When does an individual athlete need a visa to come to the U.S. and compete? For purposes of this blog, we will use Professional Triathletes as the example of individual athletes. Professional triathletes, like many other individual professional athletes, start coming to the U.S. to compete in occasional events. As they progress in their careers, many will often spend more time in the U.S. where there are a lot of races, triathlon teams and coaches. Here is a brief overview of when a visa is needed.

There are basically three types of temporary visas available: (1) B-1 visitor visa (or visa waiver); (2) P-1 visa for athletes with international recognition; and (3) O-1 visa for athletes of extraordinary ability.

When should an Athlete use a B-1, P-1 or O-1 visa?

The B-1 visitor visa for business, or the visa waiver program for athletes from eligible countries, can be used only if the athlete is coming to the U.S. to compete in an event where he/she will only earn prize money and/or payment for expenses. If the athlete is competing in the U.S. and receiving payment from any sponsors, other than prize money, then the athlete needs to have a visa that allows him/her to earn income in the United States – – either the P-1 or O-1 visa. This is true regardless of where the money is being paid (in the U.S. or in one’s home country).

P-1 Visa for Athletes of International Recognition

Standard: The basic requirement for a P-1 visa is to be an athlete of international recognition coming to the U.S. to compete in events that require such recognition. International recognition is defined as a high level of achievement in the field evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered, to the extent that such achievement is renowned, leading, or well known in more than one country. Therefore, a triathlete can meet this standard if he/she can show significant finishes in races in more than one country. Typically, triathletes who qualify for this standard have significant race results in both their home country and in the U.S.

Duration: The P-1 can be obtained initially for a period of up to five years, but will typically be limited to the duration of the longest contract that provides financial support (monthly income and/or bonus payments). The P-1 can be extended for five years with possibilities of renewals after ten years as well.

Requirements: The P-1 requires the athlete to have a U.S. company that will act as the petitioner for the P-1 and be able to sign the necessary forms and support letter. It also requires evidence and documentation that the athlete meets the standard of international recognition, including newspaper and magazine articles, letters signed by experts attesting to the international reputation of the athlete, and other related documentation.

O-1 Visa for Athletes of Extraordinary Ability

Standard: For an athlete, the requirement of extraordinary ability is shown by sustained national or international acclaim. It also means that the athlete is one of a small percentage who has reached the top of his/her sport.

Duration: The O-1 can be obtained initially for three years, and then extended in one year increments to complete the same “event”. If there is a new contract or “event”, then the O-1 may be obtained for a new three year period.

Requirements: The regulations indicate that proving extraordinary ability requires evidence of the receipt of a major internationally recognized award (such as a Nobel Prize). For triathletes, this means winning one of the world championship events such as the World Championship Ironman race in Kona, Hawaii.

Alternatively, the O-1 regulations require documentation of at least three out of the ten identified criteria such as lesser prizes or awards, newspaper and magazine articles, sponsorship by recognized companies, and other similar documentation.

For triathletes, types of documentation that are typically used to support an O-1 visa petition include a podium finish at a world championship event, documentation of other top finishes in international races, magazine covers with their picture, magazine or newspaper articles that mention the triathlete as a major contender in the sport, contracts with companies that are well known either in the sport or in the general public, income that is typically higher than other professional triathletes, and written testimony from experts in the world of triathlon attesting that the triathlete is one of the few who has reached the top of the field and is an athlete of extraordinary ability.

P-1 versus O-1? If an athlete can qualify for both the P-1 with international recognition and the O-1 with extraordinary ability, often the P-1 is the better option as it requires less documentation and can be obtained for up to five years rather than the initial three years of the O-1.


Please contact Trow & Rahal if you are an athlete and may need a P-1 or O-1 visa.

Posted by: Linda Rahal