Many times our Office receive calls from individual athletes asking if they need a visa to compete in a tournament or competition here in the U.S. These are not athletes on a team sport, they are athletes who compete in individual sports such as:
surfing, golf, tennis, bass fishing, running, archery, and the like.
A handful or more of specific questions regarding their careers, sponsors, income, etc will provide us with a picture of how to best pursue the proper visa, if any, for the individual athlete.
Natural progression usually follows as such.
In the beginning of their careers these athletes may only come to the U.S. for select events and short durations with no payment from sponsors and bring home money earned for placing in the money – ie prize money for finishing in the Top 10. As their careers progress and they develop in their sport and ultimately become better at the sport they compete in, many of them spend more time in the U.S. to train and compete in more events here in the U.S. and pick up more sponsors.
It is at this time when most athletes begin to think about their immigration status and how to best pursue a visa so to allow him or her to stay in the U.S. for a prolonged period in order to compete in U.S. tournaments/competitions as well as train etc.
Individual athletes have basically three visa options: B1 visitor visa or ESTA; P-1 visa for athletes with international recognition; and/or O-1 visa for athletes with extraordinary ability.
If the individual athlete is coming to the U.S. for a surfing competition; golf tournament; fishing tournament; tennis tournament or the like, and is only going to receive prize money if he or she finishes in the Top 10 or the like, then that athlete can pursue a B-1 visitor visa or enter on the visa waiver program to compete in that tournament or competition. The crux of the question here is whether the athlete will be receiving income outside of the tournament or competition prize money.
If the athlete is coming to the U.S. to compete but will also receive payment from sponsors outside of any prize money earned, then that athlete does not qualify for B-1 visa and violates his or her status if he or she enters on ESTA to compete. This athlete, because he or she is receiving payment from a sponsor or sponsors needs to apply for a P-1 or O-1 visa. These visas allow the athlete to earn income in the U.S.
This holds true even if the sponsor is a foreign company with no presence in the U.S. The athlete is being paid for his or her services and the tournament in this instance is in the U.S., therefore, the athlete is considered to be entering the U.S. to “work” and earn income. U.S. immigration law requires a visa to partake in such activities and in this scenario the proper visa would be a P or O visa.