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World Cup 2026: Concerns over fans’ U.S. visa wait times – ‘Your window might already be closed’



World Cup 2026: Concerns over fans’ U.S. visa wait times – ‘Your window might already be closed’

Concerns have been raised with the United States government, including an official meeting in the White House, over fears supporters may be deterred from the 2026 men’s World Cup owing to excessive wait times to process visa applications to visit the country.

The tournament begins in 777 days and it will be at least another 18 months before many countries will be assured of qualification, yet the wait times for U.S. visa interviews in two Mexican cities are already in excess of 800 days, while it is 685 days in the Colombian capital of Bogota.

In a statement to The Athletic, the U.S. Department of State (which oversees international relations) insisted it is determined to reduce wait times but also encouraged supporters in affected countries to start applying for visas now, over two years out from the tournament and with the line-up still unknown.

The 2026 edition of world football’s governing body FIFA’s flagship tournament will include 48 nations for the first time and will be held in 16 cities in the U.S, Canada and Mexico.

It will also be the first World Cup without an overarching local organising committee, which means FIFA is tasked with pulling everything together, in conjunction with the many layers of stakeholders and bureaucracy across three nations and 16 host cities, each of which have differing levels of private and taxpayer support.

The three host countries also have differing entry criteria for visitors, which has the potential to create visa confusion for fans seeking to follow their team deep into the tournament across multiple borders.

Several host cities, including the location for the final — New York/New Jersey — are also concerned about the wait times for visas, and the potential impact on income from tourism during the tournament, but the cities are currently allowing FIFA and the travel industry to lead the conversations with the government. Some of those who have spoken to The Athletic wished to remain anonymous, owing either to sensitivity around discussions or to protect working relationships.

Travis Murphy is the founder of Jetr Global Sports + Entertainment and a former American diplomat who also once ran international government affairs for the NBA.

“My concern is this could be a disaster (in 2026),” he said. “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.”

In recent months, U.S. travel industry representatives and FIFA have raised concerns with the U.S. Department of State and the White House as the respective groups seek to organise how millions of tourists will enter the U.S. during the five-week tournament in June and July 2026. In January 2024, FIFA strengthened its staff in D.C. when it hired Alex Sopko, the former chief of staff for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House, to be its new Director of Government Relations.

In a statement to The Athletic, a FIFA spokesperson said the organisation is working closely with U.S. Government in the planning and preparation for the World Cup, including regular discussions on critical topics such as immigration and visas, and adding it recognises “the urgency of these matters.”

The visa delays ahead of the World Cup were raised in a meeting at the White House on Wednesday, April 17, with senior administration officials in conversation with the United States Travel Association (USTA). 

Geoff Freeman, chairman of the USTA, was present in the meeting. He describes visa wait times as a “massive issue” but added: “We came away 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.”

Freely available data on the website of the Department of Consular affairs details the lengthy wait times currently impacting visitor visas from markets that may be highly relevant during the World Cup, which begins in 778 days.

Forty-one countries, including much of Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia, are part of a visa waiver programme — ESTA — to enter the United States, which means citizens of these countries can travel without obtaining a visa, so as long as their trip for tourism or business does not exceed 90 days.

However, many people, estimated by U.S. Travel to represent 45 per cent of those who visit the States, do require visas for entry. These documents, called a B1/B2 visa, also require in-person appointments at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate to take digital photographs and fingerprints, as well as an interview, in which the candidate must state their intention to return to their home countries and explain their reasons for visiting the United States.


FIFA president Gianni Infantino announces the 2026 match schedule in February (Brennan Asplen/FIFA via Getty Images)

Wait times for a visa interview at a U.S. consulate in the Mexican cities of Mexico City and Guadalajara are currently 878 days and 820 days respectively, so an application made today may not be approved before the World Cup begins. In the Colombian capital of Bogota, the current wait time is 685 days, while Panama City is 477 days and Quito in Ecuador is 420.

The 2026 World Cup is guaranteed to include the U.S, Mexico and Canada as hosts but five more nations may yet qualify from North and Central America, while up to seven may enter from the South American Football Confederation. Wait times are also dramatic in the Turkish city of Istanbul, where it takes 553 days for an appointment, as well as in Morocco, semi-finalists at the World Cup in 2022, where the wait time is 225 days.

In a statement to The Athletic, the state department said: “We encourage prospective FIFA World Cup visitors who will need U.S. visas to apply now – there is no requirement to have purchased event tickets, made hotel reservations, or reserved airline tickets to qualify for a visitor visa.”

Freeman attributes the current visa delays to the shutdown of consular offices during the coronavirus pandemic but also outlines long-standing issues.

“The U.S. is the world’s most desired nation to visit, but our market share is slipping and it’s in a large part due to long visa wait times,” he said. “If you are Colombian and want to come and bring your kids in 2026, your window might already be closed.”

A World Cup is further complicated because many supporters may wait until their nations have secured qualification to organise their trip. For the Americas, this will largely be in winter 2025 — the play-offs may be as late as March 2026 — while nations will only know the cities in which their teams will be competing following the draw, which is usually held eight months out from the tournament.

During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, visitors were able to expedite their entry into the country by applying for a Hayya card, effectively a fan pass for World Cup ticket holders that acted as a visa for the tournament. A repeat pass is not expected to be approved by the U.S, particularly at a time of global tensions both in the Middle East and following Russia’s invasion of and continued war against Ukraine.

Freeman warned: “The U.S. is not going to change its visa policies in the short term to frankly cater to FIFA. I think where you may see the U.S. adjust some of its approach is in cooperation with Mexico and Canada. So once teams have qualified within the tournament, how do we streamline their ability to cross borders and attend games in other markets later in the tournament? I believe that’s where there will be greater cooperation and some of those discussions are already taking place.”

The answer may simply be additional staff and investment, such as deploying more consular officers at embassies, a method which has helped significantly reduce wait times from Brazil and India over the past year. Congress set aside $50million for the U.S. State Department to “reduce passport backlogs and reduce visa wait times” in a bill signed into law by U.S. President Joe Biden in March but it was not specified how and where the money will be invested.

There is a precedent for visa issues causing delays at major international sporting events in the United States. Kenya’s Ferdinand Omanyala, who set the African 100metres record of 9.77 seconds in 2021, only received his visa documentation the day before the men’s 100 metres heats began at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon in 2022.

After securing his visa in Kenya, he took a five-hour flight to Qatar, endured a six-hour layover, then a 14-hour flight to Seattle, another three-hour layover and last of all, a one-hour flight to Oregon. He landed at 4.15 pm and immediately went to the track, where the heats commenced at 6.50pm.

Omanyala competes in the men’s 100m heats on July 15, 2022 (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

The sprinter 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.”

Murphy added: “There were hundreds of athletes who were unable to travel and all kinds of stories of athletes who either weren’t able to travel at all. The athletics was a relatively small event compared to the magnitude of what we’re talking about with the 48-team World Cup and the millions and millions of people involved, in terms of what needs to happen.”

Playing rosters are usually only approved in the final months before a tournament, but the U.S. is expected to expedite processing to ensure players and support staff from federations are able to arrive in time for the World Cup.

The U.S. Department of State attributes the issues at World Athletics to the pressures felt by consular officers coming out of the pandemic and told The Athletic that wait times for “P-visas”, generally used by members of professional sports teams coming to participate in athletic competitions, are “low worldwide”.

Murphy said the National Security Council has established a working committee on the matter for the White House but caveated his optimism with a reminder that more instant priorities are Israel, Gaza and Ukraine. He said: “This is not a priority beyond the host cities, FIFA itself and the members of Congress who represent those host cities. But in terms of there being a broad approach that is all-encompassing and has a wide swath of support in Congress, there’s just nothing there. There’s no bills or initiatives in Congress that are focused on this.”

He added: “The conversations that needed to have started a year plus ago are not at a point where they need to be. And when you’re talking about the U.S. Government, it is essentially at a state of standstill in terms of any major movement that needs to happen from now until November of this year (when there is a Presidential election).”

The Department of State insisted it is “committed to facilitating legitimate travel to the United States while maintaining high national security standards.”

Its statement continued: “We are pleased to be an active participant in a working group with FIFA and other stakeholders on plans for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. The Bureau of Consular Affairs recognizes the importance of international inbound tourism, including for mega sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup, and is working tirelessly to facilitate secure travel to the United States. We have significantly reduced visa wait times over the past two years.”

One of the peculiarities of the U.S. political system is that there is no sports ministry to facilitate such discussions. In its absence, Murphy calls for a special envoy to be appointed, with the World Cup likely to be followed by the women’s edition in 2027 before the Olympics in LA in 2028.

He said: “There has to be somebody centralised to organise those conversations. That’s relatively easy to do. If it’s somebody that has the respect and attention of the cabinet agencies, they can have a conversation with Capitol Hill and that’s going to go a long way to getting things done.”

(Top photo: Patrick Smith/FIFA via Getty Images)