The foreign collegiate golfer on an F-1 student visa who is approaching graduation and intending to turn pro faces a confusing set of immigration regulations through which he or she must navigate in order to maintain legal status properly and have permission to remain in the U.S. and earn money playing professional golf.
The following is intended as a summary of the various immigration options available to golfers in order to compete in professional golf tournaments in the U.S. It is intended as a general discussion and is not a substitute for legal advice based upon an individual’s fact situation.
One option for foreign professional golfers attempting to enter the United States to play in professional golf tournaments is to apply for a B-1 visitor visa. The B-1 regulations, §402.2-5(C)(4) of the Foreign Affairs Manual of the U.S. Department of State, specifically discuss golfers, saying: “professional athletes, such as golfers and auto racers, who receive no salary or payment other than prize money, for their participation in a tournament or sporting event” may qualify for a B-1 visa. Save this reference in case the consular officer is not familiar with this rule.
However, note that the B-1 is a type of visitor visa and a visitor must be able to establish to a U.S. consular official that they maintain strong ties to their home country and have a residence abroad. This can be harder for a student who has just spent the last four years in the U.S. Some items the golfer should be prepared to show at the consulate might include:
A letter from parents confirming that the golfer maintains a primary residence in the parents’ home
Bank statements and a credit card to show you can support yourself
A return air ticket
A detailed golf itinerary ideally culminating with the Q school in the fall
To obtain a B-1 visa, the applicant completes a generic non-immigrant visa application with an attached photo and presents the application to the U.S. consulate in the golfer’s home country with the passport and evidence of eligibility to play in professional tournaments such as a letter from a tour, a listing of the events in which he or she is eligible to participate (including dates and locations), and a visa fee (which varies depending on nationality). The B-1 visa is normally issued promptly and can be issued for up to 10 years, depending on nationality. Such a visa would give the golfer the right to enter the U.S. repeatedly during the 10-year period, although there are some caveats to remember.
At the time of entry to the U.S., the golfer will be admitted in B-1 status for the length of time required to complete the event as evidenced by the tour letter, not to exceed six months. If the player qualifies for additional events, he or she may file an extension application by mail with the USCIS to extend the period beyond six months. However, as stated above, a visitor must have a residence abroad they maintain. If one leaves the U.S., they should not attempt to return immediately since this would give the appearance that the person is actually living in the U.S. permanently. The longer one can remain abroad before reentering, the better.
Please note that foreign nationals from some countries are not required to obtain a visa and they may enter the U.S. using the Visa Waiver Program to be admitted in visitor status under the ESTA program. See https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/. These individuals should carry a letter from their sponsoring tour as evidence of their eligibility to play in professional tournaments with a detailed itinerary. These should be presented to the immigration inspector at the port of entry with the individual’s passport. Golfers entering the U.S. under the ESTA cannot be admitted for more than 90 days and they are not permitted to request extensions while in the U.S. If they will require more than 90 days in the U.S., they must leave the U.S. and travel to a foreign country, other than Mexico, Canada or the Caribbean islands, and then re-enter in order to obtain another 90 day period.
Players travelling into the U.S. under the ESTA program must apply for travel clearance at the specially-designated Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”) website noted above. All travelers using the Visa Waiver Program must enter their biographical data into the ESTA website and receive a special document which they must print out and present to the airline and U.S. immigration officials to be able to enter the U.S. Visa Waiver travelers are encouraged to apply for clearance through ESTA well in advance of their intended departure date. ESTA approvals are generally granted for two years or until the applicant’s passport expires, whichever is sooner.
The P-1 non-immigrant visa is available to golfers who qualify as “internationally recognized athletes.” Normally, any golfer who is eligible to compete in a U.S. professional tour can qualify to meet this standard if he has a record of accomplishments as an amateur or professional in the U.S. or abroad. The regulations require the golfer to show he or she can meet at least two of seven criteria, among which include evidence of participation in a prior season with a U.S. university; evidence the golfer has received a significant honor in the sport; evidence the golfer is ranked, and; a statement from the media or another expert in the sport.
The regulations also have a strange provision that requires the events in which the golfer competes to require internationally recognized athletes. In spite of the fact that leading experts in the field of sports law and sports management have confirmed that no sport has such a requirement, USCIS takes the position that any tour below the Web.com or Symetra Tours does not meet this standard. Therefore, it is now all but impossible to obtain a P-1 visa without standing on those tours.
The advantage of a P-1 visa over a B-1 visa is the fact that the P-1 visa is approved for a period of 5 years and can be extended an additional 5 years. An individual entering the U.S. will be admitted for a period ending on the expiration date of the five-year visa.
To obtain a P-1 visa, the golfer would arrange for the tour (or agent in some cases) to sign the necessary paperwork and file the P-1 non-immigrant visa petition with the USCIS with supporting evidence that confirms the golfer’s past accomplishments. Where the golfer has paid the USCIS a $1,225 “premium processing” fee, the P-1 visa petition is normally approved within 15 days. If the “premium processing” fee is not paid, it can take up to 3 months for the petition to be approved, although timing varies. Upon approval of the petition, the USCIS will issue a Notice of Action which the golfer can present to the U.S. Consulate with the non-immigrant visa application, passport and photo. The visa is normally issued by the Consulate within 1-14 days. Once issued, the P-1 visa can be used for up to five years to enter the U.S. As noted above, it can then be extended for an additional five-year period.
*Steven M. Ladik is past President of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and represents numerous professional golfers on the LPGA Tour and PGA TOUR. He also serves as the outside Immigration Counsel to the National Football League. He is a Partner at Seltzer Chadwick Soefje & Ladik, PLLC. www.realclearcounsel.com