• February 2020
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What Is An O-1 Visa?

According to the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for individuals who possess “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” 

In the simplest terms, it’s a visa reserved for those who can demonstrate that they have exceptional talents that they can put to work in the United States. 
According to the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for individuals who possess “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.” 

In the simplest terms, it’s a visa reserved for those who can demonstrate that they have exceptional talents that they can put to work in the United States. 

The O-1 is a special type of visa that’s a bit more complicated to get than other temporary work visas. You’ll need to undergo the typical visa application process along with completing a few extra steps that prove your ability in your chosen field. This will mean providing additional documentation on top of the paperwork that is required of all visa applicants. 

If you’re unfamiliar with immigration in the U.S., read the content on this page in full. We’ll walk you through the immigration process in detail and give you tips on how to speed things along:

In this guide, we’ll be focusing primarily on the O-1 visa: What it is, who can get one, what you have to do to prove your credentials, and who you can bring with you.

Of course, we’ll also review other visas to help you understand your options, and we’ll provide general information on immigration policy in the United States. We’ll even offer some tips on how to find an immigration lawyer and other things to consider before starting the application process.

It’s a lot to take in, but don’t worry! Even if the O-1 isn’t for you, you may qualify for one of the other options we review. The best way to increase your odds of success is to arm yourself with knowledge, prepare the necessary documentation, and learn everything required for a successful immigration application. 

What documents you’ll need to collect
Which procedures to follow to guarantee speedy processing
Whom to contact during your application
What to do if you encounter problems

Getting an O-1 Visa

If an O-1 visa, or another O-type nonimmigration visa, is the one you need to enter the United States for work purposes, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the visa to insure that there are no surprises during your application process. Are there restrictions that might prevent you from applying and being approved? What paperwork should you complete and compile before applying? Can anything be done if you’re found inadmissible? We hope this guide is helpful to help you feel confident and comfortable applying for an O-1 visa.
Here’s what you need to know about
applying for an O-type visa: 

— Do You Qualify for an O-Type Visa?

The first thing is to determine which O-type visa is the right one for you. O-type visas are broken into three categories—the O-1 visa, the O-2 visa, and the O-3 visa—and while each serves a different category of applicant, they all tie back to the O-1 visa in some way. Additionally, an O-1 visa applicant can apply for either an O-1A visa or an O-1B visa, both of which are explained in further detail below.

O-1 Visas Explained:

According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements. O-1 visa applicants apply in order to work in the United States for a pre-determined period of time (a three-year visit is the visa maximum allowed, but applicants can apply for a one-year extension). During this time, O-1 visa holders may concurrently pursue permanent residence or apply for an immigration visa.
It’s important to understand that O-1 visas, whether an O-1A or O-1B, are designated for individuals who possess extraordinary talent and wish to come to the United States to use that talent for work purposes. You’ll need to apply for a different O-type visa if you are support staff or family to an O-1 visa applicant and want to accompany that person during his/her visit to the United States.

An O-1 visa applicant fits into one of two categories:

O-1A visa applicants:
Individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics.
O-1B visa applicants:
Individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry.

O-2 and O-3 Visas

Often, O-1 visa applicants travel with assistants, trainers, coaches, and other essential personnel who help in some capacity. Many O-1 visa applicants also travel with their family. These assistants and family members will need a visa to enter and work in the United States, and other O-type visas extend to cover these types of applicants.

An O-1 visa applicant fits into one
of two categories:

O-2 visa applicants:

Individuals who will accompany an O-1 artist or athlete to assist in a specific event or performance.
For an O-1A applicant:

The O-2 visa applicant’s assistance must be deemed an “integral part” of the O-1 applicant’s activities.
For an O-1B applicant:

The O-2 visa applicant’s assistance must be deemed “essential” to the completion of the O-1 applicant’s production.
An O-2 visa applicant:

Must possess critical skills and experience with the O-1 applicant that cannot be readily performed by a U.S. citizen worker.
O-3 visa applicants:

individuals who are the spouse or children of an O-1 or O-2 applicant.
Individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry.

O-1 Visa Application Standards & Qualifications

To qualify for an O-1A visa, applicants must demonstrate either a one-time achievement at the caliber of an Olympic Medal or Nobel prize or provide sufficient evidence that they meet three of the following USCIS-defined criteria on the right,
Have received national or international awards or prizes of excellence in their field
Are members in associations that require outstanding achievements, as judged by recognized national or international experts in the field
Have had published material in professional or major trade publications, newspapers, or other major media that recognize them or their work in the field for which classification is sought
Have made original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field
Have authored scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media in the field for which classification is sought
Are paid a high salary or other remuneration for services as evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence
Participate on a panel, or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or in a field of specialization allied to that field for which classification is sought
Are employed or have been employed in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation

O-1B Visa

To qualify for an O-1B visa,  applicants must receive a one-time major achievement such as an Academy Award, Emmy, or Director’s Guild Award, or provide sufficient evidence that they meet three of the following USCIS-defined criteria on the right.
Performed and will perform services as a lead or starring participant in productions or events that have a distinguished reputation as evidenced by critical reviews, advertisements, publicity releases, publications, contracts or endorsements
Achieved national or international recognition for achievements, as shown by critical reviews or other published materials by or about the beneficiary in major newspapers, trade journals, magazines, or other publications
Performed and will perform in a lead, starring, or critical role for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation as evidenced by articles in newspapers, trade journals, publications, or testimonials
Have evidence of major commercial or critically acclaimed successes, as shown by indicators such as 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 the beneficiary is engaged, with the testimonials clearly indicating the author’s authority, expertise, and knowledge of the beneficiary’s achievements.
If the above standards and qualifications are not met or do not readily apply to the applicant’s occupation, the petitioner may submit comparable evidence to establish eligibility.

Overview of the O-1 Visa
Application Process

After determining which O-type visa you should apply for, it’s time to start the application process. Here’s a brief step-by-step overview of the O-1 visa application process and what you can expect.


Your Employer Submits a Form I-129 Petition

You can’t even begin the O-1 application process until your potential employer has filed a petition on your behalf. Your employer will need to file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, and have the petition accepted before you can apply for an O-1 nonimmigration visa. If you are self-employed, you’ll need to file Form I-129 yourself.  Along with Form I-129, a consultation (written advisory opinion from a peer group), contract between petitioner and beneficiary, itineraries, evidentiary criteria, and proof of a U.S. agent (employer or otherwise) will be required. This is where all your hard work, research, and documentation organization pays off.


Applicants Outside of the U.S. Apply at a U.S. Consulate

Next, O-1 visa applicants (as well as O-2 and O-3 applicants) located outside of the U.S. begin the visa application process by applying at a U.S. Consulate building. There, a DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, will be filed. After your DS-160 has been accepted, you’ll have a face-to-face interview with an immigration official, and it will be determined whether you are to be awarded a visa or be deemed inadmissible. The application process could take some time, from petition filing to visa approval, so be patient. You’ll be awarded a visa after your application has been accepted and approved.


Visa Holders Enter the United States

An O-type visa (O-1, O-1A, O-1B, O-2, O-3) is good for a visitation stay of up to three years from the date the visa is issued. Once awarded an O-type visa, applicants are free to enter the United States and begin working.

Extending Your Stay in
the United States

Recipients of an O-1 visa are eligible to apply for a one-year extension of stay after the initial three-year period is up. These one-year extensions can potentially be awarded indefinitely as long as the applicant can prove that he or she is still doing the work that was originally cited as the reason for the O-1 visa application.  

If O-1 visa recipients choose to make their stay in the United States a permanent one, the O-1 visa is a dual intent visa. This means that beneficiaries can concurrently pursue permanent resident status.

Where to Begin on Your Path Toward Immigration

The path to immigration will depend on which visa you’re applying for and how long you intend to stay. But regardless of your long-term plans, your first step is to secure an immigrant visa. 

We’ll go into the details in a moment, but here’s a quick overview of the process:

Select a local representative, agent, or family member to act on your behalf
Your sponsor submits a petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Pay application processing fees online
When your petition is approved, you will submit the visa application form
Collect and submit financial and supporting documents
Upon approval of all the above, the National Visa Center (NVC) will contact you to schedule a visa interview with an immigration agent
If your interview goes well and your forms are processed correctly, that’s it! You’ll receive your visa and gain access to the country. 

Of course, this process is just for the immigrant visas—the first step on the path to full citizenship. Visa holders who want to become permanent residents must then acquire a green card. This will earn you full-time residency in the country. Longstanding green card holders may then apply for full citizenship through USCIS.

Questions to Ask Before Applying

The immigration process begins with an assessment of your situation. Ask yourself the following questions:

— Why I am immigrating?
— Do I have family in the U.S.? 
— Are any of my family members U.S. citizens?
— Do I have work lined up in the U.S.? 
— Am I applying for a general visa or one that requires proving special qualifications? (Such as the O-1) 

The answers to these questions will determine which visas you’re eligible
for and what steps you’ll need to take to apply. 
Visas are separated into two broad categories, with additional subcategories
(such as family- or work-sponsored), depending on their purpose. 

Nonimmigrant Visas

These are visas issued to those visiting the U.S. temporarily for work, study, tourism, medical treatment, and so on. These visas are more common than immigrant visas, as they come with more restrictions on how long applicants can stay in the country and what the applicants may do while they’re here. 

Here are a few examples of common nonimmigrant visas you may qualify for:

Individuals with extraordinary ability in sciences, education, business, or athletics
Individuals with extraordinary achievement in the arts, motion picture, or television industries
Support staff and personnel of O-1 holders
Spouse and children of O-1 and O-2 holders
Specialty work visa
Temporary exchange visitor visa

Immigrant Visas

These are visas issued to those wanting to live in the U.S. permanently. These visas are typically sponsored by a family member or your work, although there are some special categories as well. 

Here are a few examples of common, family-sponsored visas you may qualify for:

IR1, CR1
Spouse of a U.S. citizen
Fiancée to marry U.S. citizen and live in the U.S.
F2A, F2B
Certain family members of lawful permanent residents 
IR2, CR2, IR5, F1, F3, F4
Certain family members of U.S. citizens

You may also qualify for certain
employer-sponsored visas:

E1 – Priority workers
E2 – Professionals holding advanced degrees and persons of exceptional ability
E3 – Skilled workers, professionals, and unskilled workers

Of course, the above is not an exhaustive list—it’s just a few examples of visas
you may run across in your immigration journey. 

Applying Through the O-1

Now, as we mentioned above, some visas will have special procedures that you’ll need to follow to apply. The O-1 is one of these visas. 

As the O-1 is reserved for applicants who demonstrate extraordinary ability or acclaim in certain fields, there is a substantial burden of proof put on applicants. You’ll need to provide documentation and resources that show your achievements and accolades—a few examples might be references to your work in the media, personal research that has been published in academic journals, or written references from acclaimed colleagues. 

However, this burden of proof is an advantage for those who qualify. With so few individuals qualifying for the O-1, those who do meet the criteria generally have a good chance of success with their application. Other employment visas, such as the H1-B, have government-enforced quotas for how many applicants can be accepted each year. This means that you may not receive one, even if you meet all the criteria. 

As such, you should examine your situation and see if you qualify for a specialty visa program like the O-1. If you do, you’ll have a much better chance at securing your visa and making it into the country. 

Immigration Eligibility

Need an easy way to see if you’re eligible to immigrate to the U.S.? 

Here’s a short quiz you can take. 

Can You Enter or Stay in
the U.S. at All?

United States immigration restrictions are applied to a wide spectrum of applicant qualification criteria. As a result, there are a number of restrictions that can disqualify applicants. 

Given the nature of the visa application process—yearly quota limits, intense application scrutiny, long review periods—it’s important to understand what other factors may restrict approval when applying for an O-1 nonimmigration visa. Health issues, criminal and national security concerns, and misrepresentation can all influence whether or not an applicant is eligible to enter the U.S.

Particularly Troublesome
Grounds of Inadmissibility

Individuals who are deemed inadmissible are not permitted by law to enter or remain in the United States. Visa applicants may be found inadmissible if any of the following criteria apply:  

Criminal activity

— Crimes involving “moral turpitude”
 — Violation of controlled substance laws
— Multiple criminal convictions
— Drug and human trafficking
— Prostitution
— Money laundering
— Violations of religious freedoms 

National security

— Espionage or sabotage
— Participated in terrorist activities or association with terrorist organizations
— Presents a threat to foreign policy 
— Membership in any totalitarian party
— Participated in Nazi persecutions or genocide

Health issues

— Communicable diseases
— Failure to receive necessary vaccinations
— Physical or mental disorders with associated harmful behavior
— Drug abusers or addicts

Prior removals

— Individuals who have been removed, excluded, deported, or departed the United States on their own volition while a final order of removal was outstanding
— Unlawfully stayed in the United States for more than one year and then illegally re-entered 

Lack of labor certification

— Inadmissible unless Secretary of Labor certifies: Employment will not adversely affect wages and working conditions of U.S. workers similarly employed Not enough U.S. workers are willing, qualified, and able to do the same work

Fraud or misrepresentation

— Seeks admission by fraud or willfully misrepresenting a material fact


— Persons who entered the country illegally
— Persons who failed to attend immigration and/or removal hearings 
— Smugglers 
— Student visa abusers 
— Former U.S. citizens who renounced citizenship to avoid taxation 
— Practicing polygamists 
— Unlawful voters 
— International child abductors and relatives of such abductors 

Public charge

— A person who is primarily dependent on the government for subsistence.

Avoiding or Reversing an Inadmissibility Finding

In order to legally circumvent inadmissibility restrictions, O-1 visa applicants are advised to avoid specific behaviors and activities (listed above). Additionally, factors such as securing employment and acquiring sponsorship from a U.S. citizen can be beneficial. Immigration personnel will interview applicants to discuss inadmissibility issues and application criteria. If an O-1 visa applicant is found to be inadmissible, the applicant must file an I-601 Application for Waiver of Grounds of Inadmissibility to appeal the finding.

Types of
Nonimmigrant Visas

Aside from the O family of visas already described, these are the most common nonimmigrant visas that foreigners apply for:
H-1B: Persons working in specialty occupations, including those requiring a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in on-the-job experience
H-2B: Temporary workers coming to the U.S. to fill job openings when there is a shortage of available U.S. workers
B-1: Business visitors
C-1: Foreign travelers only traveling through the country must maintain immediate and continuous transit in the U.S.
E-1: Treaty traders working for a U.S. company
F-1: University, academic, or language students
J-1: Exchange individuals coming to the U.S for work, study, or training as part of an exchange program recognized by the U.S. Department of State
L-1: Business transferees who work as managers, executives, or workers with specialized knowledge

This is by no means a full list; there are dozens of nonimmigrant visas available to foreigners, depending on their qualifications and reasons for visiting. You can find a rundown of all nonimmigrant visas here.

You may have seen the term “status” thrown around on websites that present information on visas, but what does “status” mean? To understand the difference, let’s first consider the term “visa.” 

The visa is simply a sticker or stamp placed on your passport that lets you enter the United States. As detailed in our above sections, foreigners must undergo a lengthy application process to receive their visa. When they do, their passport is stamped with the visa approval seal, and they are granted access to the country.

When they enter the U.S., the visa stamp itself becomes insignificant. More important is their status: the legal category under which the immigrant was admitted to the U.S. These categories include the immigration application you chose—the O-1, H-1B, and so on. An immigrant’s status refers to the circumstances under which they arrived, their rights and responsibilities, and the benefits they’re given. 

Therefore, when you hear people talk about an immigrant’s “visa,” they are likely referring to the immigrant’s “status.” This can be confusing, especially for foreigners unfamiliar with the language. 

The biggest real difference between the two terms is that visas get you into the country, while statuses dictate what you can do and how long you can stay. 

Time Limits on Nonimmigrant Visas

Every visa will have a different expiration period. Depending on the visa, you may be able to apply for an extension.

For the O-1, the visa allows immigrants a three-year stay, with possible one-year extensions available as needed. There is no limit on how many extensions may be allowed. 

Extensions may take up to six months to process, so it’s recommended that O-1 applicants apply for renewal anywhere from three to six months before their visa expiration date.   

Screening at the Border

All immigrants need a visa to enter the U.S. However, having a visa does not guarantee you entry. Immigrants must bring their approved visas to the border and undergo a screening by an inspector. This individual checks your documents and decides whether you’re allowed to enter the country.

This border screening process became stricter in the past several years as immigration laws in the U.S. have tightened. You can expedite the process and increase your odds of success by being prepared, organized, and timely. Check with the local U.S. embassy before your trip and make sure you know what documents will be requested at the border. 

If the border inspectors deny your entry, even with a valid visa, don’t panic. Feel free to ask for details, but don’t argue with the inspectors and do your best to remain polite. People are turned away at the border every day, and nobody is guaranteed access in all situations—even citizens. 

Should you get refused, your best bet is to contact your immigration lawyer and ask for guidance. He/she will be able to advocate for you and will walk you through the next steps. If you don’t have an immigration lawyer, consider contacting the embassy that issued your visa. 
While it’s not very common, you may find that you need to apply for a visa while outside your home country. It’s certainly possible to do so, but the process can be a bit more complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

Step 1

Find out if you need a visa to enter the country(s) you’re traveling through

If you’re traveling through several countries before reaching your desired destination, you may need visas for all of them. Go online and learn about the requirements for each country. There will be information available on the foreign consulate’s website. You may need a visa to enter the country even if you don’t set foot off the plane, so be prepared.  

Step 2

Learn about the visa requirements for the “third” country

If you’re a citizen of your home country and your desired destination is the U.S., the country you’re currently residing in is the “third” country. Make sure the consulates in this country accept third country visa applications. Every consulate has different rules about this, and you’ll need to gather all of this information before you consider applying.

Step 3

Bring all the documents you need to be granted the visa

Of course, you’ll need to have all of your paperwork on hand if you want the visa, including a valid passport, travel documents, and any other documentation (detailed above). You must also provide the third country consulate with a reason for why you’re applying there rather than your home country. It’s more common for third country visa application to get denied, so prepare for the process well in advance of your desired arrival date. 

Can I Get a Green Card After My
Nonimmigrant Visa?

In short, yes. Nonimmigrant visas are often received before green cards that offer full residency in the United States. This can be an ideal option for many immigrants, as it gives them a chance to experience living in the U.S., build connections, and better learn whether they want to stay there permanently.

However, there are drawbacks to this, depending on the visa category you apply for. 

Generally, nonimmigrant visas are issued only to foreigners who intend to stay in the U.S. for a limited period. Proving this is part of the paperwork you provide during the application process. Indeed, if the USCIS believes that you’re applying for a nonimmigrant visa only as a “stepping stone” to a green card, it can hurt your chances of acceptance. (This is why it’s not a good idea to apply for a green card before applying for a nonimmigrant visa.)

Understand Dual Intent

There are several visa categories that can allow foreigners to apply for green cards without worrying about their intent. This is known as “dual intent”— that you intend to work temporarily in the U.S. while possibly intending to stay permanently. Only several categories of visa fall into the dual intent designation:

— O category
— H-1A
— H-1B
— L category
— P category
— E category

This is another reason why the O-1 is such as desirable visa. With dual intent, and no limits on how long a visitor can stay, it’s one of the best ways to transition from a short-term immigrant to a permanent resident. 

Regardless of the visa you choose, the road to a green card can be complicated—and is often much longer than your initial visa. Most nonimmigrant visa holders will need the help of an immigration lawyer if they want to achieve green card status. 

Understand U.S. Tax Laws
Before Immigration

The United States has a unique set of tax regulations it imposes on its residents—and those who immigrate. Under U.S. law, all permanent residents, including green card holders, are considered tax residents. This means that they must file and pay federal taxes like any other citizen. 
However, there are drawbacks to this, depending on the visa category you apply for. 

However, not every nonimmigrant visa holder must file these taxes. Generally, if you receive wages from a business or trade you engage in throughout the year, and if your income is above a certain threshold, you’ll be required to pay taxes. Check the United States IRS website for details on these limits. 

It’s also important to note that if you stay in the U.S. long enough, you’ll become a tax resident—no matter how much income you earn. Nonimmigrant visa holders become tax residents after spending at least 183 days in the country of a given year. 

Overall, make sure you know these rules ahead of time. Failing to pay taxes may result in a revocation of your visa and deportation.  

What If I Can’t Get An O-1?

Despite all of your best efforts, you may find that you just don’t qualify for the O-1. That’s okay! Don’t be discouraged. The O-1 is a unique type of visa that’s quite difficult to receive. Even if your O-1 application is denied, you still have options for entering the United States. Let’s review a few other work visas you may qualify for.

H1-B Visa

If you don’t receive the O-1, the H1-B temporary work visa is your best bet. This visa is the most commonly-approved work visa out there, intended for immigrants who work in specialized fields (for example, engineering, computer science, or medicine). 

The requirements for the H1-B are far less stringent than the O-1, but unfortunately, since so many immigrants try for this visa, the USCIS sets a limit on how many H1-B’s are issued annually. The U.S. issues around 85,000 H1-Bs each year (20,000 of which are reserved for immigrants with higher education, such as master’s degrees or PhDs), with over 200,000 applications sent in each calendar year. 

L-1 Visa

The L-1 is a different type of specialty visa reserved for employees transferring from an international company to a different branch located in the United States. If you currently work for a company with offices in your home country and the U.S., the L-1 might be a possible avenue. 

Of course, there are other qualifications you’ll need to meet (the L-1 is intended for only those who work in executive or specialized capacities) but for employees of international companies willing to sponsor their visa, it’s a great way to enter the country.

TN Visa

Are you a citizen of Mexico or Canada seeking entry into the U.S.? If so, you may qualify for the TN Visa. This is a special classification of work visa created through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under the TN status, professionals in Canada and Mexico may enter the U.S. temporarily to perform certain jobs, often reserved for educated professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or education. 

If All Else Fails, Find An Immigration Lawyer

If your O-1 petition failed and you aren’t sure if you qualify for any of the above options, we recommend speaking directly with an immigration lawyer. It can be tough to immigrate to the U.S., even when you qualify for specific visas on paper. The process is complex, and there are no guarantees. However, a qualified lawyer can help guide you through the process and navigate any applications, petitions, or appeals that may increase your chances of success.
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