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US border control says performance visas required even for free shows

By | Published on Wednesday 15 March 2017


At least seven musicians bound for the South By Southwest festival have now been turned away at the US border, according to Billboard. Following the Facebook post by Italian trio Soviet Soviet detailing their experiences unsuccessfully attempting to enter America to attend the showcase festival, the US trade mag says that four other musicians have been denied entry, including London-based drummer Yussef Kamaal and three members of Egyptian-Canadian post-hardcore band Massive Scar Era.

As previously reported, most of the problems seem to centre on ambiguities over whether or not artists who are performing without payment at a showcase festival still need a performance visa – aka the P-1 visa – or whether they can enter the country on a visitor visa or via the visa waiver programme ESTA.

Visitor visas and the ESTA programme do not apply when an individual is earning money while in the US, but the affected artists argue that they are not earning any money by playing SXSW, while some have also pointed out that they have travelled to the festival – or similar showcase events – on visitor visas before without any issues.

Massive Scar Era member Cherine Amr told Billboard her band had played SXSW two times previously on a visitor visa and that she explained this to a border official. “He said that he knows that I’ve done everything legally, and that I’m not lying, but he’s still not going to let me in”, she recalled.

“He said that people are using the festival to protest, but I told him we are not going there to protest”, Amr continued. “We have no intentions of doing anything illegal or engaging in any political activity. We’re just going to promote ourselves, meet labels and bookers and network”.

The ambiguities around what visas are required for unpaid promotional performances in the US are nothing new, though it is possible that more artists are being caught out because of increased scrutiny at the American border in light of Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration. Artists with links to the countries targeted by the President’s controversial travel ban may also be more likely to be subject to that increased scrutiny. Meanwhile, with Trump’s immigration stance such a big talking point, artists having problems at the border are all the more newsworthy.

At least two people who advise the entertainment industry on visas have, in recent weeks, stressed that they always tell clients to secure a performance visa whenever they are performing in the US, even if they are not being paid to perform. Meanwhile a spokesperson for US Customs And Border Protection told Billboard: “If an individual is a member of an internationally recognised entertainment group, they must apply for and be granted a P-1 visa”.

South By Southwest guidelines encourage artists to apply for a performance visa even when they are not being paid to play, noting that while acts coming to the US from places like the UK and Canada often can enter on a visitor visa when they are only playing showcases at the festival without payment, entry is not guaranteed.