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O-1 Visa, Explained

Understand the requirements, cost, timeline, and application process for the O-1 visa type

What is an O-1 visa?

The O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa for individuals and entrepreneurs with extraordinary abilities in science, business, art, education, athletics, or the motion picture and television industry. The O-1 visa has several advantages compared to the H-1B visa:

  • Unlimited extensions: The O-1 visa type can be renewed indefinitely (in one-year increments) as long as the beneficiary continues to qualify.
  • Work flexibility: O-1 visa holders can work for multiple employers or themselves concurrently.
  • No annual lottery or registration period: There are no specific deadlines or lottery systems involved with the O-1 application process.

O-1 visa subcategories

O-1A: Individuals with extraordinary ability in business, science, education, or athletics. Jobs that illustrate those who qualify for an O-1A are entrepreneurs, highly acclaimed professors and researchers, computer scientists, CEOs, medical specialists, and data scientists, to name a few.

O-1B: Individuals with extraordinary ability in the arts or major achievements in TV, motion picture, or film industry. Some examples of people or roles that might qualify for an O-1B are, award-winning directors, acclaimed actors, culinary innovators, influential fashion designers, critically recognized dancers and choreographers, and renowned visual artists.

O-1 visa requirements

The O-1 visa celebrates exceptional talent across many fields. However, the evidence required to demonstrate “extraordinary ability” differs depending on your area of expertise. Whether you are a pioneering scientist making groundbreaking discoveries, an elite athlete shattering records, an entrepreneurial visionary bringing innovative ideas to life, or a renowned artist captivating audiences worldwide, it’s important to understand the unique requirements for qualifying for the O-1 visa in your particular field. With a clear understanding of the specific criteria for your profession, you can create a stronger application that properly highlights your remarkable skills and accomplishments.


Business and entrepreneurship (O-1A)

  • Evidence of significant business accomplishments (e.g., leading start-up to major funding rounds, high-revenue generation, rapid company growth, successful IPO, or successful acquisition by a major company).
  • Awards or recognition for business acumen (e.g., industry awards, entrepreneurship awards, being named to prestigious lists like “30 under 30” or “Top Entrepreneurs”).
  • Membership in exclusive entrepreneur-focused organizations.
  • Published work or media coverage highlighting unique business strategies or innovations.
  • Invitations to speak at major industry conferences or events as a recognized expert in the field.
  • Serving in a critical leadership role (e.g., CEO, CTO) at a notable company.

Self-Petitioning for Entrepreneurs

Technically, you can’t sponsor yourself for an O-1, but you can potentially use your own company as the sponsor for your petition. It’s not a straightforward process, but securing an O-1 to run your company in the U.S. is possible.

The key to a successful O-1 petition is showcasing your unique and extraordinary skills and abilities. You’ll need to provide solid evidence that you have a track record of exceptional achievement in your field. Additionally, you must demonstrate that there is a qualifying U.S. company or a confirmed series of events that will allow you to put your talents to use.

Note that you can’t just say that you hope to find work or start a business once you arrive in the U.S., You need to provide evidence of specific employment or confirmed events in which you will be participating.

For entrepreneurs and founders, this means showing that your company has real, non-speculative work available. This could include contracts with clients, a detailed business plan, or a schedule of upcoming product launches or business events.

Presenting this evidence correctly can be tricky. However, with careful planning and documentation, founders and entrepreneurs can secure an O-1 visa to work on their own companies in the U.S. Sign up for our consultation quiz to see if you might qualify.


Science, education, and athletics (O-1A)

sciences

  • Prestigious prizes or awards for scientific excellence (e.g., Nobel Prize, Fields Medal, or other internationally or nationally recognized awards).
  • Authorship of groundbreaking research publications in top-tier, peer-reviewed journals.
  • Significant contributions that have made a notable impact on the advancement of the field.
  • Holding patents for original scientific innovations or inventions.
  • Invitations to present research at prestigious conferences or symposia as a recognized expert.
  • Membership in exclusive scientific organizations or academies that require outstanding achievements for induction.

Education

  • Demonstrable evidence of exceptional teaching ability, such as consistently high student evaluations, teaching awards, or innovative teaching methods.
  • Significant research contributions and impact within the educational field, as evidenced by publications, grants, or citations.
  • National or international recognition for excellence in teaching or research, such as awards or media coverage.
  • Membership in prestigious organizations that require outstanding educational achievements for admission.
  • Invitations to speak at major educational conferences or events as a recognized expert in the field.

Athletics

  • Participation and notable success at the highest levels of competition (e.g., winning Olympic medals, World Championship titles, or setting world records).
  • Receipt of internationally recognized awards or accolades in the sport, such as being named “Athlete of the Year” or inducted into a sports hall of fame.
  • Documentation of significant contributions to the field of athletics, such as developing new training techniques or equipment innovations.
  • Membership in exclusive athletic organizations or teams that require outstanding performance for inclusion.
  • Serving in a critical role, such as team captain or coach, for a highly successful team or organization.

Arts, Motion picture, Television (O-1B)

arts

  • Major awards of critical recognition (not limited to the US).
  • Leading roles or critical positions in productions/events with distinguished reputations.
  • Published praise and reviews of work by critics or experts.
  • Commercial success in the field.
  • High salary compared to others in the field.

motion picture, Television (MPTV)

  • Major awards (e.g., Academy Award, Emmy) or nominations.
  • Critical or lead roles in distinguished productions.
  • Evidence of commercial success relating to the beneficiary’s work.
  • Documentation from critics, experts, or industry leaders recognizing achievements.

Resolving ambiguities

If the standard criteria don’t neatly apply to your field, you can petition with evidence demonstrating comparable levels of achievement and recognition.

Consultations through peer groups, unions, or labor organizations in your field provide additional support to bolster your O-1 visa application.


O-1 Visa Processing Time

As of February 2024, if you’re applying for an O-1 visa, your I-129 petition will take around 2.5 months if you file it with the California Service Center. However, if you choose to file with the Vermont Service Center instead, you may be in luck—current processing times there are about five weeks, which is a bit faster.

Remember that these processing times are not set in stone and can fluctuate monthly, depending on the workload at each service center and other factors. Always double-check the direct filing addresses for Form I-129 on the USCIS website to ensure you’re sending your petition to the right place. They keep this information up-to-date, so it’s your best bet for accuracy.

If you’re in a rush and need your petition processed quickly, don’t forget about the Premium Processing option (Form I-907). It costs extra, but it guarantees that USCIS will respond to your petition within 15 days of receiving it. That can be a lifesaver if you’re on a tight timeline.

If you’ve filed your petition and it seems to be taking longer than the normal processing times, don’t hesitate to contact USCIS Customer Service for help. They can update you on your case status and assist with any issues that may have come up.

How long is an O-1 visa valid after it’s approved?

If granted an O-1 visa, you can typically expect it to be valid for up to three years. However, the specific length of your visa could vary based on the project or event you’ll be working on in the U.S.

If you need to stay in the U.S. longer than your initial visa allows, you can request extensions in one-year chunks. As long as you continue to meet the high standards of the O-1 visa category, there’s no limit to how many extensions you can get.

Be sure to pay attention to the end date on your I-94 card, which is what they staple to your passport when you enter the U.S. This will tell you how long you’re actually allowed to stay in the country.


Does the O-1 visa lead to a green card?

The O-1 visa won’t grant you a green card but it can be a valuable stepping stone on your journey toward permanent residence. Unlike some non-immigrant visas, the O-1 visa has “dual intent.” You can hold an O-1 visa and simultaneously apply for a green card through employment-based sponsorship or other eligible pathways.

Key Takeaway

  • The O-1 visa is like a temporary pass that lets you showcase your extraordinary skills in the U.S. for a specific period.
  • The green card, on the other hand, is your ticket to long-term residency in the U.S.

If your ultimate goal is to live and work in the U.S. permanently, the O-1 visa can be a great way to start your life in the States while you work on securing a green card through other avenues.


Cost

According to the USCIS instructions for Form I-129, the petitioner — usually the beneficiary’s employer — will need to pay a filing fee of $1055. Smaller employers and nonprofits pay $530. They can do this using a check or money order made out to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security”. Or, if they’re paying the fee using a USCIS lockbox, they can use a credit card, in which case they’ll need to fill out Form G-1450 (officially called “Authorization for Credit Card Transactions”).

If, for some reason, the beneficiary is asked to leave the United States prior to their official end date, the petitioner may be obligated to cover the cost of travel.


How to Apply For An O-1 Visa

A U.S. employer or agent (or a U.S. agent acting on behalf of a foreign employer) will need to file Form I-129. They should be sure to follow the instructions and present the required documents. To ensure a timely process, they should submit the form at least 45 days before the job begins. The petitioner will not, however, be able to file Form I-129 more than six months prior to the intended start date.

Required Documents

As outlined in the USCIS policy manual, the petitioner will need to provide, with Form I-129, an advisory letter written by an organization of peers — such as a labor union or management organization — attesting to the beneficiary’s extraordinary ability in the field. A single expert in the relevant field may also write the letter.

Important:

If the letter is written on stationary with an identifying watermark, the petitioner should be sure to send the original copy. Failure to show the actual watermark could result in a delayed process, as USCIS may need to send a request for evidence (RFE) to obtain the original marked copy.

The petitioner may bypass the advisory letter requirement if no peer organization exists, in which case USCIS would decide using only the evidence submitted with I-129. If the beneficiary has, within the past two years, entered the United States using an advisory letter, then the petitioner may submit a request to waive this requirement.

When submitting Form I-129, the petitioner must provide the employment contract — or a written account of the verbal agreement — securing the employer-employee relationship. They will also need to provide evidence that, throughout the requested period of time, the beneficiary will be working in a job in their “area of extraordinary ability.” This includes:

  • A description of the activities
  • Start and end dates for the activities in question
  • Copy of the itinerary for the events

Finally, the petitioner must prove the beneficiary’s extraordinary ability (as described in the previous section). Evidence might include either an award (or, in certain cases, a nomination) or three distinct types of proof, which we’ll discuss below.

Acceptable Evidence

The forms of acceptable evidence will vary depending on the particular situation. If the beneficiary is seeking an O-1A visa, they may submit 3 of the following:

  • Documents proving that the beneficiary is a part of a relevant organization requiring its members to have a record of outstanding achievement
  • Evidence showing the beneficiary has received a nationally or internationally recognized award in their field
  • Proof that the beneficiary has been employed by a highly-esteemed organization and that their role was significant or essential in some way
  • Documentary evidence of the beneficiary’s specific contributions to the field
  • Proof that the beneficiary has written professional or scholarly work published in trade publications, major media, or journals
  • Evidence that the beneficiary has been paid significant sums of money for performing duties in their field
  • Articles or other published work regarding the beneficiary’s particular influence on their field — must include author, date, and title of the published piece
  • Proof that the beneficiary has been on a panel of experts judging the work of others in their field

If the beneficiary is applying for an O-1B visa, they may use 3 of the following types of evidence:

  • Testimonial from other experts or agencies in the field attesting to the beneficiary’s reputation
  • Proof demonstrating that the beneficiary has a history of taking on “lead, starring, or critical” roles for highly reputed organizations
  • Proof — such as box office receipts, title, ratings, or published material — demonstrating the beneficiary’s “major commercial or critically acclaimed successes”
  • Documentary evidence — such as reviews, articles, or testimonials published in major publications — showing that the beneficiary has a national or international reputation for being extraordinary in their field
  • Evidence that the beneficiary has been paid large quantities of money to perform relevant services
  • Advertisements, reviews, publicity releases, endorsements, contracts, or publications showing that the beneficiary has participated (and will participate) as a star or leading figure in major “productions or events”

The petitioner may, in certain circumstances, submit “comparable” evidence. In this case, they would need to provide a written explanation as to why a particular criterion is insufficient, and they would need to explain why the alternative evidence is “comparable” to the criterion being replaced.

For a thorough breakdown of O-1 visa requirements, eligibility, and documentation, read Volume 2, Part M, Chapter 4 of the USCIS policy manual.

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O-Visa FAQs

No. If Form I-129 is approved, then the beneficiary will be granted an O-1 visa for the required amount of time (not to exceed 3 years). O-2 visa applicants will, however, need to apply for a visa after Form I-129 approval. Those seeking O-2 visas can find more information on the U.S. Department of State website.

USCIS will send a written notification to the petitioner explaining why the case was rejected. The notification should contain information about how to appeal (through the Administrative Appeals Office) and how to file a motion to reopen the case (through the USCIS office that processed the petition).

Note:

USCIS should not refuse a petition because they’ve found a permanent labor certification or employment-based visa application for the same beneficiary.

Yes. If the beneficiary would like to extend their stay, the employer (or agent) must file another petition (Form I-129), together with a copy of the arrival/departure record (Form I-94) and a written justification for the extension. The petitioner should include a description of the event or production named on the initial petition, and they should explain why an extension is needed for this event or production.

Yes. With an O3 visa, a spouse, or any children below the age of 21, can join the O-1 (or O2) beneficiary. They would follow the same limitations and time restrictions as the O-1 recipient, and while they are not permitted to work, they can attend school, either as a full-time or part-time student, while in the United States.

Yes, USCIS can revoke the visa for a number of reasons, including:

  • If the petitioner “ceases to exist”
  • If they formally apply to annul the petition
  • If the beneficiary quits or is fired from the position
  • If USCIS wrongfully approved the petition
  • If the petitioner violates the pertinent laws or regulations
  • If it comes to light that the initial petition was false in any way
  • If the petitioner breaches the terms and conditions of the petition

If USCIS finds reason to revoke the O-1 visa, they will likely send a Notice of Intent to Revoke (NOIR), which should state the reasons for revocation and the amount of time the petitioner has to contest the decision.

Applicant’s seeking an O-1 visa may also be eligible for the EB-2 work visa.