R-1 Visa for Religious Workers

Eligibility and application requirements for the temporary religious worker visa to the United States.

An R-1 visa is available to a person who has been a member of a legitimate religious denomination for at least two years and has a job offer in the U.S. to work temporarily for an affiliate of that same religious organization.

R-1 visas may be issued both to members of the clergy and to lay religious workers. The initial stay can be up to three years, with extensions available. The maximum stay is five years. Under a new USCIS policy announced in 2012, time spent by R-1 workers outside the United States will not be counted against the allowed five years' maximum stay. But it will be up to the R-1 visa holder to provide proof of this absence, such as airplane tickets and other receipts.

Who Qualifies?

In order to qualify as a temporary religious worker, you must be authorized by a recognized employer to either:

  • conduct religious worship and to perform other duties of a type usually carried out by members of the clergy of that religion (which can include priests, monks, rabbis, deacons, and so on), or
  • to engage in a religious vocation or occupation (such as liturgical workers, religious instructors, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals or religious health care facilities, missionaries, religious translators, and so on).

You must have been offered a job doing that type of work in the United States. Your employer must have a bona fide, U.S. nonprofit religious organization, and it must be tax-exempt (according to U.S. internal revenue laws).

You must also have been a member of the denomination for the two years immediately before you submit your application for a religious worker visa.

Unlike some nonimmigrant visas, you do not need to show that you have a residence abroad that you have no intention of abandoning. However, you must show that you intend to depart the U.S. at the end of your lawful stay.

Already spent five years on an R-1 visa? You will need to reside and be physically present outside the U.S. for at least a year before applying again.

Choosing Between an R-1 Visa and a Green Card

The criteria for qualifying are the same as those for religious workers applying for special immigrant green cards (an employment-based category). Usually, people qualifying for R-1 visas also qualify for green cards as special immigrants and may prefer to apply directly for a green card.

But there is one big difference, making it easier to get an R-1 visa than a green card. Unlike the green card category, it is not necessary that R-1 visa workers were employed by the religious organization before getting the visa. They need only have been members for two years.

If you’re not interested in applying for a green card, note that you’ll have to prove that fact. R visa holders must intend to return home once the visa or status expires. You’ll need to supply documents proving your nonimmigrant intent. In fact, if you apply for a green card and are waiting for it to be issued, it may be difficult to obtain or renew an R visa.

R-2 Visas for Accompanying Relatives

An R-1 visa holder’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 of can get R-2 visas. This allows them to stay in the U.S., but not to accept employment. For more on this, see "R-2 Visa for Family of Religious Workers."

Overview of the Application Process

Once you have been offered a job, getting an R visa is a two- or three-step process:

  • Your U.S. employer starts the process off, by filing what’s called a “visa petition” on Form I-129, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If you’re already in the U.S. in lawful status, this petition can simultaneously ask that your status be changed to R. In that case, the process will successfully end here.
  • If you’re outside the U.S., then your employer must still file the work visa petition. But after USCIS approves the petition, you take the approval notice to the U.S. consulate in your home country in order to obtain an R visa. You’ll need to fill out State Department form DS-160 in advance, pay a fee, and provide other documentation, including a passport-style photo and proof that you’ll return home when your stay is over and a U.S. passport, valid for six months after your intended departure from the United States.
  • Finally, you use either your visa or (if you are from Canada, a visa-exempt country) the notice of your approved visa petition to enter the U.S. and claim your R visa status.

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