Brief Summary of U.S. Visa Options for Foreign Athletes

Published by on February 23, 2022

The United States has long been the most desired destination for professional and amateur athletes from around the world to compete at the highest levels of their sport.

If you are an elite athlete and desire to visit the U.S. to pursue the best competition in the world, the following is a brief overview of the visa options available to you.

If you are a U.S.-based sports team, coach or agent, the following information will serve as an introduction to help in your efforts to recruit and sign the best sports talent from around the world.

B or Visa Waiver Program (VWP)

The B visa category is designed, in part, for professional athletes such as golfers, auto racers, and hockey players, and athletes or team members who seek to enter the United States as members of a foreign-based team, or individually, in order to compete.

Foreign athletes who want to enter the U.S. to compete for a short period of time in various events for prize money can do so by either obtaining a B-1 visa or entering on the VWP, depending on their country of origin. Further, the B-2 visa can be used by foreign athletes who want to visit the U.S. to attend short-term training or summer programs or to compete in tournaments. B-2 visa holders cannot receive salary or payment, including prize money .

P Visa

The P-1 visa is available to athletes or athletic teams that have been internationally recognized as outstanding for an extended and continuous period of time. Applicants must demonstrate such recognition to immigration authorities by providing a contract with a major U.S. sports league, team, or international sporting event, and at least two of the following:

  • Participation in a prior season with a major U.S. sports league.
  • Participation in international competition with a national team.
  • Participation in a prior season for a U.S. college in intercollegiate competition.
  • A statement from an official of a major U.S. sports league or an official of the governing body of the sport detailing how the athlete or the team is internationally recognized.
  • A statement from an expert or member of the sports media as to the athlete’s international recognition.
  • International rankings of the individual or team.
  • Significant honors or awards in the sport received by the individual or team.

Alternatively, applicants can demonstrate that they are coming to the U.S. to perform as a professional athlete employed by either a professional sports team which is a member of an association of 6 or more teams that have combined revenues in excess of $10,000,000 or a minor league team affiliated with such association.

O Visa

The O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa designed for individuals who possess extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who have a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and have been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.

The O-1A visa is specifically targeted to foreign athletes who can demonstrate extraordinary ability in their sport that has led to sustained national or international acclaim. Specifically, an applicant needs “a level of expertise indicating that the person is one of the small percentage who have risen to the very top of the field of endeavor.”

To establish extraordinary ability in the fields of science, education, business or athletics, the foreign national must submit evidence of the receipt of a major, internationally-recognized award, such as a Nobel Prize. In the absence of such a major prize, the foreign national must submit evidence that at least three of the following criteria are met:

  • Receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavor.
  • Membership in associations in the field for which classification is sought which require outstanding achievements, as judged by recognized national or international experts in the field.
  • Published material in professional or major trade publications, newspapers, or other major media about the foreign national and the foreign national’s work in the field for which classification is sought.
  • Original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field.
  • Authorship of scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media in the field for which classification is sought.
  • A high salary or other remuneration for services as evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence.
  • Participation on a panel, or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or in a field of specialization allied to that field for which classification is sought.
  • Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation.

If the above criteria do not readily apply to the foreign national’s occupation, comparable evidence may be submitted. Clearly not all of these criteria apply in the case of an international athlete, so such applicants should focus on gathering any relevant evidence including, but not limited to, documentation of participation with their national team, the receipt of nationally or internationally recognized awards for performance (e.g., the Golden Boot, Most Valuable Player, Player of the Year) and/or published material about the athlete’s accomplishments.

The O-2 visa is available to foreign nationals coming to the U.S. to support and assist the work of an O-1 athlete such as a coach, trainer, or a doctor who works closely with a foreign player and is considered essential to their performance.

And the O-1B visa can potentially be appropriate for certain athletes who, for whatever reason, can’t establish the O-1A or the P-1 visa criteria. The O-1B visa is designed for “artists” (as opposed to O-1A visas which are reserved for “athletes”). But some sports and athletic activities can be classified as artistic endeavors and athletes in these sports may avail themselves of the O-1B classification.

We Can Help

Our office specializes in all types of visas for international athletes, and we are eager to assist you in pursuing your dream of competing and living in the United States. If you are a U.S. team, coach, recruiter or agent, we are also available to provide the critical information you will need to attract and sign talent from around the globe.

Please contact us for more information and to receive an assessment of all the options available to you as an elite foreign athlete, team or coach.

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