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O-1 and P-1 Options for Athletes and Coaches Who Wish to Compete in the United States

The United States offers exceptional visa categories for athletes and coaches who aim to compete, coach, or perform at an internationally recognized level. Understanding the specific visa options available can significantly enhance the chances of a successful application. This article will delve into the details of the O-1 and P-1 visa categories, providing a comprehensive guide for athletes and their legal advisors. It will also discuss, briefly, the B Visitor Visa for amateur athletes and some select other athletes.


Athletes and coaches from around the world aspire to compete in the United States; drawn by the countries prestigious sports leagues, events, and training opportunities. To facilitate this, the U.S. immigration system offers specialized visas tailored for athletes with exceptional skills and achievements. In US immigration law there nonimmigrant (temporary) and immigrant (permanent) visa options. Ultimately, athletes can pursue either one, but this article will focus on the nonimmigrant options and a future article will address the immigrant (green card) options. The most common immigrant option for athletes are the O-1 and P-1 visas and they cater to different levels of recognition and career stages. This article breaks down these visa categories, detailing their eligibility criteria, application processes, and benefits for athletes.

O-1 Visa: Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

The O-1 visa is designated for individuals who possess extraordinary ability in their field. For athletes, this means demonstrating sustained national or international acclaim. The O-1 visa is subdivided into O-1A (for individuals with extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics) and O-1B (for individuals with extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry). Because our focus here is on athletes and coaches, the article will focus on O-1A. To qualify for an O-1 visa, you either have to have been a recipient of a major, internationally-recognized award (i.e. FIFA Player of the year, Olympic Medals, Coach of the Year, World Championships, ICC Cricketer of the Year, league MVP, etc.) or meet three of eight criteria addressed below.

O-1 Eligibility Requirements:

If you have not achieved a major, internationally-recognized award, you can still qualify for an O-1. Athletes applying for an O-1 visa must meet at least three of the eight criteria. Below are the eight criteria with explanations on how they might apply to athletes:

  1. Recipient of a nationally or internationally recognized prize or award for excellence in the field of endeavor:
    • This would be a “lesser” recognized prize that the ones above.
  2. Membership in associations that require outstanding achievements:
    • This one is probably one of the weakest, but you can show membership in elite sports organizations, such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or FIFA, where membership is exclusive to athletes who have achieved high recognition, can qualify.
  3. Published material about the athlete in professional or major trade publications:
    • Articles, profiles, or features about the athlete or coach in major sports magazines, newspapers, or online publications that highlight their achievements and impact on the sport.
  4. Participation on a panel, or individually, as a judge of the work of others:
    • Involvement as a judge in sports competitions, such as serving as a judge in gymnastics or diving events, being invited to evaluate other athletes in prestigious tournaments, or being the one selecting individuals for a specific high-level team.
  5. Original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance:
    • Contributions to the sport, such as developing new training techniques, innovative strategies, or significant influence on the advancement of the sport can be highlighted.
  6. Authorship of scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media:
    • One of the lesser common criteria for athletes and coaches, but publishing articles, research papers, or books about the sport, training methods, or personal experiences in recognized journals or major media outlet can be one of the eligibility criteria.
  7. Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments with a distinguished reputation:
    • Playing a key role in prestigious sports teams, clubs, or organizations known for their excellence, such as being a critical coach, team captain, or a leading player for a top-tier team.
  8. High salary or other remuneration for services, as evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence:
    • Earning a substantial income compared to others in the field, supported by contracts, endorsement deals, or salary statements.

Application Process:

  • Petition: The U.S. employer or agent must file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, with the appropriate documentation.
  • Evidence Submission: Supporting documents must include evidence of the athlete’s extraordinary ability and a written advisory opinion from a relevant trade group.
  • Approval and Visa Issuance: Upon approval, the athlete can apply for the O-1 visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

Duration and Extensions:

The O-1 visa can be granted for an initial period of up to three years. Extensions are available in one-year increments for the activity. Keep in mind, that O-1 visas have a “twin” green card option of EB-1A.

P-1 Visa: Internationally Recognized Athletes

Like the O-1 visa, P visas also have numerous subcategories. For athletes and coaches the P-1 will be the focus. The P-1 visa is tailored for athletes who are internationally recognized and wish to compete at a distinguished level. This visa is applicable to both individual athletes and athletic teams.

Types of P-1 Athletes:

  • An individual athlete at an internationally recognized level of performance:
  • This category is for athletes who can demonstrate that they compete at a high level of skill and recognition internationally.
  • Evidence might include participation in a major international sports event or a ranking in an international league.
  • The athlete must show sustained international acclaim in their sport.
    • An athlete that is part of a group or team at an internationally recognized level of performance:
  • This category is for athletes who are integral members of teams that are internationally recognized.
  • The team must have a distinguished reputation and a significant record of accomplishments.
  • Documentation might include proof of team achievements, championships, and international rankings.
    • A professional athlete:
  • This category covers athletes who are employed by a team in a recognized professional sports league; this can include minor league affiliates.
  • These athletes are paid for their athletic performance and have a professional contract.
  • Evidence may include a professional contract, proof of league membership, and details of earnings.
    • An athlete or coach, as part of a team or franchise that is located in the United States and a member of a foreign league or association:
  • This applies to athletes and coaches who are coming to the U.S. to be part of a team or franchise that is a member of a foreign league or association.
  • The league or association must meet the standards of international recognition.
  • Supporting documentation might include evidence of the team’s foreign league membership, international competition records, and the individual’s role within the team or franchise.

Application Process:

  • Petition: The U.S. employer or sponsoring organization must file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, including documentation of the athlete’s international recognition.
  • Supporting Evidence: Required documentation includes a written consultation from an appropriate labor organization, evidence of international recognition, and details of the competition or event.
  • Visa Application: After petition approval, the athlete can apply for the P-1 visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy.

Duration and Extensions:

  • The P-1 visa is granted for the duration of the event, up to five years, with extensions available for up to five additional years.

B-1 Visa for “Visitors”

While general work and employment are not allowed for B-1 visas, the Department of State Foreign Affairs manual provides some exceptions for certain athletes, coaches, or sporting associated individuals.

  • Certain professional athletes including:
    1. Professional athletes such as golfers or race car drivers who receive no salary or payment other than the prize money for the participation in the event
  • Athletes of a foreign-0based team coming to compete with another sports team in the US are allowed if:
    1. The foreign athlete and team have their principal place of business or activity in a foreign country
    2. The income of the team and the salary of its players are principally accrued in a foreign country and
    3. The team is a member of an international sports league, or the activities involved have an international dimension
  • Equestrian sports for applicants coming to the US to perform services for a foreign employer such as jockey, trainer, or groomers.
  • Amateur Athletes who are coming to the US for an activity where they are not members of a professional association. An athlete that is normally compensated cannot qualify for B visas.


For athletes and coaches aspiring to compete in the United States, understanding the nuances of the O-1 and P-1 visa categories is crucial. Each visa has specific requirements and processes that must be meticulously followed to ensure a successful application. Athletes are encouraged to consult with an experienced immigration attorney to navigate the complexities of the application process and to determine the best visa category based on their individual circumstances and career achievements.

Reddy Neumann Brown PC located in Houston, Texas, has been serving the business community for over 27 years and is Houston’s largest immigration law firm focused solely on U.S. Employment-based immigration. We work with employers, employees, and investors helping them navigate the immigration process quickly and cost-effectively.

By : Steven Brown

Steven Brown is a Partner at Reddy Neumann Brown PC where he works in the Non-immigrant visa department and leads the Litigation Team. His practice covers all phases of the non-immigration visa process including filing H-1B, L-1, E-3, H-4, and H-4 EAD petitions. In the last two years, Steven has successfully handled over 1,000 non-immigrant visa petitions including filing petitions, responding to any necessary Requests for Evidence, and drafting motions and appeals. He has also become a key resource for F-1 students that seek guidance on properly complying with the F-1 visa regulations and any OPT or CPT issues they may have. Additionally, Steven holds a weekly conference call for companies that are part of one of the largest organizations for IT Services companies in America.