The UK’s decision in November 2016 to refuse a visa for Paris Saint-Germain footballer Serge Aurier, denying him from playing in a crucial Champions League match against Arsenal in London, is a timely reminder to employers and international travellers about visa restrictions and the need for advance planning.

Many countries, including the UK, have a rigid immigration system with little or no discretion. The same rules apply to all applicants regardless of their international profile or that of the business they work for, their salary or status. Last September, Mr Aurier, a regular for the Ivory Coast national team, was sentenced by French authorities to two months in prison after he was found guilty of an assault against a police officer. He appealed the verdict, so has been free to play for PSG while he waits for the appeal decision. Although he was initially granted a visa to travel to London, the Home Office revoked it at the last minute due to his conviction.

The impact of a criminal record

There are set rules for all visitors to the UK, including business travellers and tourists, relating to prior criminal convictions. They apply to both “visa nationals” – citizens of a number of designated countries including India, China and other countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa who are required to apply for a formal visit visa before travelling to the UK – and to citizens of other countries like USA, Canada and some Commonwealth countries who visit the UK on their passport without needing a visa.

Anyone with a criminal conviction resulting in a sentence of imprisonment of at least four years at any time in their life, a jail sentence of between 12 months and four years during the previous 10 years, or a jail sentence of up to 12 months during the previous five years will be automatically refused entry. The use of false representations or documents, or previous breaches of UK immigration laws, will also lead to an automatic refusal.

As was the case for Mr Aurier, it is irrelevant whether the applicant actually spent any time in jail – it is the sentence that is important. That test will also apply even if the conviction(s) has lapsed or has been wiped from the applicant’s overseas record.

In most cases, travellers will also be denied a visa or entry to the UK for any criminal conviction – even a non-custodial sentence – imposed during the 12 months before applying. Convictions will appear on an applicant’s criminal record, but do not include fixed penalty notices like a speeding or parking ticket outside of a court process and where the fine is paid on time.

Business travel

Business visitors to the UK can also face challenge over their proposed activities while in the UK. For example, visitors can attend business meetings, negotiate or sign contracts, attend conferences or interview new hires, but cannot perform any productive work. In this context, “work” includes providing services or selling products to UK clients or filling a gap in the UK workforce. Border officials have discretion to challenge anyone they feel might step over the line from visiting to working, and often the amount of cumulative UK stay can lead to an inference of work.

Advanced planning will reduce the risk of unexpected surprises for businesses and frequent travellers.

  • Leave enough time before the trip to assess criminal record, proposed UK activities, duration of UK stay and to apply for an appropriate visa.
  • Arrange for the overseas employer and/or the inviting UK business to provide supporting letters confirming the purpose and dates of the trip, an itinerary for the trip and confirmation of who will be picking up the cost of the trip. Those letters, together with evidence of finances like recent payslips, evidence of UK accommodation and a return ticket already booked, are helpful items for the traveller to hold on their person in case of challenge.
  • Many frequent travellers to the UK from eligible countries have signed up for the Registered Traveller service, which provides fast-track entry through airport e-gates or UK/EU lines. The scheme has just been expanded in November 2016 to cover citizens of 16 more countries.

With global security concerns leading to greater visa restrictions – for example, the EU has just proposed a new US-style electronic pre-screening programme for non-EU visitors to the Schengen area – early preparation and collaboration between HR teams and employees is essential to get travellers where they need to be.

This article was previously published in HR Review