The O-1 Visa: What Do You Need to Know?

Have you ever dreamed of living in the United States—if only temporarily? Do you have industry contacts who want to hire you because you stand out from the rest of the crowd in your field?

Perhaps you represent creative professionals in the arts, design, film, music or entertainment in need of legal and government resources. Or maybe you are an HR specialist in science or higher education hoping to attract more qualified international professionals to teaching or research positions in need of exceptional applicants.

If any of the above scenarios apply to you, read on to learn more about what it takes to apply and qualify for an O-1 visa!

Table of Contents:


What Is the O-1? What about O-1A Vs O-1B?

The O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa designed for people with “extraordinary ability.”

The O-1A is reserved for exceptional individuals in the sciences, education, business, or athletics, and the O-1B is designed for creative individuals who have distinguished themselves in the arts—including the music, film, literary, and television industries.         

Also, applicants must first secure the sponsorship of an employer extending an offer of employment. In other words, O-1 visas are dependent upon an offer of employment or an entrepreneurial venture that is already well-established.

Do I Qualify? What Does “Extraordinary” Mean?

“Extraordinary ability” is defined as ‘distinction in  your profession’. It’s important to note that many applicants may not be recognized outside their home country, but they usually have substantial name-recognition among other creative professionals where they live.

The list of criteria is long for both O-1A and O-1B, but if applicants have NOT won a significant national or international award like the Nobel Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, or an Academy Award, they must have documented evidence of at least three of the following recognitions:

  • A pending or previously-earned high salary
  • Employment (in an essential capacity) for organizations or productions with distinguished reputations
  • Scholarly articles published in professional industry journals or major media
  • Original contributions of major significance in one’s field
  • Participation in a panel or as an individual judge of others’ professional work
  • Nationally or internationally recognized awards or prizes for excellence in one’s field
  • Membership in professional associations requiring outstanding achievements

How Long Does the Application Take?

Interested applicants should file Form I-129 and a completed file with all documentation including the petition.  Petitions may not be filed more than one year before employment is scheduled to begin; and the average application time, from start to finish, is six months.

However, it is possible to speed up the process via the Form I-907 (more on this in the “Forms & Documentation” section, below).

How Long Will My O1 Visa Last? (How Do I Maintain My Status?)

Initially, O-1 status can be granted for upto three years. After those three years are up, it’s possible to seek yearly extensions with no statutory limits to the total amount of time spent in the U.S. in O-1 status—though every case is unique.

As long as you have a sponsor and employment in the U.S., you may be eligible for an extension. Keeping your documentation up to date will allow you to maintain your status via applying for extensions every year, assuming circumstances remain the same.

Can I Bring My Family?

Yes. Spouses and children under the age of 21 may be eligible to apply for an O-3 visa under the same admission period and guidelines as O-1/O-2 nonimmigrants. Though dependents are not cleared to work in the U.S. with an O-3 classification, they can engage in part or full-time academic study.

Can I Bring Support Staff or Assistants?

Yes, people accompanying an O-1 beneficiary may apply for an O-2 visa if their assistance will be an “integral part” of the activity of the O-1 beneficiary.

For O-1B artist visas, for example, the help of O-2 assistants must be considered “essential” to the success of the O-1B’s production or assignment.

Can I Travel with my O-1 Visa? (Domestically and Internationally, Canada/Mexico)

Yes! The O-1 visa is a multiple-entry visa, so you can come and go between the U.S. and other countries as much as you want, while your visa is valid.

Just be sure to keep your passport and all supporting documents current and on your person, while traveling. Also, make sure the schedule or dates in your contract(s) allow for periods of travel, when you apply.

Why Is the O-1 Visa So Special?

You must demonstrate outstanding performance and distinction in your field or industry. The O-1 also allows for unlimited travel, and there is no quota limit to how many people are allowed to secure one—unlike the application process for an H1B visa, which is more akin to a competitive lottery. The O-1 visa is also unique in that it can be renewed indefinitely, depending on individual circumstances.

Sponsors will sometimes help pay for the visa and other associated expenses in order to secure an applicant—as is sometimes the case with colleges and universities interested in hiring internationally-renowned faculty members, or with agencies or businesses bringing over artists, actors, producers, musicians, designers or other creative professionals. However, the O-1 visa doesn’t necessarily require a college degree (unlike the H-1B).   The cost of the O-1B visa can be paid by the applicant or the employer, and there can be situations with no employer fees involved——makes it unique, as well.  Additionally, an applicant can apply at any time of the year, because there is no quota or cut-off date.

How Does the O-1 Affect My Compensation?

Possession of an O-1 visa should not affect employer compensation. However, there are fees associated with some of the required forms.

For example, the current filing fee for the I-129 is $460 (up from the previous amount of $325). Since that form is usually filed by an employer, they may choose to take it out of the employee’s compensation (a decision that would be made at the employer’s discretion), or the employee may provide the necessary funds.

There are also any applicable legal fees, should you choose to seek legal counsel—a decision that can help greatly speed up the application process—as well as optional premium-processing fees, if you need faster approval.

What Forms and Documentation Will I Need to Obtain an O-1?

You will require several pieces of documentation in addition to the government forms below to obtain an O-1 visa.  This depends on your profession, your background, and the strategy you and your lawyer discuss to establish your eligibility.  In addition, you will also need the following government forms:

Optional:

  • Form I-907 (additional fee; form for expedited 15-day “premium processing service”)

Support documents for the O-1 visa include a full itinerary with dates of service, names and contact information for prospective employers, and the names and addresses of any applicable venues or locations of employment. Applicants should also include employer contracts and an explanation of the individual terms and conditions, as provided by a U.S. consulate or embassy—upon applying for the visa.   In addition, several other documents are required to have a successful case that should be discussed with your counsel/lawyer.

If at all possible, it is very helpful to include all prospective employers and contracts in the initial application, or each additional employer/sponsor may have to file a new Form I-129 if the initial application is not properly structured.

Once your application has been submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and if you are approved, you will go to the nearest U.S. consulate to obtain your stamp if you are abroad.  You can find the appropriate embassy location here, based on your prospective assignment location. If you are in the U.S. when you apply, be sure to obtain your I-94 admission record (see updates here) online prior to applying, as well as your I-797 Approval Notice after you are approved so you can obtain a Social Security Number.  You will also need to fill out a DS-160 form before your U.S. Embassy or Consulate appointment (DS-160 FAQ).

What If I Need to Change Sponsors? Do I Have to Leave?

If you need to change sponsors, your new employer must file a petition for the sponsorship change and send it in to USCIS. However, if you know the contact information for your various sponsors ahead of time, you should include them all in the initial application.

You won’t have to leave the United States between sponsorships if you time the filing of the new petition correctly. Of course, it’s always best to allow for more time—say, between two and six months—in the event of delays.

Can You Provide a List of Sample Professions for Both O-1A and O-1B?             

O-1A titles include the following:

  • Scientist
  • Researcher
  • Web Programmer
  • Data Analyst
  • Educator
  • Professor
  • Entrepreneur
  • Business associate
  • Athlete
  • Doctor
  • Accountant
  • Engineer

For O-1B or “artist visas,” professions include the following:

  • Visual Artist
  • Musician
  • Actor
  • Dancer
  • Writer
  • Make-Up Artist
  • Chef
  • Stylist
  • Audio Engineer
  • Film Director
  • Graphic Designer
  • Tattoo Artists
  • Sound Engineers
  • 3D Designers
  • Producers
  • Photographers

Can You Point to Specific Examples of Real-Life Beneficiaries of O-1 Visas?

Everyone certainly knows a famous Canadian beneficiary, Justin Bieber, is popular in both the United States and internationally—due in part to the all-powerful reach of the Los Angeles music and entertainment industry.  However, due to the different strategies many other people in music and entertainment who have not won any awards have received the O-1 visa by meeting the requirements.

The Atlantic Monthly provides another example in the form of a Dutch actress currently living in Hollywood who was frustrated by the lack of available acting roles in Holland, so she applied for an O-1 visa after securing an agent willing to sponsor her while she’s living here in the States.

A large variety of other real-life examples are readily accessible online, if you’re in search of individuals you can look toward for inspiration or more concrete examples of the kinds of exceptional talent required for the O-1:

As you can see, these professionals all have substantial online portfolios with examples of their work and recommendations of their talents and abilities by others in their respective industries.

What Are Some Common Alternative Tracks to Obtaining an O-1 Visa?

There are numerous examples of tech industry entrepreneurs and founders of startups who have raised venture capital and wish to apply for an O-1 visa in order to conduct business proceedings in person, rather than remotely.

On occasion, the recipient of an Optional Practical Training (OPT) permit in conjunction with an F-1 student visa can transition to an O-1 visa, but this is more common at the graduate school level, simply due to the stringent requirements of the O-1.”

Contact Sky Law USA, regardless, for more guidance or to answer any further questions you may have on other types of work visas.

How Do I Get Started?

What plans do you have for living and working in the United States? Are you excited about the prospect of travelling and adding to your international portfolio?

When it comes to the legal details of working in the United States as a foreign-born professional, it is in your best interest to work closely with an attorney or law firm that can represent you. An experienced firm that specializes in visa-related law can help you efficiently navigate the system and obtain all the necessary representation, paperwork, and documentation. For sponsors of O-1 beneficiaries, it can be helpful to know there is legal guidance available to those to need it, as well.

If you have any questions about the O-1 visa or would like to get the application process off the ground, please don’t hesitate to contact Sky Law USA for more information!

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