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Third attempt by Home Office to define who is, and isn’t, a “professional sportsperson”


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Who would have thought that defining who is, and isn’t, a professional sportsperson would be so difficult? The government has been grappling with this issue for some time.

First attempt

Back in January, and somewhat out of the blue, the Home Office made fairly significant changes to the definition of “professional sportsperson” in the Immigration Rules.

The changes left a lot of international students and others on visas, plus universities, sports clubs etc, scratching their heads. On plain reading, the changes seemed to restrict anyone who had a visa containing a professional sportsperson restriction from even coaching their kid’s football team or taking part in an amateur footie game, unless this was “as an amateur in a charity event”.

Take two

Possibly in response to the difficulties people were having interpreting the new definition negative media coverage, the department made further changes in March.

As we said at the time, the second attempt still left a lot of unanswered questions.

Third time lucky?

The Home Office has now published its third attempt at solving this issue in the recently updated Tier 4 policy guidance. This is the document that international students who are thinking of coming to the UK to study should read to help guide them through the visa process.

We’ve set out the full detail of what’s changed throughout the guidance on our website, so I won’t repeat that here.

On the professional sportsperson front, we have new information clarifying the restriction. The guidance now states:

you are permitted to play, participate or coach in grassroots/amateur sport, for instance at and for local and community teams, as well as at your Tier 4 sponsor, and in amateur competitions and leagues, such as those organised through British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), providing you are doing so on a wholly amateur basis.

It is now clear that it’s OK to coach that junior football team, on an amateur basis. If she felt so inclined, Megan Rapinoe could come to the UK to study and spend her Saturday mornings helping me to improve my keepie-uppie skills without breaching the terms of her visa. This is as long as I didn’t pay her and it was a truly amateur activity (there would be literally no reason in my case to think otherwise).

See paragraphs 217-222 for chapter and verse.

Hurrah… almost

This is good news for international students and also universities, university teams, etc. Some universities I advise have spent months not being certain that they can continue to offer degrees that contained mandatory sport-related work placements to international students.

But so far, the change only appears in guidance — not the Immigration Rules — and only relates to Tier 4 students. 

The Home Office’s next statement of changes to the Immigration Rules is imminent and this will hopefully provide greater clarification for anyone who has a visa containing a restriction on professional sporting activity.

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Nichola Carter

Nichola heads the immigration team at Carter Thomas (www.carterthomas.co.uk). A lawyer with 20 years' experience, she also sits on The Law Society’s Immigration Committee. Nichola's main work relates to advising businesses, universities and schools on sponsor applications and compliance, and individuals seeking to come under the Global Talent, family and other routes . She regularly provides media comment including for the BBC and FT and is happy to be contacted for comment. Nichola tweets from @carternichola and her email is ncarter@carterthomas.co.uk.