The O-1 visa is available for aliens of extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, athletics, education or business. In practice, this includes nearly any field of endeavor: filmmakers, scientific researchers, musicians, and more. The O visa is an excellent option for highly talented individuals who are not eligible for other types of nonimmigrant visas. O visas are granted for the duration of an “event” (i.e. a grant, project, tour, etc.) and for an initial period of no longer than three years. Extensions for the O visa are unlimited, and usually granted in increments of 1 year at a time. Individuals must be sponsored for an O-1 visa; self-petitioning is not an option.
O-1 visas can be granted for a sole employer (e.g., a ballet dancer touring with New York City Ballet) or for an ‘agent’ who then books all events and tours for an artist (e.g., a manager that is responsible for booking performances and concerts for a professional opera singer). If your O-1 visa is specific to one employer and not through an agent, you are not allowed to accept freelance or contract work outside of your sponsoring employer. Spouses and children are allowed to accompany the primary visa holder as dependents in O-3 status.
O-2 visas are available to individuals who temporarily accompany O-1 visa holders to the U.S. solely to assist in the artistic or athletic performance, and who have critical skills and experience with the O-1 visa applicant.
O visas require a written advisory opinion from an appropriate institution describing the beneficiary’s ability and achievements in the field and duties to be performed, or simply not objecting to the petition. The O classification is not subject to a “cap” like H-1B visa classification is (requiring applying through a lottery system and an October 1 start date for for-profit petitioners) or a “prevailing wage” requirement, and those subject to the two-year foreign residence requirement are eligible for O-1 status.
Extraordinary ability for scientists, educators, business persons, or athletes is generally more rigorous than it is for artists (who fall into the O-1B category). USCIS determines extraordinary ability as the individual obtaining a one-time achievement at the caliber of an Olympic Medal or Nobel prize, or satisfying at least three of the following criteria:
- Receipt of lesser nationally and internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavor;
- Membership in associations in the field which require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by experts in the field;
- Published materials about the individual in professional or major trade publications, or appearance/published materials about the individual in other major media;
- Participation, either individually or as part of a panel, as a judge of the work of others in the field (including requests to serve as a reviewer/referee for articles to be published, invitations to serve on discussion and advisory panels, etc.);
- Original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic or business-related contributions of major significance in the field;
- Authorship of scholarly articles in the field, as published in professional or major trade publications or in other major media;
- Serving in a critical or essential capacity for organizations or establishments that have a distinguished reputation; and/or
- Commanding a high salary or other significantly high remuneration for services, as compared to others in the field.
The O visa classification also has a special provision for individuals in the arts, which carries a different set of criteria. For O-1B purposes, extraordinary ability is defined as “distinction” in the arts. As with O-1A, distinction can be shown through a one-time major achievement such as an Academy Award, Emmy, Director’s Guild Award, or evidence of at least three of the following:
- Performed or will perform services as a lead or starring participant in productions or events which have a distinguished reputation as evidenced by reviews, advertisements, publicity releases, publications, contracts, or endorsements;
- Performed or will perform in a lead, starring, or critical role for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation evidenced by articles in newspapers, trade journals, publications, or testimonials;
- Achieved national or international recognition for achievements, as shown by critical reviews or other published materials by or about you in major newspapers, trade journals, magazines, or other publications;
- A record of major commercial or critically acclaimed successes, as shown by such indicators of title, rating, or standing in the field, box office receipts, motion picture or television ratings and other occupational achievements reported in trade journals, major newspapers, or other publications;
- Received significant recognition for achievements from organizations, critics, government agencies or other recognized experts in the field in which you are engaged, with the testimonials clearly indicating the author’s authority, expertise, and knowledge of the alien’s achievements;
- A high salary or other substantial remuneration for services in relation to others in the field, as shown by contracts or other reliable evidence.
It is important to note that the O-1 visa category requires that the individual has already obtained recognition and prominence in their field of endeavor and can be currently classified as ‘extraordinary’ by USCIS standards. Although many individuals have the potential to rise to this level of distinction, the criteria is clear that the individual must already be performing or working at this level.
The requisite advisory opinion and recommendation letters from peers and other renowned individuals in your field make up a substantial portion of the O-1 petition, but please note that any such letters should be written under the advisement of an immigration attorney, as many do not contain the necessary elements required by USCIS to meet the criteria.
Our office has successfully represented individuals from a wide variety of occupations for O-1 visa classifications, including horse breeders and trainers, renowned chefs, individuals of renown in sustainable business practices, qui gong masters, outstanding scientists in technological specialties and more. If you believe that you may qualify for an O-1 visa, please contact our office for a consultation to determine your eligibility.
In addition, individuals who successfully petition for O-1 status are frequently (but not unconditionally) eligible to apply for permanent residence through the EB-1 category.