There are a variety of options out there for athletes, coaches/trainers, referees and other people within the sports (and entertainment) community that wish to work in the United States. There are two main types of visas: nonimmigrant versus immigrant. Nonimmigrant visas are temporary whereas immigrant visas are granted to those who will live in the U.S. as permanent residents. This article outlines the most common nonimmigrant visa options for those in the sports industry and provides an update on recent travel policy developments.
B-1 Business Visitor Visa
The B-1 visitor visa is an option available to amateur and professional athletes who are coming briefly to compete in athletic competitions in the U.S. Amateur athletes on B visas normally perform without pay or other remuneration; professional athletes are only able to receive prize money. Those coming with B visas must not have plans to remain in the U.S. long-term. These visa holders are generally only granted for up to 6 months of stay per entry. Visitor’s visas are extremely difficult to obtain, if for no other reason, U.S. consulates are not yet back to normal interviewing schedules as it relates to business or holiday visitors.
P-1 Individual and Team Athletes and Essential Support Personnel
P-1 visas are available to individual athletes or sports teams that are internationally recognized and are coming to the U.S. solely to compete in events which require internationally recognized athletes. Essential support personnel – e.g., coaches, managers, referees, trainers, umpires, scouts, broadcasters and even interpreters – are eligible for P-1S classification if they are an integral part of the P-1 nonimmigrant’s performance and are accompanying the P-1 to perform support services that cannot be readily performed by a U.S. worker.
To qualify as a P-1 athlete, one must be internationally recognized, which is defined as “possessing a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered”. Your achievements must be renowned, leading or well-known in more than just your native country. Athletic teams must have achieved international recognition and be coming to the U.S. to compete as a unit. Professional athletes are those who are coming to the U.S. to be employed by a team that is a member of an association of six or more professional sports teams, or any minor league team that is affiliated with such an association.
P visa-holders are usually granted enough time needed to complete the event, competition or performance. For P-1 athletes, the “event” may be the duration of the athlete’s contract. The initial period of stay cannot exceed five years. While P status can be extended in order to continue or complete the event(s), the total period of stay cannot exceed 10 years.
O-1A Extraordinary Ability
The O-1 visa is available to athletes, coaches, referees and other individuals with extraordinary ability. To qualify as an extraordinary individual, you must demonstrate sustained national and/or international acclaim and that you are among the very small percentage to have risen to the very top of the field. Meanwhile, managers, coaches and/or trainers offering essential support to the O-1 principal applicant can obtain O-2 status.
Individuals who have won a one-time internationally recognized award (such as an Olympic Medal or World Championship title) are generally qualified based on that award alone, however, we always strive to submit evidence of at least three of the following criteria as well: (1) Receipt of other nationally or internationally recognized awards; (2) Membership in associations in the field which require outstanding achievements of members; (3) Published material in professional or major trade publications or other major media; (4) Participation as a judge of the work of others in the same or allied field; (5) Original contributions of major significance to the field; (6) Authorship of scholarly articles; (7) Critical or essential employment for organizations with distinguished reputations; or (8) High salary or other remuneration for services in comparison to others. USCIS will determine the time needed to accomplish the “event”, but initial periods of stay can be granted for up to 3 years and extensions are permitted.
This visa category is also available to coaches who were once athletes. USCIS recognizes the link between athletic competition and sports instruction. Therefore, if you have clearly achieved national or international acclaim as an athlete and have sustained that acclaim upon transition into coaching at a national or international level, USCIS will consider the totality of evidence in establishing an overall pattern of sustained acclaim and extraordinary ability and conclude that coaching is within your area of expertise.
It is important to note that a petitioner/employer is required to sponsor you for a P or O visa petition. If the nonimmigrant petition is approved while you are in the U.S. in valid status (such as a visitor), then the status change is effective immediately. If you are outside the U.S., a visa appointment must be scheduled at the local consulate or embassy for visa issuance. Pre-pandemic, this step usually took days or weeks, maybe months. However, there have been substantial delays on the consular side of things because the pandemic has dramatically impacted the Department of State’s ability to process nonimmigrant (and immigrant) visa applications. Coupled with COVID-related travel bans and appointment unavailability, this means that countless individuals with approved nonimmigrant visa petitions have been unable to secure appointments, obtain visas, and travel to the U.S. to begin work unless otherwise eligible for an expedite request and/or national interest exemption.
On October 15th, the White House announced that it would be lifting the travel ban for fully-vaccinated individuals beginning on November 8th. This is generally good news for persons who were previously banned (e.g. noncitizens who have been to Schengen countries, the U.K., Brazil, China, India, South Africa within the last 14 days) as a 2-week quarantine in an intermediate country will no longer be required if you can show proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of traveling. This applies to air and land travel. Unvaccinated individuals will remain subject to the travel ban. South Africa (as well as several other southern African nations), however, was added back on to the travel-ban list on account of the newly discovered Omnicron variant.
While the new policy represents a step towards more eased travel, this does not mean that visa processing timelines will suddenly speed up to pre-pandemic levels. Consulates and embassies are still facing backlogs since local conditions continue to regulate operations per consulate. Furthermore, the Dept. of State has directed the prioritization of immigrant petitions over nonimmigrant visa petitions. Delays in visa appointment scheduling and issuance will persist, however, those who are in need of a visa should try booking the earliest appointment available in order to submit an expedite request, if needed.
At W&O’ we have helped numerous talented individuals obtain the above-named visas across a variety of sports, including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, mixed martial arts, rugby, soccer, basketball, rock climbing, and cricket. Our attorneys regularly monitor immigration-related developments and other policy updates as it relates to travel and COVID-19. We have offices in Arizona, California, Utah and Idaho. Should you have any questions about visa options or traveling to the U.S., please don’t hesitate to contact us and schedule your free consultation.