Money Smart Athlete Blog

Athletes living and playing across borders – Immigration Pitfalls

Nov 27, 2019 | Economic Environment

By Andreas Themistocleous, Contributor

With rising globalization and professionalization within sports, athletes are increasingly migrating across national borders to take up work. Depending on the sport of choice, migration destinations usually involve two continents, North America and Europe, for which the article will concentrate.

Aside from the talent of any sports star, there are various aspects one must consider when trying to attract a non-American citizen to join an American-based sports league or team. Take for example the case of Sebastian Schweinsteiger, the German international soccer player, who played for the Chicago Fire in the MLS for several years. Soccer is a sport that is most popular in Europe, so the journey from Europe to the USA would best fit the case of a basketball or hockey player instead. However, Schweinsteiger agreed with the Chicago Fire to transfer in, during the 2017 campaign and had to address and conform to a series of legal ramifications, including those of migration laws.

There are many legal issues that an immigrant worker must learn before being successfully employed in the United States, such as the Immigration Act of 1990. In the post 9-11 state of affairs in the USA and the need for stronger control and tighter security, governmental scrutiny in the USA has reached new heights. Athlete-workers transitioning to the USA do not necessarily have to worry about job security, holidays, vacation pay, promotions, age discrimination, or even the gender pay gap, areas of concern for typical workers. Instead they have to concentrate on their legal status in the country, the status of their spouse and their children also.

One of the main components of the USA Immigration Act, reference to athletes, is that they must be specifically allocated the “O” or “P” category of immigrant worker. According to the USA Citizenship and Immigration Services, the “O” category is for workers with extraordinary abilities and the “P” category is for athletes and entertainers. Any athlete must conform to an additional set of requirements in order to be eligible for these category designations. For both the “O” and “P” categories, aside from the extraordinary abilities the athlete possesses, he/she must be a temporary worker only visiting for the sole purpose of performing. In addition, he/she must be uniquely qualified for the position and must have a foreign home that does not intend on abandoning; in other words, the athlete will return to his/her country of origin or residence, upon having finished performing in sports.

Athletes could potentially fit into either category. They are uniquely qualified as workers, in the sense that they possess a special talent that can improve the team that’s recruiting them. The “O” category designation is more geared to specialized workers in the arts and sciences; however, the US government created the “P” category to specifically refer to athletes. So, when it comes to the legal issues surrounding whether or not athletes are legally allowed to come to the United States and play in professional sports leagues, the government has developed immigration laws to allow this to occur. However, the laws do not provide that these gifted persons should be favored over ordinary immigrants seeking entry into the United States. Another legal aspect of recruiting a foreigner to play professional sports in the United States involves child labor laws. The United Sates classifies anyone under the age of 18 as a child and oftentimes athletes recruited are under the age of 18. Additional legal and child labor factors are raised when the child-athlete needs to sign a professional contract, or needs to abide to the rules in reference to hours worked per week, but we will not discuss these cases in this article.

Additionally, there are extenuating circumstances that bring athletes into the U.S. immigration and sports spotlight, such as the case of athletes who seek a political asylum through sports participation, athletes that want to compete in NCAA-sanctioned sports, or athletes wishing to represent the US, in the Olympics or other international competitions. To do just that, athletes must have at least five years of residency in the United States, or just three years if they are married to an American citizen. Foreign athletes wishing to compete in the NCAA must satisfy all the collegiate rules and regulations (academic eligibility, sporting eligibility, amateur status etc.), in addition to being granted an F-1 student visa for the duration of their studies.  

When it comes to transitioning to Europe to play professional sports, things are a lot different and a bit easier to say the honest truth. Foreign athletes must satisfy the Visa regulations that each European country has adopted, based on the 2010 EU handbook on processing Visa applications within the European Union, which are not as strict as those in the United States. However, athletes entering the European market have to deal with sport regulations and the subsequent sports work permits, enacted under the 2007 European Union’s “White Paper for Sport” and the EU acquis (which regulates heavily in favor of EU athletes) as well as guidelines of national federations, in relation to the participation of non-EU athletes in any given sport. Take the Premier League for example, which is perhaps the strongest league in Europe in terms of power rankings, but also regulations. A foreign player wishing to play for the Premier League must satisfy all governmental regulations for entry to the country, but will not be granted a work permit, hence will not be also granted a Visa for entry to the country with the intend to reside, unless he has satisfied specific criteria set by the Premier League in terms of international appearances for his/her country in international competitions in the previous years. This rule was instigated to secure the quality of transfers basically, as well as to facilitate the number of non-EU players allowed on each team, something that is highly common in each EU-based national football association. It is highly common in most European countries, for the national sport associations to allow only a specific number of foreigners to be placed on a team roster, only 20-30% of which can be non-EU nationals.

Given that these regulations differ from country to country and also given the fact that athletes can only spare a limited time from their daily regiment to deal with this sort of procedures, it’s highly recommended that athletes seek professional advice and guidance. It’s very important to safeguard an athlete’s future from legal problems and pitfalls and allow the athlete to concentrate on sporting performance and excellence. It’s perhaps even more important for athletes with families, to ensure that the legal status of their families and children in a foreign country are safeguarded, which offers peace of mind and proper psychological support.


Andreas T. Themistocleous (BSc, MA, MBA) is a native of Famagusta, Cyprus. He is a former basketball player, a NCAA Division I student-athlete and now a sports management/business professional. He has served in the sport industry from several positions, most notably in club football management, as a Board member of sport federations and as lecturer in academia. He is currently in the sports services industry. To connect and network with Andreas, you may find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.