US Visa options for professional athletes

The visas available for professional athletes to compete or otherwise engage professionally in the United States include the B-1 (for business visitors), the P-1 (for internationally recognized athletes) and the O-1 (for individuals with extraordinary ability in athletics). Although there may be other visas available depending on the nature of the event or engagement in the United States, these are the three most commonly applicable categories. The following is a cursory description of how these categories may be used. B-1 Business Visitor

As a general matter, the B-1 visa* allows for individuals to travel to the United States for a temporary period to engage in business-related activities, such as attending meetings or conferences. The B-1 does not allow for “work” in the United States, but the difference between business-related activities and work is sometimes difficult to pin down. Helpfully, the US Department of State has offered more specific guidance in the case of professional athletes who wish to travel to the United States on a B-1 visa. From Chapter 9 of the Foreign Affairs Manual, section 402.2-5(C)(4), the following excerpt explains when professional athletes may rightfully use the B-1 category.

  1. Professional athletes, such as golfers and auto racers, who receive no salary or payment other than prize money for his or her participation in a tournament or sporting event.
  2. Athletes or team members who seek to enter the United States as members of a foreign-based team in order to compete with another sports team should be admitted provided:

(1) The foreign athlete and the foreign sports team have their principal place of business or activity in a foreign country;

(2) The income of the foreign-based team and the salary of its players are principally accrued in a foreign country; and

(3) The foreign-based sports team is a member of an international sports league or the sporting activities involved have an international dimension.

  1. Amateur hockey players who are asked to join a professional team during the course of the regular professional season or playoffs for brief try-outs. The players are draft choices who have not signed professional contracts, but have signed a memorandum of agreement with a National Hockey League (NHL)-parent team. Under the terms of the agreement, the team will provide only for incidental expenses such as round-trip fare, hotel room, meals, and transportation. At the time of the visa application or application for admission to the United States, the players must provide a copy of the memorandum of agreement and a letter from the NHL team giving the details of the try-outs. If an agreement is not available at that time, a letter from the NHL team must give the details of the try out and state that such an agreement has been signed.

If the intended US activities do not fit neatly within one of the above descriptions, then another visa category may be more appropriate.

*Nationals of certain countries including the United Kingdom can apply for authorisation to travel to the United States for business or tourism for trips of 90 days or less without first obtaining a B-1/B-2 visa under the ESTA/Visa Waiver Program. The intended activities for Visa Waiver Program travel must fit clearly within what is acceptable for the B-1/B-2 visa categories.

P-1 Internationally Recognized Athlete

The P-1 visa allows for professional athletes who are internationally recognised in their sport to compete in the United States, either individually or as part of a group. Note that “internationally” in this context requires recognition in more than one country, as evidenced by documentary evidence including at least two of the following:

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

To obtain this visa, a US sponsor (e.g., employer or agent) must file a petition with the US Citizenship & Immigration Services, which includes the evidence above together with a letter of consultation from a US labour organisation, the contract with the US sponsor and a full itinerary of the engagements encompassed in the “event”. Once the petition has been approved, the individual may proceed to a US consular post to apply for the visa. This visa may be granted in increments of up to 5 years for an individual athlete or 1 year for an athlete in a group.

O-1 Extraordinary Ability

The O-1 extraordinary ability visa is for individuals who have risen to the top of the field in athletics, among other areas (e.g., science, arts, etc.) This can be demonstrated by achievement of a major, internationally renowned award akin to the Nobel Prize. In the absence of such a high-level award, it can be demonstrated by presentation of evidence that the applicant meets at least 3 of the following criteria.

  • Receipt of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavour
  • 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 beneficiary and the beneficiary’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 beneficiary’s occupation, the petitioner may submit comparable evidence in order to establish the beneficiary’s eligibility.

The process for obtaining this visa is quite similar to that of the P-1 visa: a US sponsor (e.g., employer or agent) files a petition with the US Citizenship & Immigration Services together with the evidence above, a letter of consultation from an appropriate labour organisation, the contract with the US sponsor and a full itinerary of the engagements encompassed in the “event”.  Once approved, the applicant can proceed to the US consular post to apply for the O-1 visa. The visa may be granted for 3 years initially, and then renewed in 1 year increments.

Guest Blog by Olivia McLaren US Immigration attorney, Edinburgh. http://www.mclarenltd.com/