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Each of these visas has its own unique features, although all require that the foreign national be entering only temporarily, and solely for the purpose which the visa allows.
The P-1 non-immigrant visa is either for individual or group [team] athletes or group entertainers who meet certain criteria.
For athletes (P-1As), this means having achieved an “internationally recognized” level of performance.
For entertainers (P-1Bs), they must be an integral or essential part of an entertainment group which has been internationally recognized for being outstanding in its discipline (pop music, Shakespearean theatrical performance or folk dance to name a few examples) for a “sustained and substantial” period of time and the entertainer must have been a part of the group for at least a year in “sustained and substantial” way. There are certain other specific requirements for the groups of which entertainers are a part, dealing among other things with the length of time that the group has been together: at least one year, with at least 75% of the group as it now exists having been together for at least one year. As with the O-1, a petition can be filed by an “Agent” to work for multiple employers.
The P-2 non-immigrant visa is for an artist or entertainer (individually or part of a group), as part of a reciprocal exchange program. This feature – that an arrangement exists between the sponsoring organization and an organization in the foreign national’s home country for the exchange of artists or entertainers between the two countries – is the key distinguishing feature of the P-2.
The P-3 non-immigrant visa allows an artist or entertainer, whether as an individual or as a part of a group, to enter to perform, teach or coach a program which is culturally unique. While the artist or entertainer need not be part of a group as with the P-1 or part of a reciprocal exchange program as with the P-2, the requirement that the performance be culturally unique presents a difficult bar for many performers. Folk performers are well suited to the P-3 visa, although the P-3 is not intended exclusively for this type of artist or entertainer. P-4 visas are simply the derivative non-immigrant visas for spouses and children accompanying P-1, P-2, and P-3 visa holders.
While there is no separate category, a person who could be considered “highly skilled” and is essential to the performance of the primary P applicant can in some circumstances be admitted in the same category as that primary applicant – if this work can’t be performed by a US worker.
Technically, this isn’t explicitly permitted – the P non-immigrant visa is not a “dual intent” visa like the H-1B or L-1. The P visa holder must maintain an overseas residence which he or she does not intend to abandon while here. However, the regulations do state that having applied for permanent residence (though filing of a PERM labor certification or Immigrant Visa Petition) should not serve as a basis for denying admission to the US in P status.