Yes, you will most likely be able to get a visa to travel to the U.S. if you have a contract with a Major League Sports team.
In general, the immigration process for athletes is unique compared to the process for other immigrants.
Athletes coming to the United States for their athletic prowess typically have two options: the O-visa, for extraordinary ability or the P-1A visa for athletes that do not meet the threshold for the O visa.
The O-visa is available to many professions, including athletes.
Generally, it is more difficult to get an O-visa as an athlete because the individual must show a record of “extraordinary achievement” in their field [i].
When that standard is applied to athletes, it usually permits only the Michael Jordans and Tiger Woods of their sport to qualify for an O-1 visa.
To qualify for the P-1A visa, an athlete need only show that they have been invited to participate in their sport in the United States and have achieved international recognition [ii].
While there are still rigorous requirements to meet for the P-1A visa, more athletes are eligible for it than the O-visa.
In fact, USCIS has extended P-1A eligibility to competition video gamers.
The P and the O visa allow the athlete to be compensated for their participation in their sport, but many athletes travel to the United States temporarily to compete in events that they will not be compensated for.
The B-1 visa (commonly known as a tourist visa) can be used by athletes who will not be paid for their performance in a sporting event [iii].
However, B-1 visa athletes can collect prize money for their performance.
Who Is My Sponsor?
The P visa and the O visa are employment-based visas, which means your employer (your team in the context of major league sports) is your sponsor.
The B-visa is merely a tourist visa and does not require a sponsor since the stay is so temporary.
Most major league athletes will not remain with the same team throughout their professional career, which means their visa sponsor will change.
An athlete that switches teams must have their new team (new sponsor) notify USCIS as to the change, or the visa expires 30 days after the team transfer.
What Proof Do I Need?
USCIS lists a number of ways to prove your status as a professional athlete.
For whichever visa you are applying for, you will need to provide a copy of your contract with the major league sports team.
For the P-1A visa, the athlete must present to USCIS two of the following forms of evidence:
- Evidence of having participated to a significant extent in a prior season with a major United States sports league
- Evidence of having participated to a significant extent in international competition with a national team
- Evidence of having participated to a significant extent in a prior season for a U.S. college or university in intercollegiate competition
- A written statement from an official of a major U.S. sports league or an official of the governing body of the sport which details how you or your team is internationally recognized
- A written statement from a member of the sports media or a recognized expert in the sport which details how you or your team is internationally recognized
- Evidence that you or your team is ranked, if the sport has international rankings
- Evidence that you or your team has received a significant honor or award in the sport
For an athlete with a contract with a major league sports team, it should not be difficult to produce enough evidence to qualify for the P-1A visa.
However, without evidence of some additional award or official recognition, a major league athlete probably will not qualify for an O-1 visa.
How Long Can I Stay As A Major League Athlete?
The answer to this question depends on which visa the athlete has when entering the United States.
For the P-1A visa, USCIS will determine the length of stay based on the nature of the athlete’s travel to the United States, but not for longer than 5 years initially.
Example: Cris is traveling from his home in Dominican Republic to United States for a baseball tournament that will last the entire month of April.
USCIS will likely grant his P-1A visa for the one month of April. If Cris stays longer than the tournament and time allotted by visa, he will be without status.
For major league athletes, the P-1A visa will likely be granted for the duration of their contract with their team.
If the contract is only for one season, then the P-1A visa will be invalid after the season ends.
If the contract is renewed, the P-1A visa length of stay can be amended as long as the athlete and sponsor notify USCIS.
The duration of stay for O-visa holders is calculated by USCIS similar to the method used for P-1A visas.
However, the sole difference is that the initial period of stay cannot exceed 3 years on an O-1 visa.
The period of stay on a B-visa cannot exceed 1 year.
This visa does not take into account if the beneficiary is coming for athletic purposes or not.
Can My Family Come With Me?
For both the P and O visas, yes.
The B-visa does not have a counterpart visa that applies to family members, but family members may apply for their own B-visa.
Spouses and unmarried children under 21 of P-1A and O-1 visa beneficiaries may apply for the O-3 and P-4 visas.
Their visa will be granted for the same duration as the athlete’s visa, but they are not authorized to work under those visas.
[i] 8 C.F.R. §214.2(o)
[ii] 8 C.F.R. §214.2(p)
[iii] 8 C.F.R. §214.2(b)(4)