The American sports industry relies on international talent. Most major and minor league sports teams recruit athletes from other countries.
As with any foreigner coming to the United States to work, international athletes recruited by American teams must obtain a visa with work authorization.
The P visa is available for athletes and entertainers. The P-1A visa is specifically for athletes coming to the United States to compete in competitions or join an American team. [i]
For more information on which athletes qualify for the P-1A visa, click here. Essential support personnel, such as a trainer or coach, can also qualify for the P-1A visa.
Sponsoring an Athlete
The P-1A visa is an employment-based visa. The athlete needs a “sponsor” employer for the visa, which is usually the team or franchise. [ii]
The sponsoring team will need to fill out the appropriate paperwork and submit it to USCIS on behalf of the athlete. Anyone from the organization can submit these forms, but should be prepared by a lawyer if possible.
The first form that needs to be completed and submitted to USCIS is Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. The I-129 will not be accepted without the accompanying filing fee ($325 as of January 2016).
If you are an agent filing for athletes for several different teams or organizations, check this USCIS memo to ensure you are able to do so.
As petitioner for an athlete’s P-1A visa, you must compile evidence showing the athlete qualifies for the visa. The evidence needed varies by circumstance, but most commonly USCIS needs documentation of the athlete’s recognition or awards. These documents should be sent in with the I-129 petition. [iii]
USCIS also requires a written consultation from an appropriate labor organization for all P-1A visa applications. This document should describe what work the athlete will be doing in the United States. [iv]
USCIS has compiled a list of labor organizations that do written consultations for applicants. If there is not an appropriate organization for your sport, the athlete is excused from the requirement.
Most importantly, you will need to provide USCIS with a copy of the contract the athlete has with your team or organization. The contract should take into consideration the time limits on the P-1A visa.
If your team is recruiting an athlete who is already on a visa, but playing for another team, you must notify USCIS that the athlete is changing sponsors by filing a new I-129 and request an extension. [v]
Example: Ichiro Suzuki is a Japanese baseball player that was traded from the Mariners to the Yankees. After the trade was complete, the Yankees were responsible for notifying the USCIS of Suzuki’s sponsorship change so that Suzuki could maintain a valid visa.
If the new team does not update USCIS about the athlete’s changed sponsorship, the athlete can lose their visa status and be forced to leave the United States.
Before 2009 professional athletes on a P-1A visa could only renew their visa once — meaning the athlete could only stay in the United States for a lifetime maximum of 10 years.
A USCIS memo in 2009 changed this 10 year lifetime maximum by lifting the cap for athletes and essential personnel. Now, P-1A athletes may renew their visa every 5 years, though they may need to briefly exit the country after each 10 year period.
If at any time during the 5 year period of validity the athlete loses sponsorship, their visa becomes invalid and the athlete will be “out of status”. This can be devastating for athletes who suffer a career-ending injury and are dropped by their team. Beyond losing their job, they must also leave the United States.
Most athletes choose to adjust their status to become permanent residents once on the P-1A visa.
Beyond the regular perks of being a permanent resident, athletes do not have to worry about uprooting their family and life if their sports team drops them due to injury or poor performance.
Athletes are often encouraged by their teams to adjust their status to permanent residency, simply because it’s easier to travel abroad as a permanent resident.
P-1A visa holders are allowed to travel in and out of the country with their team for athletic events, but dealing with visas at the border can be time consuming and confusing. Permanent residents are able to travel abroad with far less scrutiny than a visa holder.
Beyond the P-1A visa
If the athlete your team is recruiting does not qualify for the P-1A visa, there are other options available.
Other forms of employment-based visas, such as the EB-1, are available for qualifying athletes. [vi] If you are recruiting for an athlete to play at your university, the athlete may be able to apply for a student visa. [vii]
[i] See 8 U.S.C. §1184(c)(4)
[ii] See 8 C.F.R. 214.2(p)(2)
[iii] See Id.
[iv] See Id.
[v] See 8 C.F.R. 214.2(p)(2)(C)(1)
[vi] See 8 C.F.R. 214.2(o)(1)
[vii] See 8 C.F.R. 214.2(f)