Comparing Visa Types: Longer Visits for Individual Athletes and Teams

Individual Athletes, Teams, and Coaches: Comparing Visa Types

While H-1B visas may be appropriate for some coaches, typically athletes and coaches must choose between O-1A, O-1B, or P-1 visas. H-1B visas have specific Department of Labor requirements and can be difficult to obtain for coaches, especially due to the legislated annual cap each fiscal year. This page will focus on the most popular options for professional sports: the O and P visas.

P-1 Visa: Internationally Recognized Athlete

The P-1 visa can be utilized by an athlete (or multiple athletes as part of a team) in order to compete in an event, either in the short term for a tournament or promotional appearance or a longer-term event that could require a seasonal or annual contract. The admission period will likely depend on the nature of the event or contract, but the P-1 visa may be admitted for a period of up to five years. It may be possible to extend the visa for an additional five years, but at that time the athlete must leave the United States and reapply for a new visa. While dual intent is allowed, the individual must also maintain a foreign residence that he or she doesn’t intend to abandon.

In order to qualify for P-1 status, the athlete or coach must be “internationally recognized” based on the individual’s achievements and reputation. The COMPETE Act of 2006 expanded the P-1 classification to include:

  • An individual who performs as an athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, at an internationally recognized level of performance
  • A professional athlete
  • Athlete or coach as part of a team or franchise that is located in the U.S. and a member of a foreign league or association of 15 or more amateur sports teams (additional criteria apply)
  • A professional or amateur athlete who performs individually or as part of a group in a theatrical ice skating production

The standards are slightly lower for the P-1 visa than those for the O-1 visa, but athletes and teams must still meet the international recognition standards, or prove a “high level of achievement in the field evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent that such achievement is renowned, leading, or well known in more than one country.”

O-1 Visa: Athletes of Extraordinary Ability

The O-1 visa is divided into two categories: the O-1A in athletics and the O-1B for artists. The O-1A is reserved for individuals with “extraordinary ability in… athletics, which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim.” An athlete approved for the O-1A visa must be traveling to the U.S. to compete at the same level for which he or she received the national or international acclaim. The O-1 visa also allows for dual intent, but unlike the P-1 visa, O-1 visa holders are not expected to maintain a foreign residence.

The O-1B may also be utilized by certain athletes because of the broad definition of “performing arts,” which allows individuals to provide “comparable evidence” in order to seek the visa. This visa type still requires an “extraordinary ability” in the arts, but the standards are less rigorous than the O-1A visa. An athlete or coach must demonstrate a “high level of achievement” by showing a “degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered.” It is important to note that coaches applying for an O-1 visa must be recognized for his or her extraordinary ability as a coach, not just as an athlete.

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