5 of the PBS.

“A GBE under Tier 2 of the PBS will be granted for three years or the length of the migrant’s contract (whichever is shorter) and a GBE under Tier 5 of the PBS will be granted for 12 months or the length of the migrant’s contract (whichever is shorter). A migrant will not be eligible to play for/ manage/ coach the club beyond the expiry date of the GBE unless the club has applied for and obtained an Extended GBE before the existing GBE has expired in accordance with these criteria and the PBS.”

The document shows that players can achieve an “auto pass” depending on how many international caps they hold and their country’s position in the FIFA world rankings. Those who do not qualify for an auto pass are graded on a points basis. This is judged on how many minutes they played for their previous club in both domestic and continental competition, plus said club’s final league position last season and the ranking of that league. There are also points for the salary he earned in relation to the league’s median average.

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Fair to say it is a complicated and laborious process overall. If the GBE is granted, the Home Office then do their own checks to verify the individual’s character and background. Again, there is a points-based system used. They take into consideration the GBE from Hampden and in most cases, but not all, the player is granted the necessary documents to live and work in the United Kingdom. Hearts are presently hoping Vargas meets the criteria in both Glasgow and London in order to complete his six-figure transfer from the Costa Rica Primera Division.

Finally, when all of the above is in place, FIFA will be asked to grant an International Transfer Certificate for the player in question. That is usually a quick and straightforward process once the respective clubs are in agreement and the immigration documents are through. It can occasionally take a while if, for example, a piece of paperwork is missing, but mostly it is a formality.