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Athletes--Competing in the USA

The United States competes on a global stage attracting athletes in all sports from around the world.

As with business and entertainment, sports in the US always welcome excellence.  P-1 and O-1 visas are typically the ticket for athletes of high calibre to compete in the USA.  Of course, not everyone is a David Beckham, but you don’t necessarily have to be.

How Good Are You?

Individual athletes who are coming to the United States to engage in paid employment as a professional athlete require a visa that will allow them to work in the United States.  Typically, the US employer will sponsor the athlete for an appropriate visa.  Internationally recognized athletes may be eligible for a P-1 visa, while an O-1 is more appropriate for athletes of Outstanding ability.  What’s the difference?  Two elements stand out: one is that members of a team would need a P-1 to compete as part of that team; the other is that individuals who are outstanding, but not necessarily internationally, may still be eligible for an O-1, if a P-1 is not an option.

Limited Engagements

Foreign athletes and foreign sports teams seeking to enter the US for a limited engagement, such as a promotional event, may be able to enter on the Visa Waiver Program or on a B-1 visa if they meet the following three criteria: 1. The foreign athlete and the foreign sports team have their principal place of business or activity outside the United States; 2. The income of the foreign team and the salary of its players are principally accrued outside the United States; and 3. The foreign-based sports team is a member of an international sports league or the sporting activities involved have an international dimension.

Joining the Big Leagues

Professional athletes who are seeking to enter the United States to play in a US professional league will require a visa.  In general, the P-1 visa would be the category for an internationally recognized individual/team coming to the United States temporarily for the purpose of competing or performing in a competition or event that requires such athletes. The P-1 visa allows for extended stays in the US of up to five years (renewable for a second 5-year term), and the petitioning team or agent must show that an athlete of P-1 caliber is required for the position.  The O-1 visa has an initial 3-year limit, renewable in 1-year increments; it does not require showing a need for O-1 caliber talent.  Both visa categories require the athlete to maintain a foreign residence that he or she does not intend to abandon.  The P-1 visa would include support staff of the team, as well; however, staff that provide support to the sport generally, rather than the team specifically, would need their own visa (see discussion of O-1 visas, below).

What’s a P-1?

The P-1 athlete must show a degree of skill and recognition, substantially above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent such achievement is renowned, leading, or well-known in more than one country.  To establish P-1 eligibility, you must provide a copy of the contract, an itinerary, a consultation with an appropriate labor organization for the sport, or if there is no labor organization, a request for a waiver; and evidence of your achievement and its international character.

What’s an O-1?

The O-visa category includes subcategories of the O-1A in “athletics” and O-1B for “artists.”  The O-1A visa requires showing “sustained national or international acclaim.”  The O-1B visa requires showing “distinction” or “prominence,” a lower standard that that for the O-1A (of course, the intersection of sport and art is not always clear; figure skaters have a better chance of establishing themselves as an O-1B than footballers).  As with the P-1, the O-1 visas require a copy of the relevant contract, itinerary, and organizing body advisory opinion, and evidence of the athlete/artist’s extraordinary ability. (For additional information on the O-1 visa category, check out the article You're the Top).

What about Coach?

Coaches, trainers, and other support staff may be eligible to accompany an athlete under the P-1S visa category.  To qualify, the person must “perform support services which cannot be readily performed by a United States worker and which are essential to the successful performance of services.”  Support personnel must also submit a consultation letter from the relevant labor organization that demonstrates essentiality, critical skills and experience with the principal petitioner, as well as their contract under which they provide their services to the athlete or team.  Of course, the P-1S requires that the athlete or team being supported be a P-1. In the case of an O-1 athlete, the support staff would require an O-2 visa.

The Minors—How can they COMPETE?

Legislation appropriate called the COMPETE Act expanded the P-1 visa category to include athletes employed by a team that is a member of a league or association of six or more teams whose total combined revenues exceed $10 million per year; the teams must be professional and the league or association must be responsible for regulating conduct of play.

Athletes seeking to enter the US for try-outs would not be eligible for a P or O visa, but would be eligible to enter as a B-1 visitor or on the Visa Waiver Program. If a position was offered, then the athlete would have to obtain a P or O visa.

Visa Processes

Travel as a B-1 visitor can be accomplished either through the Visa Waiver Program or by applying for a B-1 visa at the US consulate.  To be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, an individual must carry a passport from a Visa Waiver country and meet eligibility criteria.  You can review the eligibility criteria in the US Immigration DIY section of this site and follow the related links.

O and P visas require an initial filing of a petition by the US agent or sponsor.  Processing times for petitions average around two weeks.  Petitions can be filed up to one year in advance of the intended engagement.  Once the petition is approved, the athlete/team/support personnel can apply for their visa at the US consulate.

In some instances, individuals may be inadmissible to the United States because of a criminal record or a history of US immigration violations.  In most cases, a waiver of inadmissibility may be available; however, this can significantly delay the visa process.  To learn more, review the article on Inadmissibility and Waivers.

Additional information

For additional information on US immigration rules relating to athletes, contact us.


Steven D. Heller
US Immigration Lawyer in the UK

SDH US Immigration Law, Ltd.
Castle Works
Westgate Street
Lewes, East Sussex
BN7 1YR
United Kingdom

+44 (0)1273 434609


info@us-visa.co.uk

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