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The ultimate guide to the O-1 visa

Are a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who needs to do two-year research in America. Or maybe you’re a renowned film director, filming int the US? In either case, you’ll need an O-1 visa. Here is everything you need to know about the O-1 visa category.

Perhaps you are a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who needs to do two-year research in America. Or maybe you’re a renowned film director, and you need to shoot on location for your movie. In either case, you’ll need an O-1 visa.

This article talks about everything you need to know about the O-1 visa category, the ideal visa for highly skilled professionals.

What is the O-1 visa?

The O-1 visa is an employment-based, nonimmigrant visa category. This category is for individuals who pass the standards of being “extraordinary,” as set by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

O-1 visa subcategories

USCIS divides the O-1 visa into two subcategories with respect to the kind of work an applicant does:

  1. O-1A visas are for individuals who have a proven record of extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business or athletics.

  2. O-1B visas are for individuals with extraordinary ability in the field of arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry.

O-1 visa holders can also bring their family members and close associates with them under the O-2 visa or O-3 visa.

O-2 applicants must prove that their presence, abilities and experiences are vital to the work of the O-1 visa holder. O-3 visas is reserved for family members of O-1 or O-2 visa holders.

O-1 visa benefits

Extendable three-year validity

An O-1 visa allows individuals to stay in the U.S. for a maximum of three years. But this period can be extended without limit for one-year increments depending on the visa holder’s situation.

Flexible relationship with the green card

O-1 visa holders can apply for permanent residence (also known as a green card) in the U.S.

When it comes to other visa types, the USCIS may reject applications that show that the visa applicant may want indefinitely in the U.S. These applicants must typically show that they have a stable place of residence and ties to their home country as part of the application process. The O-1 visa does not have this requirement.

Privilege to bring family and support people

Even world-class athletes, directors and other extraordinary professionals need support crews. O-1 visa holders can bring people that will help them in their work-related activities and events in America. Both O-1 holders and their O-2 visa-holding support staff can bring their immediate family to the U.S. under the O-3 visa.

The relatively faster application process

Applying for an O-1 visa can take anywhere between two to six months, depending on a few factors such as to which USCIS branch you will file your application. Other visa categories, on the other hand, can take as long as a year.

The smaller volume of annual applications 

The number of O-1 applicants every year is lower than most visa categories, which is why USCIS does not have set a limit on the number of O-1 visas they issue annually.

That being said, the volume of applicants is increasing. The USCIS issued 13,865 O-1 visas during the 2015 fiscal year versus an increase from the 8,589 visas during the fiscal year 2010.

High approval rate

The USCIS approves around 80 to 95 percent of O-1 visa applicants each year but approval rates can vary depending based on which service center processes the application. If you are concerned about your application, consider contacting an immigration attorney.

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O-1 visa limitations

Despite the many benefits above, O-1 visas also face stricter regulations as compared to visas with fewer advantages.

Sponsorship requirement  

You must have a sponsor for your petition in order to apply for an O-1 visa. The USCIS does not allow foreign nationals to handle their own applications without an agent.  

However, while sponsorship is a limitation for O-1 visa applicants, the identity of the sponsor is less strict compared to other visa categories.

For example, O-1 visa applicants can have a sponsor that is not their U.S. employer. O-1 visa holders may also work in the U.S. under a contractual agreement rather than being limited to regular employment. They have the privilege not to have a committed link with a U.S. employer when applying for the visa.

Competitive eligibility

The bulk of the reason why only a small percentage of the population qualifies for an O-1 visa lies in its basic eligibility requirements. Being considered “extraordinary” is a feat only a few professionals achieve. Here are USCIS’ standards for extraordinary individuals.

Who is eligible for an O-1 visa?

People eligible for an O-1 visa must have “extraordinary” achievements or abilities. Their professional skills and experience must have resulted in national or international acclaim and their temporary move to the U.S. must be linked to performing work in their field of expertise.  

For O-1B applicants, people from the arts and the film and TV industries have different definitions of extraordinary ability than O-1A applicants. The arts community must consider them to be "renowned, leading or well-known" in the field of arts because of their extraordinary degree of skill.

Evidence of extraordinary abilities

A Nobel Prize, an Olympic medal, an Emmy, a Grammy or any major international award is usually enough to prove that you have extraordinary ability in your field. But if you don’t have such awards, you can fulfill at least three (3) of USCIS's list of evidentiary criteria for the O-1 visa:

O-1A evidentiary criteria

As an O-1A applicant, you must have documents that indicate that:

  • you have received nationally or internationally recognized awards or prizes due to excellence in your field of endeavor

  • you are a member of an association that require outstanding achievements in your field as determined by recognized national or international experts

  • you or your work have been featured in professional or major trade publications, major newspapers or magazines

  • you have contributed original scientific, scholarly or business-related works that have major significance in your field

  • you have authored scholarly articles that are published in professional journals or other major media in your field

  • you have a high salary or other payments that come from the services you give in your field (this must be proven by contracts or other reliable evidence)

  • you have participated on a panel as a judge of the work of others in your field

  • you have a critical role as an employee of an organization that has a distinguished reputation in your field

O-1B evidentiary criteria

As an O-1B applicant, you must have documents that indicate that:

  • you have performed and will perform as a lead or starring role in productions that have a distinguished reputation;

  • coming from critical reviews, advertisements and the like

  • you have achieved national or international recognition for achievements due to critical reviews and similar materials;

  • you have a record of major commercial or critically acclaimed successes indicated by the title, television ratings, box office receipts and the like;

  • you have received significant recognition for your achievements from experts, critics, government agencies and other recognized institutions or experts in the field; and

  • you have a high salary that came from your services in your field.

If these criteria do not readily apply to your job, you can submit comparable evidence instead. This option does not, however, apply for those in the motion picture or television industries.

Note that satisfying three or more of these criteria does not guarantee the approval of your O-1 visa application.

O-1 visa application process and requirements

Petition

The application process for the O-1 visa begins with filling up Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker. U.S. employees or agents file this document to the USCIS to reason out that the visa beneficiary is qualified for the O-1 visa according to the standards set by the government.

To ensure you receive your visa on time, file this form within a year before the actual work of the prospective visa beneficiary starts. To avoid further processing delays, file the petition at least 45 days before the first day of your employment.

Documentary evidence

The O-1 visa has strict rules on presenting evidence of your extraordinary achievement or ability according to the standards set by the USCIS. Along with the petition, the agent must submit documents that prove you have satisfied at least three of USCIS's list of evidentiary criteria for your extraordinary ability. These documents might include contracts, salary statements, certificates, membership files or similar materials.

Peer consultation

The consultation must be a written advisory opinion from a peer group or an expert in your field and is meant to prove that the community in your field of expertise recognizes your extraordinary ability or achievement.

If the individual is from the motion picture or television industry, the consultation must come from an appropriate labor union and a management organization with expertise in your field.

If the peer group or organization that wrote your consultation uses a watermark or other distinct signatures, make sure to submit the document with the original watermark. If you only send copies of the original document, you may encounter questions regarding the authenticity of your submission which may create delays in the application process.

Employment contract

You must provide a copy of any written contract between the petitioner and the beneficiary. In some cases, USCIS will accept an oral contract, as evidenced by emails between the contractual parties, a written summation of the terms of the agreement, or any other evidence which demonstrates that an oral agreement was created.

Itineraries

Finally, you must also show documentation of how your activities and events in the U.S. will take place. The itineraries requirement must contain an explanation of the nature of the events or activities, their start and end dates as well as a copy of any itinerary for the events or activities in question. What happens after approval (or rejection)?

After submitting all the requirements, expect to receive the following documents from the USCIS:

  • A written notice that they have received your Form I-129

  • A written notice of their decision regarding your case. There are three possible decisions:

Rejection

If the USCIS rejects your application, you can always apply again. Otherwise, you can seek the guidance of an immigration attorney to explore other alternative visa options. 

Needs more evidence

There are cases wherein you are neither rejected nor approved for an O-1 visa yet because the USCIS needs more documents about your case. In such situations, the USCIS will request more evidence, which would require you to submit new documents and wait a little longer.

Approval

If they approve your application, the next step depends on whether or not you are in America.

If you are currently in the U.S. under a different visa and you're just applying for an O-1, all you need is to apply for a change to O-1 status. On the other hand, if you petition for an O-1 visa from your home country, you would need to apply for a visa at your country's U.S. embassy or consulate.

The consular processing process starts with the submission of  Form DS-160 (Online Visa Processing Form). Submit this online to the Department of State Website. Next, you will have to set up an interview appointment with the embassy through the website as well.

Bring a printed copy of your DS-160 and other relevant documents to the interview. The talk would most likely last for only about 20 minutes. If it all goes well, expect to get your visa via mail in time.

Did you know?

You can use your international credit history to apply for a U.S. credit card without a Social Security Number

Credit history used to stop at the border—until now. Your existing international credit history could help you get credit in the United States. No SSN is required to start your credit history today.

Learn More

How long does the O-1 visa application process usually take?

The USCIS normally processes O-1 visa petitions within two to three months. This duration is relatively faster than with other visa categories, which can last for a year. The processing time largely depends on the business of the center where you filed your petition.

If you want to expedite your application process, apply for premium processing which can bring down the processing time to 15 calendar days. The USCIS will refund your payment for premium processing if they fail to process it within the agreed period.

How much does an O-1 visa application typically cost?

A regular O-1 visa application will typically cost approximately $700. Here is the breakdown of the common costs:

  • Form I-129 fee: $460

  • Expenses in obtaining evidentiary documents: costs, if there are any, may vary.

  • DS-160 fee: $190

  • If you decide to use premium processing, you’ll pay an additional $1,410.

If you choose to use an immigration attorney, your fee could range anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars depending on the lawyer’s skill level, experience in immigration law, and billing practices may also influence their rate.

If you need to extend your O-1 visa, you’ll have to file Form I-539, the Application to Change/Extend Nonimmigrant Status, for $370. If you have O-2 or O-3 companions, they’ll also need to file Form I-539.

Extending the O-1 visa's validity

Before extending your O-1 visa, you must meet the following qualifications:

  • you were legally admitted into the U.S. with a nonimmigrant visa

  • your nonimmigrant visa status is still valid

  • you have not committed any crimes that make you ineligible for a visa

  • you have not violated the conditions of your admission

  • your passport is valid and will remain valid for the duration of your stay

If you satisfy these qualifications, you must submit the following requirements to extend your visa's original three-year validity:

  • a new Form I-129 that justifies the need for you to extend your work in the United States

  • a statement explaining the reasons for the extension. In applying and extending an O-1 visa, your reasons should be work-related events or activities, so it’s important to know what the federal law considers as an “event.”

“Events” include, but are not limited to, scientific projects, conferences, conventions, lecture series, tours, exhibits and business projects. Such activities may include short vacations, promotional appearances, and stopovers which can be incidental or related to the event. A group of related activities may also be considered to be an event.

Note that submitting these documents does not guarantee an extension.

How early can you arrive and how late can you stay in the U.S.?

You can generally arrive at most ten days before the validity period of your visa starts. Similarly, you can only stay in the U.S. until the tenth day after your visa has expired.

Bringing support staff

O-1 visa holders can bring their team to the U.S. with them through the O-2 visa. These supporting individuals can be coaches and other training support people of a world-class athlete. They can even be a production crew.

To qualify for an O-2 visa, the applicant must satisfy these basic eligibility requirements:

  • O-2 applicants supporting individuals holding an O-1A or an O-1B in the arts, their assistance must be an "integral" part of the work or performance.

  • O-2 applicants in the motion picture or television industry must include in their petition that the film or production they will shoot in the U.S. has already started in the home country and that the continued participation of the O-2 applicant is still necessary for the production to properly end.

O-2 visa applicants must begin an I-129 separate from their O-1 visa applicant even though the two visas are linked. The petition must contain evidence that the O-2 applicant has critical skills and experience essential to the work of the O-1 beneficiary. It must also include information on the long-term experience that the O-2 applicant has worked for the O-1 beneficiary. The petition must also indicate that the O-2's skills and experience with the O-1 holder cannot be replaced by any U.S. worker.

Like the O-1 visa, O-2 applicants must also submit a peer consultation document from an appropriate labor organization. If the petitioner can demonstrate that there is no existing labor organization that can write the consultation, the USCIS will make its visa decision based on the rest of the documents.

Bringing family

Both O-1 and O-2 visa holders can bring family with them. These family members are limited to the spouse and unmarried children below 21 years old. They cannot work in the U.S., but they can engage in studies.

The takeaway 

The O-1 visa allows extraordinary individuals at the top of their fields to share their talent by temporarily working in the United States. While this visa has many advantages, the catch is it's strict eligibility standards. 

For more resources on how to navigate your new life in the U.S., visit Nova Credit’s resource library where you can learn about everything from renting an apartment to finding the best credit cards for noncitizens. 

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