Many foreign national athletes want to come to the US for a specific competition or to play in one of the major US sports leagues. This requires establishing an appropriate immigration status. If an athlete does not aim to earn money in the US, except for prize money from competitions, they can pursue a B-1 business visitor visa. If they come from a country designated in the Visa Waiver Program, they can come to the US without formally applying for a visa. The initial period of a B-1 visa is limited to six months, with potential six-month extensions. An athlete arriving under the Visa Waiver Program cannot stay longer than 90 days, and extensions are not available. Athletes using a B-1 visa or the Visa Waiver Program are not expected to live full-time in the US.
On the other hand, if a professional athlete wants to earn income beyond prize money or plans to live in the US full-time, they will need to pursue a more specific type of visa. They might apply for a P-1A visa or (less often) an O-1 visa.
Permanent Residence for Professional Athletes
In some cases, a foreign national athlete might pursue legal permanent resident status, popularly known as a green card. Common routes to a green card include the EB-1, EB-2, and EB-3 immigrant visas. (The language of these visas refers to "arts," but US immigration policy defines athletics as part of the "arts.") For EB-3 and most EB-2 visas, the athlete must have a specific employer or sponsor and a permanent job offer. They also must apply with their employer for a PERM labor certification.
Applying for a P-1A Visa
A P-1A visa for a foreign national athlete may last for up to five years, although it will be limited to the duration of the athlete’s contract if that is shorter. An athlete can apply to renew their status if needed. They must be sponsored by an employer or agent. To receive a P-1A visa, an athlete must fit into one of four categories:
They demonstrate an internationally recognized level of performance (individually or as part of a team)
They are a member of a team in an association of six or more professional teams with combined annual revenues greater than $10 million
They are a member of a US team or franchise and a member of a foreign league or association of 15 or more amateur sports teams under the COMPETE Act
They are a professional or amateur athlete in a theatrical ice-skating production
The first category sounds vague, but immigration regulations provide seven sub-requirements, two of which an athlete must meet to fall within this category. These include participation with their national team in international competition, significant participation in a prior season of a major US sports league, significant participation in a prior season of US college sports, a written statement from a sports media member or expert explaining how they are internationally recognized, a written statement from a sports official to the same effect, evidence of ranking in international rankings for their sport, or evidence of receiving a significant honor or award in their sport.
P-1A Visas for Foreign National Teams
In addition to individual athletes, sports teams from foreign countries might come to the US on a P-1A visa. However, visas for teams are limited to one year.
Applying for an O-1 Visa as an Athlete
An O-1 visa may last for up to three years, although it will be limited to the duration of an athlete’s contract if that is shorter. Its requirements are more demanding than the requirements for a P-1A visa. As with the P-1A visa, an athlete must be sponsored by an employer or agent. A foreign national athlete may be eligible for an O-1 visa if they meet three of the following eight requirements:
Nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence
Membership in associations in the field that require outstanding achievements of their members, according to recognized national or international experts in the field
Participation in judging the work of others in the field or a related field
Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations or establishments that have a distinguished reputation in the field
History or likelihood of receiving a high salary or remuneration for services, shown by documentation such as contracts
Materials in major media outlets or professional or major trade publications that describe their work in the field
Scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field
Authorship of articles in major media outlets or professional journals in the field
Amateur Foreign National Athletes
Options for amateur athletes seeking to come to the US for training or competition depend on the length of their stay. If they do not plan to stay for more than six months, they can apply for a B-1 or B-2 visitor visa. An athlete from a country designated in the Visa Waiver Program can come without a visa for up to 90 days. If the athlete pursues a B-1 or B-2 visa, they should describe the significance of the US program to their development and show why they cannot pursue an equivalent program in their home country. They also should show that they will return to their home country after the program ends. This may include proof that the athlete or their parents are employed in the home country and that their main residence will remain there. An athlete will have a stronger case for a B-1 or B-2 visa if they can show that they can pay for living expenses and training in the US, and if they already have pre-registered for a tournament in the US or signed up for a training program at an established academy.
An amateur athlete who wants to stay in the US for more than six months might pursue a P-1A visa discussed above. They likely would need to meet the requirements of the "international recognition" category. They also might apply for an F-1 student visa, since most amateur foreign national athletes are under 18. Getting an F-1 visa requires acceptance at a private school affiliated with the sports academy. The foreign national athlete must commit to regularly attending the school, but they can train at the academy when they are not in school. As with B-1 and B-2 visas, an applicant should show that they can pay for their expenses in the US, including a private school education, and that they expect to return to their home country.
Immigration Options for Post-Amateur Athletes
Athletes who have turned 18 and want to transition from amateur to professional competition may have limited routes to the US. They cannot get an F-1 visa if they are not attending school, and they may not have accumulated enough recognition to qualify for a P-1A visa. If the time limits of the B-1 or B-2 visa (or the Visa Waiver Program) are too restrictive, they might consider attending a university or graduate program with an F-1 visa, or they may qualify as a dependent of a parent with a visa.