Options for Athletes

Professional athletes may need to come to the U.S. for different reasons, and their visa availability will depend on the purpose of the visit. 

Temporary Visa Options

Participating in a Tournament.  If the athlete is coming to the U.S. solely to participate in a tournament or sporting event, and the only payment involved is prize money, the athlete may apply for a B1 visa.  It is important to note that the athlete will not be eligible for a B1 visa if he or she will receive a salary or payment (other than prize money).

For example, if an MMA fighter from Brazil could obtain a B1 visa if he can show that he trains and has sponsors in Brazil, and is coming to the U.S. to participate in one fight.  However, if that same fighter has had success enough to secure sponsors in the U.S. and has planned appearances and fights spanning over a longer period of time, the P1 may be more appropriate.

Entering as a Member of a Foreign Based Team.  If someone is part of a foreign based team, he or she may enter with a B1 visa under certain circumstances:

  • The foreign team must be enter the U.S. to compete with another sports team
  • The foreign athlete and sports team must have their principal place of business or activities outside the U.S.
  • The foreign team and players must principally accrue their income in the foreign country and
  • The foreign sports team must be a member of an international sports league or the sporting activities involved have an international dimension.

Amateur Hockey Players.  Those who are asked to join a professional team during the course of the regular professional season or playoffs for brief try-outs can be eligible for a B1 visa.  The hockey player must have signed a memorandum of agreement with a National Hockey League parent team.

Long Term Training.  Often an athlete will want to come to the U.S. to train and to compete.  Athletes have different needs at different stages in their career.  It is best to speak to a lawyer to tailor a strategy that is best for them.  Generally, the main options available are the following:

F1 Visas may be available for those who will be training and competing at the collegiate level.  From football players to swimmers to track stars, U.S. universities offer great opportunities for developing athletes’ skills to prepare them for the professional level.  You can find more information about F1 visas here.

Long term visas

Once an athlete rises to the professional level, he or she has a potential to obtain a P1 or O1 visa.   These visas are available for those who have achieved a certain level of success.

To qualify for a P1 visa, the athlete must be coming to the U.S. to perform services as an internationally recognized athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, at an internationally recognized level of performance.

For an O1 visa, the athlete must be able to show that he or she has developed extraordinary ability, which is determined by whether the athlete can show that he or she has sustained national or international acclaim.  This means that the athlete must be at the top of his or her game.  The standards for the O1 visa is quite high, and it would be best to consult a lawyer to discuss whether this is the best option for you.

Permanent Visa Options

As with other employment based visas, the choices are determined by the what the individual’s qualifications are and what the job will entail.  There are three categories that are available - First, Second and Third.

If the athlete is able to qualify in one of these categories, he or she may apply for either adjustment of status or an immigrant visa.

What About Coaches?

When an athlete applies for a P1 visa, the athlete’s coach may apply for a P1 visa as “an essential support alien.”  The coach has to be able to show a support relationship with the athlete or the P1 team.

If the athlete qualifies for an O1 visa, the athlete’s coach may apply for an O2, which is available for “essential support” to an O1 athlete.  When the coach enters the U.S. with an O2 visa, he or she can only work in support of the O1 athlete.  Using his critical skills and experience, the O2 coach is in the U.S. to be an integral part of the O1 athlete’s actual performance.

If the coach wishes to enter the U.S. to take a coaching job, the O1 can be an option.  The immigration law defines an O1 alien as an individual “who has extraordinary ability in . . . athletics which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim and who is coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.”  So, if a coach can meet the high standards of the O1 classification, he or she may enter to continue working as a coach.