Helping Foreign Athletes to Compete in the U.S.

May 20, 2021 | Immigration Law

Helping Foreign Athletes to Compete in the U.S.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been approached by athletes from outside the United States seeking visa status to train and compete in the U.S.  The pandemic has put their sport in a state of suspension and the window of opportunity that athletes have to shine in their field of excellence is, by its nature, far too brief.  This article provides a brief overview of the issues and steps for athletes, sponsors and sponsoring agents with respect to the P-1 visa and how foreign athletes may enter the United States to perform their sport.  Anticipating this process will make it possible for those athletes to hit the ground running when normalcy resumes.

P-1 for Athletes: Qualifications

The P-1 visa is one strong option for an athlete who would like to compete inside the U.S.  Whether the athlete will qualify for the P-1 depends on whether they can fulfill the specific factual criteria required under immigration law to be granted the visa.  

There are a number of elements that must be clearly demonstrated regarding the athlete and their professional credentials in order for them to be granted P-1 status.  Illustrating the athlete’s qualifying characteristics can be tricky and therefore it is best to discuss these points in detail so that we can develop a strategy that highlights the achievements in the athlete’s life clearly and succinctly for the immigration officer adjudicating their case.  For instance, we must present evidence that shows that the athlete has achieved national and international recognition in their field.  The athlete must have skills and have attained a level of recognition “substantially above” others in the field.  Examples of forms of proof for this required recognition would be proof of achievement in their sport and press about the individual’s performance in their sport.  The sponsored activities also must require an internationally recognized athlete of such a high caliber.  Additionally, the sponsoring organization must be “distinguished.”


This type of application cannot be “self-sponsored.”  The applicant needs to be sponsored by a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident.  The sponsor may be a single entity/club or a sponsoring agent that is representing the foreign athlete.  A foreign employer may sponsor an athlete through a U.S. agent.  

The Athletes Purpose for Entering the U.S.

The main focus for the athlete must be to compete in professional tournaments and exhibition matches for the entire period of time granted in P-1 status.  These events need to be listed in an itinerary which will be submitted together with the P-1 application.  

After the P-1 visa is granted other events in the same sport may be added to the approved itinerary without filing a new application, as long as, the sponsor remains the same.  If the sponsor changes or the athlete is traded, we must file a new petition for a new P-1.

The P-1 is a temporary visa granted to an individual or a group of individuals (a team) to participate in a specific event or multiple events which they have detailed in the itinerary submitted with their application.  The application must contain proof that the athlete has temporary intent.  


The sponsor may provide a per diem stipend to the athlete.  The athlete may receive tournament winnings.  

Unfortunately, it is important to note that the P-1 does not allow an athlete to enter to perform other kinds of work in the U.S., such as, “coaching” or providing “training sessions” with individuals.  The athletes are, however, allowed to train for matches at U.S. clubs. 

Although agents may provide a simple stipend to supplement earnings from tournament victories and/or payment for exhibition matches, the agent must not seek any additional services in exchange for this stipend.  The stipend should be thought of as a per diem to assist the athlete with day-to-day expenses, such as food, hotel and travel expenses.

Conclusion:  A Strategy for the Mind and Muscle to Win the Game

With all of the moving parts in the life of a professional athlete, it is important to focus on the work at hand and move carefully toward achieving our goals.  For instance, building a strong press packet and resume are of great assistance in developing a winning P-1 application.  An attorney and/or agent can assist athletes with pulling together the evidentiary proof of their achievements.  

Constructing a strong case on your behalf is critical when submitting paperwork to U.S. immigration.  It is important to cover all of the legal and evidentiary bases and make sure you submit the best paperwork possible the first time around.  

As all athletes understand, it takes a team to achieve greatness.  We need our coaches, our fellow athletes, our agents and sometimes our attorneys to help us reach our dreams. 

Erin Bahn focuses her practice in the area of Immigration Law.
She can be reached at