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Sports Immigration in America

SportVisaAmerica.com is a website produced by P. Christopher Jaensch and Jaensch Immigration Law Firm. I am an immigration lawyer whose practice is centered on Sports Immigration into the United States. My firm is based in Sarasota, Florida. Our main website is VisaAmerica.com

Few American states can match Florida in terms of the numbers of foreign-born athletes and coaches who live, train and work here. This article describes the sports immigration options for the most common types of cases that I see in Florida.  The strategy options presented can be used in any American state. 

This article assumes that the reader has an understanding of the basic rules of U.S. immigration law.  Specifically, there are two main ways to live in the U.S.: Immigrant Visas (also called permanent residence or “green cards”) and Nonimmigrant Visas (also called “temporary visas”).  For more information on the basic rules for immigrating to the United States, please see our main website: www.VisaAmerica.com

The sports immigration clients who come see me generally fall into the following categories:

  1. Amateur athletes (usually under age 18)
  2. Athletes making a transition from amateur or collegiate level (usually ages 18 to 22)
  3. Professional athletes
  4. Coaches and other workers who support athletes
  5. Parents of young athletes training in the U.S.

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    International amateur athletes generally fall into two groups:

    A. Short Term Training or Tournament Participation:

    Amateur athletes who want to attend short term training courses or summer programs can come to the U.S. as visitors.  This is also true for amateur athletes who live outside the U.S. and want to come to compete in amateur tournaments or competitions. 

    If the amateur athlete comes from a country that participates in the visa waiver program (most of Western Europe and Japan), then he or she can come to the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa to receive short term training in the U.S. or participate in tournaments.  If the visa waiver is not available, the athlete must apply for a B-1/B-2 Visitor Visa from the U.S. consulate in his or her country of residence.  This visa would allow the athlete to stay in the U.S. up to 180 days.

    U.S. consulates in certain countries, can be strict on issuing B-1/B-2 Visitors Visas.  It is a good idea for the athlete or his or her parents to be able to show the following at the visa interview:

    The athlete should also be prepared to explain why the training or competition in the U.S. is necessary for the athlete’s development and cannot be duplicated in the home country.  My law firm can assist with a B-1/B-2 visa application. 

    B. Long Term Training/Competition Over 6 Months (F-1 Visa or P-1 Visa)

    Amateur athletes under 18 who want to receive long term sports training over six months generally must come to the U.S. on an F-1 Student Visa.  Usually, the sports training academy has an arrangement with a private school.  The athlete must attend the private school in the morning (or some other time during the day) and can train in the sport when not in school.

    To apply for an F-1 Student Visa, the athlete must be accepted by the school.  The school will issue an immigration form called the “I-20” if the athlete can show that he or she has the ability to pay for private school education. 

    Education usually must take place in private school rather than in public school, because immigration laws permit issuance of F-1 visas to students under 18 to attend public school only for 12 months.  An F-1 visa will not be issued for students who receive home schooling or study through the internet.  The athlete must take the I-20 form to the U.S. consulate in his or her country of residence to obtain the F-1 visa.  Often, the consulate will want to see the same type of evidence that is listed above for the B-1/B-2 visa.  In particular, the consulate will want to see that the athlete has money to pay for school and living expenses and has a reason to return to the home country.  My law firm can assist with an F-1 student visa application. 

    Instead of an F-1 Student Visa, some amateur athletes and teams can qualify for a P-1 visa. To qualify as an individual, the athlete must show that he or she has achieved international recognition. The government has a list of six criteria for showing international recognition and the amateur athlete or team must meet at least two of these six criteria.

    The criteria that are most commonly used include:

    The amateur athlete or team must have a sponsoring organization in the U.S. who is willing to submit the P-1 visa petition on the athlete’s behalf. My firm has developed some innovative strategies for finding an organization willing to serve as a P-1 sponsoring organization. An approved P-1 petition for an individual athlete can be valid for a period up to 5 years, but usually will be issued only for the duration of the event, season, or tournament schedule. An approved petition for an athletic team can be valid for up to 1 year.

    Transition-age athletes usually between 18 and 22 years old typically fall into two groups:

    A. Athletes Over 18 Who Want to Complete Professionally 

    The challenge for this group is that an athlete who is over the age of 18 and wants to compete professionally is usually no longer attending school.  Therefore, the athlete can no longer qualify for an F-1 Student Visa.  At the same time, the athlete often has not had enough success to easily qualify for a P-1 visa as a professional athlete.

    Before the athlete qualifies for a professional tour or contract, his or her options are limited.

    The athlete can come to the U.S. using a visa waiver for 90 days at a time or can use a B-1/B-2 visa.  If using a visa waiver, the border officer may permit the athlete to exit and re-enter the U.S. for several consecutive 90-day periods, but there is never a guarantee that this will be permitted.  It is not possible to extend the 90-day waiver period from within the U.S.  If the athlete is here with a B visa, then it is possible to request an extension of status for another six-month period without leaving the U.S.

    Other options for the athlete include qualifying as a dependent under a parent’s visa (up to age 21) or going university or graduate school on an F-1 student visa.

    In some cases, the young or pre-professional athlete can qualify for a P-1 visa as an internationally recognized athlete.  This visa will permit the athlete to live and work in the U.S. full time for up to five years in order to compete in the sport.

    The U.S. immigration agency (USCIS) often will not consider an athlete’s junior level achievements when making the determination that the athlete is internationally recognized as a professional. 

    A P-1 visa application is more likely to be approved if the athlete is competing or will compete in the highest or close to the highest level of the sport in the U.S.  For example, in golf we will often recommend a P-1 visa application if the golfer has competed in Q School and/or is competing in the PGA, LGPA Web.com or Symetra Tours.  In tennis, we recommend a P-1 visa application when a player is competing in ATP Tour or WTA Tour events as well as ATP Challenger Tour, and the ITF Men’s and Women’s Circuits.  Also, competing at very high-level events outside the U.S. is usually very favorable for a P-1 visa application.  Every case is different, however, and must be evaluated individually.

    To qualify for the P-1 visa, the athlete must show that he or she has achieved international recognition. The government has a list of six criteria for showing international recognition and the athlete must meet at least two of these six criteria.

    The criteria that are most commonly used by this group are:

    A professional athlete must have an employer or agent willing to submit the P-1 application, which can be a challenge. My firm has developed some innovative strategies for finding an employer or agent willing to serve as a P-1 visa sponsor.

    B. Recent Graduates from U.S. Universities

    Recent foreign graduates from U.S. universities usually qualify for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which permits them to live and work in the U.S. for up to 12 months following graduation.  OPT only authorizes employment in the area of study and not necessary as a professional athlete.  Therefore, the athlete must be careful about how to arrange for OPT employment that matches his or her area of study.

    Some athletes who competed at the university level are able to compete at the professional level.  But many others athletes end their competitive career with university graduation.

    There are many immigration options for these athletes, but the right temporary visa or green card option depends on the personal situation of the athlete.

    For example, there are several temporary visas that we can consider for university graduates who want to work in the U.S. following completion of OPT.  We have provided a list below of some temporary visas that permit employment.  I often see that athletes want to start to coach or instruct other athletes.  Some of the visas below can be used to make a transition into coaching.

    Temporary visas that may permit employment of former collegiate athletes include:

    Some university graduates want to work in the U.S. following OPT, but they do not want to work for someone else or they or cannot find an American company willing to serve as an employer or sponsor.  When this happens, it is sometimes possible for us to make a temporary visa application that permits the athlete to work for his or her own business.  The best visa for this is the E-2 Investor Visa, which is available only to athletes whose country of citizenship has an investment treaty with the U.S.  More information about this option can be provided on request.

    Finally, some university graduates are able to stay in the U.S. permanently through marriage to a U.S. citizen.  After four or more years at an American university, it is not uncommon for an athlete to be in a serious relationship.  If the athlete marries a U.S. citizen, then he or she can qualify for a green card to live in the U.S. permanently.  The green card application can be made in the U.S.  Processing usually takes about a year.  While the case is pending, the athlete can usually qualify for a temporary employment authorization document and advance parole document that permits international travel.

    A. Temporary Visas for Professional Athletes

     Professional athletes can come to the U.S. to participate in tournaments or competitions using a visa waiver (if he or she comes from a visa waiver country) or by using a B-1 Visitor visa.

    A professional athlete who is in the U.S. on a visa waiver or B-1 visa cannot earn money in the U.S. other than prize money from tournaments. The professional athlete is expected to have a residence outside the U.S. that he or she will return to after the competition is complete. This visa is not appropriate if the athlete wants to live in the U.S. full time.

    Professional athletes who want to live in the U.S. full time (or earn income other than prize money) generally must qualify for either the P-1 visa for athletes who have achieved international recognition or the O-1 visa for aliens with extraordinary ability.

    The P-1 visa is usually easier for a professional athlete to qualify for. It will be issued for the length of the season or contract up to five years. The visa is renewable.

    To qualify for a P-1 visa, the athlete must show he or she:

    For those professional athletes seeking to qualify by showing that they perform at an internationally recognized level of performance (option 1 above), the athlete or team must meet at least two of the criteria below:

    In addition, the athlete or team must provide other documentation such as written contracts or summary of the terms of employment, evidence about the event or events in which they are coming to compete including proof that such event requires athletes with international recognition, and a written consultation from a labor organization (union) if one exists in the sport.

    The O-1 visa for aliens with extraordinary ability is more difficult to obtain than a P-1 visa for athletes with international recognition, but the requirements for the O-1 are similar to an EB-1 extraordinary green card. The O-1 visa is usually issued for the length of a season or a contract up to three years.

    To qualify for the O-1 visa, the athlete must show he or she meet at least three of the following criteria:

    In either case, the professional athlete’s visa application must be sponsored by an employer or agent. My law firm can assist with assessing whether an athlete meets the P-1 or O-1 criteria and has developed innovative techniques for athletes who are traditionally self-employed, such as tennis or golf athletes.

    B. Permanent Residence for Professional Athletes

    There are a number of options for professional athletes who want to live in the U.S. permanently.

    For all but the first two options, an employer/sponsor and permanent job offer is required. In the last three options, the athlete and employer must complete a process called PERM labor certification, which can take 9-12 months.  My law firm has experience with permanent residence applications for professional athletes and can provide more information on the details of each of these categories.

    There are immigration options for coaches and other workers who support athletes, such as trainers, mental conditioning consultants, movement specialists, nutritional advisors, etc.

    Sometimes it is possible for us to make a temporary visa application that permits the athlete to work for his or her own business.  The best visa for this is the E-2 Investor Visa, which is available only to those people whose country of citizenship has an investment treaty with the U.S.  This visa can be granted for up to five years.  It requires a substantial investment and the investor must show that the U.S. business will not be marginal, meaning that it will create jobs for U.S. workers or will provide more than a living wage to the investor and his or her family.  More information about this option can be provided on request

    Younger athletes often qualify for F-1 Student Visas while training for extended periods at sports academies in the U.S. or qualify for P-1 Visas if they attain international recognition in the sport.

    But this does not entitle the parents to qualify for a visa to live in the U.S. with their children.

    For parents, we often suggest the following options: