I think it is important to start with what the difference between what each visit actually is. As unofficial visit is when a recruit visits a school and pays their way to get there. In most situations, a recruit will take an unofficial visit to see a college team in action on the football field or basketball court. Per NCAA rules, the school is allowed to give athletes a maximum of three tickets to each sporting event that is issued through a pass list. These have to be regular season events within a thirty mile radius to the campus. Basically what that means is the school cannot be giving tickets to recruits of their bowl game or NCAA tournament game. Unofficial visits can occur at any time.
The difference between that and an official visit is that the college programs pays for you as an athlete to take that official visit. They can fly you in or reimburse you for your driving expense included in the visit. There are also more rules surrounding the official visit that includes food, lodging, and other specific monetary amounts that are enforced by the NCAA.
In order to set up an unofficial visit, it really just depends. For example, a lot of college football coaches will send out a great deal of invites to their games throughout the fall. With so many juniors on their prospective recruiting list, the college is likely sending out invites. If the recruits receive this mail, they will need to call the coach or the school to tell them that they are coming to visit. Because the three people are allowed in on a pass gate, they will not be able to get extra tickets and sell them. The NCAA probably had issues with that in the past and that is why the pass gate is used. When that happens, the recruits have to bring an ID with them so that they can get into the game. There is no limit on the amount of unofficial visits you can do because you are paying for it yourself.
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I know of one recruit recently who considered himself a better prospect then he really was. While he is playing Division I basketball, he was calling places like Kansas, Wisconsin, and other top Midwest programs and requesting to visit. Then he would email the Rivals site related to school and tell them he took a recent visit. That is a very interesting way to make sure that people knew where you were taking trips to.
Official visits are a much different story. They are regulated by the NCAA so each athlete can only take five official visits throughout the recruiting process and they are restricted by dates (This does vary from sport to sport). Depending on the sport and the level, college programs have a certain number of players that they can bring on campus for official visit. That is why some schools prefer to bring visitors after their high school season so they know who is serious about them. Like I said before, the athletes have their travel paid for and will be reimbursed if they did drive (I believe it depends on mileage but I am not 100% certain).
In the majority of situations, schools that extend an invite for an official visit are likely going to offer you a scholarship. Again, that is in most situations but taking an official visit means the school is serious about you. Since their total number of official visitors is restricted, it does mean you are among their top recruits. What normally happens during the fall open period for football, the coaches talk to the athletes about setting up an official visit. While the recruit can bring it up to the coach, normally it is the coach that brings it up. If they haven’t offered a scholarship or an official visit by December, chances are slim that you will be receiving a scholarship for football.
That is just a quick look at the difference between unofficial and official visits. While some already know this, this is another one of those recruiting things that are not always known when going into the recruiting process. With this being a huge time for football and basketball official visits, I will delve more in depth regarding dates and when these should be happening later on.