A visa or not a visa? That is the question 

The ability of UK and EU artists to move and work freely across both regions has become a little more complicated since Brexit. But, says Jessie Tse, with careful planning and the right visas it is still possible to tour and perform

It would be an understatement to say it has been challenging for performing artists and support staff over the last few years. Gone are the days where we could hop on a 7am flight from Cologne to London for an 11am rehearsal. Instead, we now find ourselves having to stand in queues and face questioning about the purpose of our trips. In addition to navigating Covid-19 travel restrictions and its financial impact, the UK performing arts scene has also had to adjust to the end of free movement following Brexit.

In the UK, performing artists may still be able to enter the country for paid gigs for a short period without any additional mandatory documents and prior immigration formalities. However, the same concessions only apply to support staff (such as technicians, tour managers, stage managers and costume designers) who are attending the same event as the artists and are employed to work for the artist outside of the UK. Crew members who can’t benefit from this exemption may be able to rely on the Creative Worker route which has been a relatively continuous option throughout the years and in spite of Brexit.

Do artists need a visa to perform in the UK?

Whether an artist requires a visa endorsement in a passport depends on various elements, including the individual’s citizenship and on the type and length of the engagement they have in the UK.

EEA citizens, Canadian, South Korean and other non-visa nationals can typically enter the UK as a visitor via the eGates without seeking further pre-authorisation. However, if an artist comes for paid activities, they must see a Border Force officer on arrival and must not use the eGates even if they are a non-visa national. Whilst they do not have to go through a visa application ahead of their trip and can show their eligibility directly at the border, they must still have that interaction with a Border Force officer.

There are others, however, who need to obtain a Visitor visa ahead of their trip to the UK and therefore need to plan their application well in advance of their visit to the UK. A Visitor visa application can be submitted up to three months before their travel date and typically includes attending an in-person appointment to enrol their biometric data. These visa applications can only be made from a person’s country of nationality or a country of legal residence, which can present challenges for artists who are always on the road.

Regardless of their nationality, visitors can enter and stay in the UK for up to six months if needed. However, individuals cannot work under a Standard Visitor visa.

There are two exemptions in place for performing artists on this point. Performers wanting to enter the UK for paid engagements may be able to do so if they are invited to perform in a permit-free festival. The Home Office has produced a list of festivals which would be eligible under this route, and this includes some of the most popular UK festivals such as Edinburgh International Festival, Glyndebourne and London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). Alternatively, performing artists could enter the UK for a paid engagement if they are directly invited as guest artists by a performing arts company based in the UK. However, in these circumstances, they are permitted to stay for up to one month only, and specific engagements must be declared as part of their applications or upon entry to the UK.

What if artists want to stay longer?

Artists may be able to stay in the UK for up to 12 months if they are sponsored by a UK organisation under the Temporary Creative Worker immigration category. This route allows for more flexibility than the options set out above.

Temporary Creative Worker visa

The Temporary Creative Worker visa allows performing artists to give paid performances in the UK for a longer period than it would be possible when entering the UK as a visitor. It also allows companies to bring in their overseas support staff. Companies and performance venues will have to hold a sponsor licence under the Temporary Creative Worker category and setting up this licence takes approximately six to eight weeks. Once this is set up, it would allow a quick and cost-effective way for artists and support staff to work in the UK.

This immigration category provides further flexibility for non-visa nationals who intend to work in the UK for three months or less and can enter the UK without applying for a visa. As long as the company issues them with a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) under the Temporary Creative Worker route, they can simply present it to the Border Force officer at the border.

Touring in the EU

UK citizens do not require a Schengen visa to enter the Schengen zone for stays under 90 days within a 180-day period. While visa-free entry is permitted, it does not permit artists to undertake paid performances.

A unified approach through Europe is lacking, with artists and their entourage having to  understand the requirements set out by each EU country individually. There are specific exemptions from work permit requirements for specific activities and for limited periods in EU countries, but they come with a set of conditions that must be met. It means that lengthy tours require careful planning to ensure ongoing compliance with immigration rules, and timely applications where those are necessary.

The UK classical cultural scene used to rely heavily on EU free movement. An abundance of performance opportunities attracted and continues to attract dancers, actors, and musicians from the EU and the rest of the world. Despite their limitations, there are still ways for artists and support staff to come to the UK and continue to enrich the UK creative sector. Among the options available, the Temporary Creative Worker visa route appears to offer a more flexible and cost-effective solution for the creative industry and is a great addition to the Visitor visa routes. Altogether they continue to attract diverse performers from around the world.

What if the creative worker is engaged with more than one company in the UK?

Artists usually find themselves working for multiple gigs at the same time. In such circumstances, performers can be sponsored by one company or agent or by different sponsors for multiple engagements. 

On this basis, for various engagements, a sponsor can give the support staff a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) that covers multiple engagements. If individuals are working with different companies, they can hold multiple CoS issued by different companies at the same time. For example, a Spanish clarinettist can perform with Royal Opera and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on alternate days over the same period. However, there cannot be a gap of more than 14 days between each engagement. If the clarinettist has been called for an audition at the Berliner Philharmoniker for two days and comes back to the UK, those two days would not count towards that 14-day gap.

Jessie Tse was a professional opera singer before pursuing a career in law and is currently working as an Immigration Paralegal at global immigration law firm Fragomen.