Immigration for Athletes

Immigration for Athletes

Some of the greatest athletes in the U.S. were born overseas. Basketball stars Dirk Nowitzki (Germany) and Yao Ming (China), ice hockey stars Sidney Crosby (Canada) and Alexander Ovechkin (Russia), and soccer star David Beckham (England) are household names in their respective sports – countless other foreign-born sports stars dominate in the U.S. While the sports that these athletes participate in vary dramatically, these athletes all share a common factor: their status as an athlete is highly influential in their ability to travel to the U.S.

For athletes, entering the U.S. depends upon their intent. For athletes seeking to temporarily enter the U.S. for a specific sporting purpose, they may apply for and enter under the P-1 visa. To receive a P-1 visa, the athlete must meet the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) definition of “international recognition” as an athlete:

“Having a high level of achievement in a field evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent that such achievement is renowned, leading, or well-known in more than one country.”

Additionally, members of teams meeting the above definition may also apply for the P-1 visa. The P-1 visa allows athletes to enter the U.S. for a specific sporting purpose and compete for payment or prize money. It’s also possible for athletes to work and study while in the U.S. on a P-1 visa, although the USCIS places restrictions and reporting requirements on both. 

International athletes may also apply for the non-immigrant, O-1 visa. This non-resident visa is broader than sports, encompassing arts, business, education, and sciences as well. To qualify for the O-1 visa, the applicant must demonstrate extraordinary ability by satisfying at least three of the following requirements:

  1. Have received national or international awards or prizes of excellence in their field.
  2. Being are a member of associations whose membership requires outstanding achievement, judged by nationally or internationally recognized experts in the respective discipline.
  3. Their work has been featured in professional or high-profile trade publications, or mainstream media.
  4. The applicant has served in some capacity as a judge of others in the same (or closely related) field. This could either be individual or as part of a judging panel.
  5. Have had articles published in professional or notable trade publications.
  6. Have made original scientific, academic, or business contributions of major significance in their respective field.
  7. Have served in a leading or critical capacity for highly regarded organizations or establishments.
  8. Command a high salary or remuneration for their services.
  9. Other relevant evidence of exceptional expertise that does not fit any of the above criteria.

Other visas, such as the B-1 visa, may also apply to athletes and provide immigration or travel opportunities. Due to the specificity of visas and ability to qualify under more than one, it’s best to discuss with an experienced immigration attorney. If you have questions or concerns about traveling or immigrating to the U.S. as an athlete; contract our Lexington office at (859) 281-5641 or via email,  


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