Sound & Vision: How the U.S. Visa Process Creates Barriers for Both International Artists and Local Venues

Sound and Vision
John Richards
ACTORS // photo by Alley Rutzel (view set)

KEXP's Sound & Vision airs every Saturday morning from 7-9 AM PT, featuring interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter. You can also hear more stories in the new Sound & Vision Podcast. New episodes are out every Tuesday. Subscribe now.


For artists and musicians, it’s not easy to perform in the United States if you are coming from another country. Obtaining a visa is expensive and complicated. Musicians are sometimes detained at the border and are forced to cancel shows. In fact, for many musicians living north or south of the U.S. border, it’s easier to tour Europe than the United States. Sound & Vision host John Richards spoke with Mario Abata (talent buyer/Nectar Lounge), Davis Bae (lawyer, Fisher Phillips), Diane Butler (lawyer, Davis Wright Tremaine) and Jason Corbett (musician/Actors) about the challenges of being an international musician hoping to play shows in the states.

On the cost of obtaining a visa to play in the United States:

Corbett: I'm familiar with the visa that we've had for the U.S. and it's called P-2. And, basically the processing time can vary. It's finished within x amount of weeks or months and then there's also an extra charge to expedite it, which is almost double what the cost is to apply for it. It's almost like a cash grab – it’s like, here, pay double and make sure you have the time to actually cross the border. Especially with musicians, if they're more on the artsy side and not the business side – it can be challenging to get all your paperwork together.

Butler: It could be around $3,000 to $5,000 for the filing fees. You have to first go through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Homeland Security. Then you have to get your visa from the Department of State, where a consular officer might decide whether you are really going to do what you say you're going to do. And then, there's a third bite at the apple, from the immigration officers at the border – Customs and Border Protection – who again might scrutinize whether or not you're going to get to come in that day.

Abata: To come and tour here in America, to try to develop that fan base, comes with a huge risk. All the expenses of getting into the country, uncertainty as far as whether these gigs you've booked are going to work out financially to offset those costs coming here and, not to mention, all the ways that the paperwork and the visa application process can go wrong – your reputation as a band [is] largely on the line if those gigs have to cancel for some reason.

On the risks of booking an international artist:

Abata: Artists are sort of expected to play a bit of a juggling act in order to actually get their visas approved and get into the country. On one hand, they're expected to have a full tour booked and turn in their contracts and their paperwork in order to get their visas. On the other hand, if you're a booker for a venue like mine, you're going to want to know that they're cleared to perform in the U.S. before you book the show. Right? And, I think if you're a venue that has a set intention of hosting artists from around the world then you're going to be more understanding about that sort of thing. But, there's going be lots of venues that just aren't going to want to take the risk of an artist's potentially having to cancel. They're not going to want to be the first gig after a border crossing for example bookers are paying attention to that sort of thing and they're definitely scrutinizing it.

On the importance of international artists playing in the United States:

Corbett: I avoided coming down to the U.S. for a long time. It seemed very costly to try and develop an audience. It's only later on that we started getting traction [in the U.S.]. We thought, OK let's go. We'll play in New York, Seattle, and L.A. And then, you can see from our online analytics just through sheer volume, there's an audience there. The cities in the US are our biggest markets.

Abata: Ultimately, if it continues to be difficult for artists to get into the country and there's kind of a slow trend toward less and less international artists coming into perform, we're just going to have a more insular music scene – which I think is a sad state of affairs. We’re far from that at this point. Hopefully other venues around the country are being intentional about tolerating some of the extra loopholes that come with hosting international artists and making that choice to take those risks.

Bae: I'm an immigrant. I'm from Korea and I've always believed in music without borders. I believe in culture without borders and I think this particular culture has lost its sense of the importance of the immigration process. One of the agencies of the government literally took out the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission and that's where we are now. I think that valuing immigrants, valuing other cultures is going to help us as a society.

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