O-1 Work Visas for Extraordinary Talent in Business, Education, Science, Arts, or Athletics

Find out which foreign workers qualify for the O-1 visa and how to apply.

An O-1 visa is one of the various types of nonimmigrant visas that the United States allots to temporary workers.

By way of background, a nonimmigrant visa is a document that allows a foreign national to enter the United States for a limited time and a limited purpose. While a visa does not unconditionally guarantee a foreign national’s right to enter the U.S., it does give governmental permission for the person to approach and request entry. Someone who enters on a visa then has what’s called nonimmigrant “status,” and may be able to extend or change that status without getting a new visa.

Who Qualifies for an O-1 Visa?

The O-1 visa is made available to people of proven extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics.

O-1 visas can be given only on the basis of individual qualifications. Membership in a group or team is not by itself enough to get you the visa.

In addition, you must be coming to work or perform at an event or a series of events in the area of your extraordinary ability. The term “event” is interpreted liberally outside the fields of athletics and arts and can include, for example, an ongoing research project for a private company.

How Do You Show Extraordinary Ability?

The immigration authorities are serious about requiring applicants to meet the “extraordinary ability” standard set out by the immigration laws. In order to demonstrate such ability, you will need to have either gotten a major internationally recognized award, such as a Nobel Prize (or in the television or motion picture industry, an Emmy or a Grammy), or accomplished at least three of the following:

  • received a nationally recognized prize or award for excellence
  • attained membership in associations that require outstanding achievements of their members in your field of expertise, as judged by recognized national or international experts
  • published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about you and your work
  • participated, on a panel or individually,  as a judge of the work of others in your field
  • made an original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contribution that is of major significance in the field
  • authored scholarly articles in professional journals or major media
  • been previously employed in a critical or essential capacity for an organization with a distinguished reputation, or
  • command or have commanded a high salary or other outstanding remuneration for your services.

If you don’t think you quite meet the above criteria, don’t give up quite yet. It may be possible for the company petitioning for you to submit comparable evidence showing why you are “extraordinary.”

O-1 Visa Rights and Restrictions

There are no limits on the number of O-1 visas given out every year, and O visas can be issued fairly quickly.

If you receive an O-1 visa, you may work legally in the U.S. for your O employer/sponsor. The visa will be granted for the length of time necessary for a particular event, up to a maximum of three years. In addition, if petitioned by your employer, you may be granted unlimited extensions, for periods of one year at a time. Of course, your employer will need to prove that more time is needed to complete the specified events and/or activities.

Your spouse and children under the age of 21 may apply for an O-3 visa to accompany you. They will be subject to the same period of admission and limitations as the principal O-1 visa holder. They may not, however, accept a paid job in the United States.

If you want to change jobs, you must get a new visa.

O-1 Visa Application Process

In order to obtain an O-1 visa, you must first have a job lined up with a U.S. employer. The employer must file then file a “Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker” on Form I-129, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). That petition can be filed up to one year before a scheduled event, competition, or performance. If you’re self-employed, you will need to hire an agent within the United States to file the visa petition for you.

If you’re living outside the U.S., then after USCIS approves the visa petition, you will prepare some additional paperwork and take everything to the U.S. consulate in your home country to apply for O visas for you and your family. If you’re already in the U.S. in lawful status, such as on a student or other nonimmigrant visa, the visa petition can be used to ask that your status be immediately changed to O worker. (But this doesn’t work if you merely entered using the Visa Waiver Program, or VWP.)

The visa petition involves more than merely filling out a form. Your employer will need to supply various documents, such as an advisory opinion from a peer group or labor management organization stating that it has no objection to your receiving a visa; an explanation of the nature of the employment, including an itinerary of the events and/or activities and why your participation is needed; evidence of your receipt of awards or other recognition of extraordinary ability; and more. The employer will also have a pay a nonrefundable visa petition fee.

After the visa petition is approved, you’ll need Form DS-160, Nonimmigrant Visa Application. This form must be prepared and submitted online at https://ceac.state.gov/genniv.

Next, check with your local U.S. consulate regarding its appointment procedures. All consulates insist on advance appointments, and will need to interview you before granting or issuing the visa. Even getting an appointment can take several days, or during certain times of year, several weeks, so plan ahead. You'll be expected to pay a visa fee.

An exception is made if you’re from a “visa exempt” country such as Canada. In that case, you can proceed directly to the U.S. with your Form I-797 petition approval notice, along with a copy of the Form I-129 visa petition.

Can O-1 Visa Holders Convert to Green Card Holders?

Good news: O-1 visa holders are not required to maintain a residence abroad. That means that, alough you are expected to work only temporarily in O visa status, you will not face any penalty for attempting to immigrate at the same time. Your most likely sponsor would be your current employer, or another one. For more information on getting a U.S. green card, see our articles on getting a green card.

Help From a U.S. Immigration Lawyer

Because the O-1 visa application process can be complicated, contacting a U.S. immigration lawyer can be essential to the success and speed of your application.

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