No matter how much potential a foreign prospect might be, they still have to obtain legal entry into the United States. In order to live and work in the United States, and particularly for an NBA team that signs them to a contract. The type of visa required to remain and play in the United States, is a P-1 visa (or in extraordinary cases, an O-1 visa).
As opposed to the more common tourist visas we use when we travel, ESTA travel authorizations or H-1B work visas, the visa professional athletes looking to live and work in the USA is the P-1 visa.
That’s because the only requirements for this visa are that the athlete establish that they are internationally recognized and is coming to the United States for the purpose of participating in a league or event with a distinguished reputation.
From the uscic.gov website: You must be coming to the United States to participate in individual event, competition or performance in which you are internationally recognized with a high level of achievement; evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered so that the achievement is renowned, leading or well known in more than one country.
Professional athletes already under contract with any of the major U.S. leagues need only show that they have an NBA, MLB, NFL, NHL and Major League Soccer contract to qualify for the P-1 visa. Documentation needed include a copy of the contract, written consultation from labor organization, written explantion, and documentation of evidence.
The standard timeframe that a P-1 visa is issued for is five years, and it can be extended to 10 years. Although you do not hear about immigration issues as much with the NBA as you might with MLB and the NHL (likely due to volume), as the NBA has gone increasingly international with the makeup of the players on their teams, it has become more important for teams to help their prospects with the immigration process in the United States which can be daunting for even the best resourced person.
Not just that, it goes both ways as a continually growing number of NBA players and NCAA prospects are in every professional basketball league in the world. It’s an international game that requires movement over borders.
Not just in Western Europe, but up and down Eastern Europe, leagues throughout South America, the Philippines, Turkey, Japan, Lebanon, China, Russia and Taiwan (as Quincy Davis shows off his fresh Taiwanese passport/id).
How Do Players Apply for the Visa?
Similar to technology companies and other businesses looking for overseas expertise, NBA teams will sponsor the player as part of the visa application process. At the start of the 2014 regular season in the NBA, there were a total of 101 players that were born outside of the United States.
Proportionally, this is a much higher rate than MLB which had 224 players for the same season (MLB rosters are much larger than NBA ones). Each team will have to assist the player with the work visa process which limits the player to only their team-related activities for making money.
Do Foreign-born Players become American Residents?
Most of the time, the best answer for a foreign-born NBA player is to apply for American residency as soon as they can. Not only does this help the player earn additional income from non-NBA related business matters, but it also makes travel into and out of the United State much easier on the player (and the team). When you add in the trips to Canada to play the Raptors, not being a resident can make travel at times difficult depending on the manner the team is traveling abroad.
There can be surprises that arise when applying for a visa or permanent resident status, as the system will hold up approval if there are minor criminal or immigration violations in the player’s past. Most athletes will end up building up significant personal assets and raising their families in the United States, so looking forward to retirement which can come quickly, taking a strategic plan to their immigration status can pay big dividends in the event of a career ending injury.