Updates, commentary, training and advice on immigration and asylum law

Musicians’ tour visa fears are overstated


Older content is locked

A great deal of time and effort goes into producing the information on Free Movement, become a member of Free Movement to get unlimited access to all articles, and much, much more


By becoming a member of Free Movement, you not only support the hard-work that goes into maintaining the website, but get access to premium features;

  • Single login for personal use
  • FREE downloads of Free Movement ebooks
  • Access to all Free Movement blog content
  • Access to all our online training materials
  • Access to our busy forums
  • Downloadable CPD certificates

No doubt you will have read about the mudslinging between the UK and EU over the lack of a visa-free deal for touring musicians and entertainers. This has been retweeted and attacked by seemingly every artist you’ve heard of, and even been debated in Parliament.

The claims are that the lack of a deal means UK acts will need separate visas to play shows in each EU country, and EU acts will need visas to play here. Is that true? No.

To introduce myself: I am a work permit and visa specialist for the UK entertainment sector. I handle Tier 5 Certificates of Sponsorship (short-term entertainer work permits) by the thousand each year, for acts ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé to emerging Afrobeat artists via doom metal combos from Russia. You name it, I’ve done it. My company, T&S Immigration, has been in the biz for 30 years and we’ve done both sides; exporting bands and importing bands. We’ve queued at embassies, pleaded with consular staff, slept on the pavement outside the Home Office, raced to the airport with bundles of passports for a band waiting at check-in, attended Whitehall meetings to shape government policy. 

Why are visa concerns overblown?

It might help to try and clarify the word “visa”. It’s a pre-clearance for you to travel to a certain country. It’s often costly, and a real palaver (the USA, for instance, is usually a nightmare for touring bands; ditto China). Sometimes band members have to attend an office, give fingerprints, hand over documents, wait for weeks to get passports back. It’s to be avoided like the plague wherever possible. 

But only some people need visas. For reasons of simplicity, I’ll lump travellers into three general groups to categorise their immigration requirements when going abroad:

  1. Exempt from work or residence restrictions. For instance, if you are British or you have a UK residence permit, you can walk through a different channel on arrival into the UK. You can work, set up a business, etc. EU nationals used to enjoy these rights in the UK (and vice versa); Irish nationals still do. Simply show your passport or residence permit. 
  2. Non-visa national. You come from a country which the UK (or an EU state) does not consider high-risk, so you are not obliged to get a visa for tourism, business and some temporary work activities (these often include short-term entertainment, research, film shoots on location and so on). You may require some form of invitation, proof, or clearance paperwork for these activities, but not a visa before travel (unless coming here long-term). We have become non-visa nationals for travel to the EU, and vice versa. Permitted visa-free activities do vary somewhat within the EU/EEA; do not assume reciprocity specifically for entertainers. 
  3. Visa national. This means you need a visa to set foot in the country regardless of purpose. This is usually because your nationality is viewed as higher risk or we have poor diplomatic relations. We have not dropped to this level with the EU… yet. 

The confusion on visas seems to stem from a combination of two things. Organisations not familiar with tour paperwork have tried to find clarity, looking at government websites for the rules; and at the same time the actual experts who deal with tour paperwork (booking agents and promoters) are all on furlough or “retraining for cyber”, so they’ve been silent. 

So what’s the real situation? 

For Europeans coming to the UK

EU acts are now treated as non-visa nationals, almost exactly the same as Americans, Japanese, Australians etc. In other words, they are required to meet certain criteria to do paid performances here. As described on the Free Movement podcast last week, the three categories they can use are: 

  1. T5 Creative Certificate of Sponsorship, or CoS (basically a work permit) issued by a UK “sponsor”. In practice this is usually their UK booking agent, promoter, record label, etc). For work of less than three months these can be used as an entry document, visa-free. For EU acts these are free of charge; for the rest of the world they’re £21 per act. The whole band and crew can be included on a group CoS. They’re issued online and can be emailed to the artist for presentation at the UK border.
  2. Permitted Paid Engagement. Bring an invitation letter from the venue/broadcaster/arts organisation, some proof you’re a professional entertainer, proof you can afford your trip, and proof you’re leaving UK within 30 days. No visa. Check you meet the criteria for this first. 
  3. If you’re playing at a Permit Free Festival (this is a restricted list of well-established festivals who have a special CoS exemption) you could use their instructions for entry without a visa. 

In all three cases you could apply for visas, even if you don’t actually need them, but you’d be frankly daft. The UK government website will happily point you in that direction and take your money if you are so inclined. 

For Brits going to the EU

For UK acts going to play shows in the EU: tell your agent or the local promoters in each country what nationalities you have in your travel party. Prepare a spreadsheet of your info to email them, and be guided by their instructions. Have them give you specific instructions and not simply an “it’ll be fine”. You normally won’t see borders within the EU but you do want to be sure what you’re doing is legal.

We should theoretically be treated the same as other non-visa-national touring acts (USA, Japan, Aus, NZ, Canada etc.). In my 30-plus years of experience I don’t recall acts from those countries needing visas to play shows in the EU. In some nations it’s possible the promoter has to secure some exemption or meet certain criteria; these will become clear when lockdowns ease and tours start being planned again.

EU countries have historically been more lax on entertainer work permits than the UK. They generally take the view that a band – doing a few shows and then moving on – is not a threat to the workforce. Brexit should not have changed that. 

All in all, yes, Brexit does make it more complex to tour UK-EU and EU-UK. There’s no denying that. But visas for tours? Not in the vast majority of cases. More pressing are things like carnets for equipment and the crazy (and hitherto extremely obscure) cabotage rules for transporting it. I fully expect other issues to raise their heads when we get back to touring (small bands carrying merch in the back of the bus, for instance). Please don’t lose sleep over visas. 

Relevant articles chosen for you
Steve Richard

Steve Richard

Steve Richard is Managing Director at T&S Immigration Services, the UK's leading immigration experts for the entertainment industry.


2 Responses

  1. Thanks Steve, some interesting thoughts here. I agree that equipment, cabotage, merch are going to catch more bands out when embarking on a European tour in future than visa requirements, but I do understand why folks are concerned. 26 different jurisdictions to consider, not all as lax as some on permitted acvitities for visitors, Italy for example. And, if rules are applied, while the artist might be fine, I’m not sure this is as easy to say about any crew.

    On T5, a lot of arts organisations we speak to are concerned about licensing, particularly the compliance aspects for small groups with little resource. It’s misleading to leave it at “Just £21 / nothing to pay for a CoS”, anyone can do it.