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US visa wait times may prevent fans from attending World Cup

The 2026 World Cup in the United States, Canada and Mexico will be a historic one. The biggest prize in world football will now have 48 nations vying to win it, rather than the 32 teams which previously entered the competition.

After the last World Cup in Qatar in 2022 was shrouded in all sorts of debate about whether it was the right place to host the tournament, fans were hoping that the next edition of FIFA’s tournament would be free of controversy.

However, as revealed by The Athletic this morning, there are concerns that some fans may not even be able to attend the competition for visa reasons.

Argentina fans celebrate with a replica of the World Cup trophy following their historic victory in Qatar in 2022. Photo by Icon Sport

How do visa wait times affect the World Cup?

With 777 days until the tournament kicks off, you would be forgiven for thinking that fans do not have to worry about planning their travel to the US just yet.

But, unfortunately, for some fans time is already of the essence. In two Mexican cities (Mexico City and Guadalajara), the wait time for a US visa interview is already more than 800 days – meaning that even if people there applied today, it would be unlikely they could attend any of Mexico’s games that are played in the US unless Mexico went deep into the tournament.

Similarly, in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, the wait for a US visa interview is 685 days. The problem is not limited to Central and South America either, with wait times in Istanbul currently standing at 553.

The U.S. Department of State is urging people in places where there are long wait times to apply now, but given that we do not even know which countries are going to be competing at the tournament, that seems like a lot to ask of fans. It is difficult enough to know where you will be in two years – let alone your national team!

With the tournament set to be held across three nations – each with different visa rules for those attending – there is work to be done to avoid an extremely confusing situation for fans who may have to travel to each of the three countries if they want to attend all of their team’s matches.

What are those in the US saying about World Cup visa wait times?

Speaking to The Athletic, Travis Murphy, former American diplomat who used to run international government affairs for the NBA, said: “My concern is this could be a disaster. The concerns are absolutely there on the city level. The cities are thinking, ‘They are FIFA, so they must have it under control.’ But when you realise how FIFA worked in the past with previous hosts in Qatar and Russia, it doesn’t necessarily work in the United States.”

“We’re just a completely different animal in terms of how our government operates and how we communicate. And frankly, the emphasis that we place on soccer as a sport in our country.”

“If this was the Super Bowl, the World Series or the NBA finals, we’d be having a different conversation. Soccer is not the biggest sport in our country. And I think that’s a fundamental lack of understanding by FIFA, perhaps just taking it for granted that it is the case everywhere in the world. But it’s not yet in the United States.”

Geoff Freeman, chairman of the United States Travel Association (USTA), said: “If you are Colombian and want to come and bring your kids in 2026, your window might already be closed.”

He described the situation as a “massive issue”, but did say that “We came away [from a meeting at the White House on April 17] confident that the White House recognises the significance of the 2026 World Cup and will take concrete steps to streamline aspects of the travel experience for the more than eight million anticipated visitors.”

Could the visa wait time issue affect players as well?

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Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala, whose entry into the US for the 2022 World Athletics Championships was delayed for visa reasons until the day of his first race. Photo by Icon Sport

Given that each team’s squads will only be confirmed shortly before the tournament begins, some are concerned that visa wait times will affect the players as well as the fans.

This was an issue at the 2022 World Athletics Championships in Oregon – Kenyan sprinter Ferdinand Omanyala, only received his US visa the day before he was due to race in the 100 metres heats.

This meant that he had to take a ridiculously convoluted journey to the US – a five-hour flight to Qatar, then a six-hour layover, then a 14-hour flight to Seattle, then another three-hour layover, then a one-hour flight to Oregon. His final flight landed at 4:15pm, and his first race began at 6:50pm – hardly suitable preparation.

Omanyala, who had set the African 100 metres record of 9.77 seconds the previous year, went out in the semi-finals. He said: “If you are hosting a championship, you need to waive (visa requirements) for athletes. It’s a lesson for the host country in the future, and the U.S. is hosting the Olympics in 2028 (in Los Angeles), so they need to learn from this and do better next time.”

However, the US Department of State attributed this to problems after the COVID-19 pandemic and stated that wait times on “P-visas”, the type of visa used by professional athletes, are now low. This means that players will most likely not be affected by the long visa wait times.

Whether they can be joined by their fans remains to be seen.

Jamie Barton

A freelance football writer and podcaster, Jamie has appeared on/in the BBC World Service, PA Media, Charlton Athletic FC and Empire of the Kop, among others. He's attended matches all around the world, from Tranmere to Tokyo, and once had his bus home from the 2022 Champions League final in Paris delayed by 28 hours.

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