If I go to the U.S. for a sports competition where I might win a prize, can I use a B-2 visa?

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Question:

I have a regular, full-time job as an architect. In my free-time I train for endurance athletic events, such as triathlons and marathons. I've been thinking about spending a few weeks in the United States to compete in some events there. The races all pay prize money, which ranges from $20 or $30 up to more than a $1,000. I've heard different things about visa requirements. Can I use a tourist visa for these races?

Answer:

Unfortunately, you cannot travel to the United States on a tourist visa and earn prize money in an athletic competition. Even though it appears that you do not earn a living from your sporting events, the "B-2 Visitor for Pleasure" (tourist visa) does not permit you to earn prize money. The only time an amateur entertainer or athlete may use a B-2 tourist visa is when it's for a social or charitable event or for a talent show, contest, or athletic event, and when the only payment is for reimbursement of incidental expenses.

There is a separate visa category, "B-1 Visitor for Business," that professional athletes and entertainers may use to participate in events in the U.S. and earn prize money. The key difference is that you must be a professional. Therefore, even if you don't earn a living from your hobby, if you can be classified as a professional within the sport or industry, you may qualify for a B-1 visa to participate in events in the U.S. and earn prize money.

Finally, keep in mind that the B-1 and B-2 visa categories are the same categories that apply under the Visa Waiver Program. The Visa Waiver Program allows persons from certain countries to travel to the U.S. as tourists (B-2) or business visitors (B-1) without first obtaining an actual visa stamp from the U.S. Consulate or Embassy in their home country. Visa Waiver travelers simply complete an online registration process (known as "ESTA") and then board the plane. The prize money limitation therefore applies to someone traveling on a Visa Waiver, just as it applies to someone with an actual tourist visa.

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