Professional athletes play sports at an international level. To participate in tournaments in other countries, in many cases they need a visa. However, when applying for a visa, they frequently run into problems. What kind of issues occur in the case of sporting events in the United States? And can a fan who wants to go to the same tournament as a spectator apply for an ESTA?
The USA as a sports country
Sports are a significant part of the national identity of the United States. Many athletes dream to go to the USA and play at the highest level. The main sports in the USA are baseball, basketball and American football. However, to participate in sporting competitions in the USA you require more than just talent and dedication. Athletes are not an exception to immigration rules, so they too simply need to apply for a visa.
Choosing the right visa as an athlete
It is sometimes difficult to decide what visa an athlete needs, because some visas are similar in certain aspects. Generally, athletes can choose from the B-1, B-2, H-1B, H-2B or P-1 visa. Which of these visas the athlete is eligible for depends on the athlete’s personal situation.
Visitor visa or ESTA
Many amateur athletes who are eligible for a visitor visa (B1 or B-2), can also apply for an ESTA. When applying for an ESTA, no visit to the embassy or consulate is necessary, because this travel authorisation can easily and quickly be applied for online.
The B-2 visitor visa for tourism can only be used by amateur athletes, because they do not receive a financial compensation for their athletic activities in the USA. The B-1 visitor visa can be applied for by professional athletes, if they do not earn a fixed salary. However, they can receive any prize money or a salary paid in full from their home country. In this case, the competition in which the athlete participates must be international in nature.
Athletes who travel with an ESTA, cannot get any financial compensation for their sporting achievements, except for prize money. They must also keep in mind the permitted stay of 90 days per trip.
Other visa for athletes
The P-1 visa is a temporary work visa that can be used for participation in a sporting competition. The main criterion of this visa is that the individual athlete or team of athletes must be internationally renowned. This means that ability and recognition of the athlete or team are so significantly higher than usual that its achievements are more admired in more than one country. Support staff travelling with the athlete(s) also need visas. In this case, they are eligible for the P-1S visa.
The O-1 visa is very similar to the P-1 visa, but is more difficult to obtain, because the level of performance must be even higher. Besides having international exposure, an athlete for the O-1 visa must be able to prove that he or she has exceptional skill in the sport. This visa cannot be obtained for an entire team unless each player applies for it individually. Support staff travelling with an athlete holding an O-1 visa must apply for an O-2 visa.
Athletes who are not eligible for the P-1 and O-2 visa may be able to apply for an H-2B visa. To do so, they must have a sponsor who can prove that the athlete is coming to the United States for a short period of time as the tournament or competition does not exceed one year. Only a limited number of the H-2B visas are issued each year.
In some cases, athletes can also apply for an H-1B visa, but to do so they must qualify as a ‘professional specialist’. This means that the applicant must be able to apply specialised knowledge in both theory and practice. This visa can also be applied for by trainers and coaches. Like the H-2B visa, this visa also has an annual cap.
What if an athlete does not have a visa?
It is important that athletes apply for the correct visa in time for the scheduled sporting events for which they have qualified or registered. Otherwise, they may miss out on the tournament, as without proper travel authorisation or visa, it is not possible to travel to the USA. Unfortunately, it happens regularly that athletes or support staff of a sports team apply for their visas too late and thus do not receive them on time.
Moreover, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is struggling with longer than normal waiting times due to the effects of COVID-19. This makes it even more essential that visa applications are submitted on time.
A good example of what can happen when athletes do not receive the correct visa on time are the World Athletics Championships that took place in the USA in July 2022. There were delays in processing visas for nearly 400 athletes who wanted to participate in that championship. This caused a stir. Just before the start of the tournament, there were still 99 athletes whose visas had not yet been granted. Consequently, these delays prevented some athletes from participating in this championship.
Attending a sporting event in the USA as a fan
Individuals travelling to the USA to attend a sporting event also need a visa or ESTA. The ESTA, which is easily applied for online, is sufficient if the stay in the United States is less than 90 days. The ESTA does not require you to have extraordinary skills, but you must meet all the requirements. The ESTA is valid for two years, so you can also attend next year’s tournament without having to reapply for an ESTA. The ESTA is approved within 3 days on average, but as delivery times can never be guaranteed, it is important to submit your application on time anyway.