Visa and Immigration Options for Athletes

What option you select, will generally depend on what your goals are for your athletics, how long you wish to compete or train in your sport in the United States, and your current status as an athlete.

Are you an athlete that wants to come to the United States in order to play your sport? Well regardless of whether you are a professional athlete, an amateur athlete, or a student-athlete, this article is intended to provide you with an overview of the best options available. What option you select, will generally depend on what your goals are for your athletics, how long you wish to compete or train in your sport in the United States, and your current status as an athlete.

Generally, there are two options for coming to the U.S., either an Immigrant Visa, also known as a green card, or a Nonimmigrant Visa, or a temporary visa. Even Nonimmigrant Visas oftentimes allow people to live in the United States for years, depending on the visa and the visa holder’s continued compliance with the requirements. Both are options for athletes and their coaches coming to the United States, depending on the circumstances, their goals, and how long and in what manner they wish to train and/or compete while in the United States. The rest of this article will be broken down by categories of athletes and will present the short and longer-term options that might be available to you as an athlete.

Student-Athletes/ Amateurs under 18

Short-Term Stays/Individual Competitions: If you want to come to the U.S. for a period of training, a tournament, or something similar, then this might be the category for you! If you are from a country that participates in the visa waiver program, such as most of Western Europe and Japan, then you can come for up to ninety days (about three months), without a visa. If you cannot get a visa waiver, or your training program is meant to last longer than ninety days, you can apply for a B-1/B-2 Visitor visa. You would apply through the U.S. consulate in your country of residence. With this visa, you can stay in the U.S. for up to 180 days.

Long-Term Options: The best option for amateur athletes under 18, or student-athletes who want to be in the U.S. for six months or more, would most likely be an F-1 Student Visa. With this visa, you can go to school for part of the day and spend the rest of the day in training. If you are not of University age, and you only want to be in the U.S. for one year, then you can attend public school. If you are not of university age and you would like to be in the U.S. for more than one year, you must attend a private school. There are immigration laws that state that F-1 visas can only be used to attend public secondary/high schools for twelve months. Homeschool and online school also do not count for an F-1 visa. If you are a university-age student and eligible to enroll in a U.S. university as a student-athlete, then you are allowed to obtain an F-1 Visa for a Public University.

The first step to applying for an F-1 Visa is acceptance by a school that can accept foreign students. The student has to prove to the school that they are financially able to support themselves throughout their course of study in the U.S. and pay for tuition. If the school is satisfied, they will issue you an I-20 form. You will have to take this I-20 form to the U.S. consulate, as part of the F-1 Visa application process.

Another longer-term option is a P-1 Visa. If you don’t wish to study while you are in the United States, but rather you just wish to compete and/or train for an extended period, then this is probably the option for you if you can satisfy the criteria. The P-1 Visa is for athletes who have achieved international recognition in their sport, or athletes (who have not themselves achieved international recognition), but are on a team that has been internationally recognized. We will discuss the P-1 Visa in greater depth, in the next section of this article, as it is traditionally an option for Professional Athletes.  

Amateurs trying to go Pro. Going pro can be a difficult task for any athlete. The United States is a great place for professional athletes to get their start, assuming they can enter into the minor professional tournaments, or get themselves on a professional team. The sheer size of the United States professional sports leagues, circuits, and associations offers the aspiring professional athlete much more opportunity than in many other countries. However, the last thing you are going to want to worry about while you’re focusing on performing to the best of your ability is your immigration status. Fortunately, there are some really good options available and some of them are relatively easy to obtain.

Short-Term Stays/Individual Competitions. Most likely an aspiring professional athlete in an individual sport (such as tennis or golf), would qualify for a B-1 Business Visitor Visa (or for a Visa Waiver if they’re from a Visa Waiver Country). This visa is for short-term purposes and allows you to enter the United States for “business-related” travel. For aspiring professional athletes in individual sports (such as tennis or golf), you could most likely use this visa for a couple of professional tournaments, as long as you would only be collecting prize money, and not receiving any salary. You would apply through the U.S. consulate in your country of residence, and with this visa, you can stay in the U.S. for up to 180 days. This visa could definitely allow you to gain some experience and get some international ranking points, in the U.S. circuits. However, it would only allow for a fairly short-term stay (of around 6 months), and you would want to have your anticipated events and competitions lined up before applying.

If you are a new professional athlete who is on a foreign-based team, then generally you and your teammates can come into the U.S. with B-1 Visas, for participation in international leagues and/or sporting events that are international in nature. However, this is subject to a couple of additional requirements. First, you and your team will have to be principally based in a foreign country, and your teams’ and your own income has to be principally earned in that foreign country, as well.

A Longer-Term Option for Aspiring Professional Athletes & Professional Athletes (P-1 Visas): If you are interested in staying to compete for a bit longer than the B-1 Business Visitor Visa would allow, or if you wish to start your career in the United States for a U.S. professional team and you have an offer, then you may want to apply for a P-1 Visa; if you believe you might qualify. The P-1 Visa is for athletes who have achieved international recognition in their sport, or for an entire team based on the team’s international recognition.

If you’re an individual athlete then you can qualify for the P-1 Visa if you’re “internationally recognized.” If you qualify, this visa will allow you to stay in the United States for up to 5 years, for purposes of participating in an athletic event, competition, and/or performance; however, this visa is usually only issued for the duration of the event, season, or tournament that it is solicited for.

If your sport is an individual sport, you will have to be coming in to participate in an athletic event or competition, that internationally recognized athletes normally would participate in. You will have to have a U.S. sponsor who will submit the P-1 visa petition for you, and this could be a U.S. Agent; since you are an athlete in an individual sport, meaning you are traditionally self-employed.

If your sport is a team sport, and you have an offer to be on a major professional U.S. team, then an individual athlete can be granted a P-1 Visa not based on their own international reputation, but that of the team (see team factors below). If you have an offer to be on a U.S. minor league team that is affiliated with a major professional sports association, then you can in theory, also come in as a P-1 based on the minor league team’s relationship with the major U.S. sports league.

We say in theory because the “COMPETE ACT of 2006,” a short law that was passed to expand the umbrella of athletes that the P-1 Visa classification was meant to include, seems to allow for professional athletes who are going to be employed by the minor league affiliates of Major U.S. Sports Leagues. This is at least clear from the Interoffice Memorandum that USCIS published on this act, however, USCIS never made any regulations to accommodate the Compete Act and there has been quite a lot of confusion surrounding it.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Hopefully, you won’t need to rely on the Compete Act to qualify for this visa, and hopefully, you can qualify based on your own International Recognition (to avoid any potential problems).

To do so, at the most basic level, you will need to show that you’re internationally recognized in your sport to qualify for the P-1 Visa. To qualify as internationally recognized, you will have to satisfy at least two of the following six criteria:

  • Evidence of you having participated in international competition with a national team;
  • Proof of significant participation with a major U.S. sports league;
  • Proof of significant participation in a prior season with a U.S. college or university in intercollegiate competition;
  • A written statement from an official of the governing body of the sport, or from an official of a major U.S. sports league that details how you are internationally recognized;
  • A written statement from a member of the sports media or a recognized expert in the sport, which details how you are internationally recognized;
  • Evidence that is ranked internationally, if the sport has international rankings; or,
  • Evidence that you have received a significant honor or award in your sport.

Much like the process for individual athletes, foreign athletic teams can actually be given a P-1 Visa, based on the International Reputation of that team. In addition, the team must be coming to the U.S. to participate in an athletic event or competition, that requires teams of international recognition. If an entire team is issued a P-1 Visa, it is possible to substitute athletes on the team at the U.S. port of entry or at the Consulate, under some circumstances. However, an entire team can only be issued a P-1 Visa for up to a year, unlike the maximum 5 years sometimes issued to an individual athlete. The team will also need a sponsor to petition for them on their behalf, such as a U.S. agent.  

The criteria for an entire team qualifying for a P-1 Visa (or for an individual foreign athlete qualifying based on the reputation of a Major U.S. Team’s international reputation), is very similar to an individual athlete qualifying, and the team will have to be able to meet and provide evidence of at least 2 of the following  factors:

  • Proof of significant participation, by the team, with a major U.S. sports league
  • A written statement from an official of the governing body of the sport, or from an official of a major U.S. sports league that details how the team is internationally recognized;
  • A written statement from a member of the sports media or a recognized expert in the sport, which details how the team is internationally recognized;
  • Evidence that the team is ranked if the sport has international rankings; or
  • Evidence that the team has received a significant honor or award in their sport.
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Other Options for Professional Athletes: A professional athlete has three or four potential options to compete temporarily in the U.S. (and some of these temporary stays are for periods of years): the visa waiver (if applicable), a B-1 visa, a P-1 visa, or an O-1 visa. A visa waiver is only available to you if you are from parts of Western Europe or Japan. You cannot earn any money (other than prize money) in the U.S. on a visa waiver.

  1. B-1 Visa If you would like to come to the U.S. to compete in tournaments or other types of competitions, you can use a B-1 Business Visitor visa. The only money you can earn if you have this type of visa is prize money. You must also have a residence outside of the U.S. that you will return to after the competition.
  2. P-1 Visa We discussed the P-1 Visa option in great length in the section of this article above. If you would like to live in the U.S. full-time and have achieved international recognition in your sport, then this could be the visa for you. It lasts up to five years for individual athletes (but can just be the length of a shorter contract) and is renewable. This visa must be sponsored by a U.S. employer or agent. A P-1 visa is usually easier to qualify for than an O-1 visa (below).
  3. O-1 Visa This visa is for immigrants with “extraordinary ability,” generally, and sometimes athletes can qualify. This visa is usually issued for the length of a particular season or a contract (up to three years). You must also be sponsored by a U.S. employer or agent. The O-1 Visa is harder to obtain than the P-1 Visa usually, but allows athletes who are at the very top of their field to come,  work and live in the United States; if they are going to be employed as an athlete in their sport of extraordinary ability. To qualify, the athlete will either have to show that they are the recipient of a major international award in their sport (such as an Olympic Gold Medal), or provide evidence that satisfies at least three of the following:
  • Proof that the athlete has been the recipient of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in their sport;
  • The athlete is a member of associations in their sport that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by recognized national or international experts in their sport;
  • There is published material in major media, or in professional or major trade publications about the athlete;
  • Evidence that the athlete has participated on a panel, or individually as a judge of others in the sport;
  • Evidence of employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments (think major professional teams) that have a distinguished reputation; or,
  • Evidence that the athlete has either commanded or will command a high salary or other remuneration of services, evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence.

If the athlete can qualify for an O-1 Visa, this may be vastly more desirable than pursuing a P-1 Visa. Why? Well, if the athlete has any ambitions of moving permanently to the United States, the O-1 Visa allows for dual intent, unlike the P-1 Visa. This means, that the O-1 Visa holder is allowed to have ambitions of pursuing permanent residency while they hold this Nonimmigrant Visa (unlike with the majority of Nonimmigrant Visas). Additionally, the holder of an O-1 has all but satisfied the criteria for attaining an EB-1 Immigrant Visa for aliens of extraordinary ability. Thus, if the athlete can qualify and come in on an O-1 Visa, and later decides they want to permanently live in the United States, then they ought to be able to adjust their status to have an EB-1 Visa that allows for Permanent Residency/a Green Card relatively easy.

A Quick Blurb on Coaches & Families. Coaches and Dependent Family members of athletes will be tied to the visa status of the athletes they would be entering with. If the athlete they will be supporting, qualifies for a P-1 Visa, then generally the coach will qualify for a P-1S if they can be described as “essential support personnel” of the P-1 athlete or team. The initial time period a coach in P-1S status would be issued a visa is one year, but they are eligible for extensions of up to 5 years (cannot exceed 10 years). Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 are eligible to accompany a P-1 athlete as their P-4 dependents, and while they will be ineligible to work while in the U.S., they will be able to attend school or college. Similarly, if an athlete qualifies as an O-1 alien of extraordinary ability, then a coach can normally qualify for an O-2 visa to assist the athletic performance of the O-1 athlete. Also, dependent family members (spouse and children under 21) of the athlete, would likely qualify as O-3 Visa holders, and be able to attend school or college while accompanying the O-1 athlete in the United States; but not be eligible to work themselves.

In Conclusion. Hopefully, you found this article helpful or at the very least interesting, in outlining briefly the various options available to foreign national athletes. It is important to emphasize that immigration law is incredibly complex, and for the best shot at qualifying for any of the visas we have discussed, the help of an experienced immigration attorney can prove invaluable. Thank you for reading, and good luck with your immigration journey!

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