The United States of America has been the top destination for international migrants for decades. The country attracts people from all over the globe with its competitive economy, well-paid jobs, and abundance of opportunity. A country of immigrants, it welcomes people to integrate into American culture, encouraging them to create businesses, jobs, and opportunities for their families.
The US has always been the best country for the brightest, too. Despite its relatively low academic standing, the country has always managed to attract talent en masse. Talented people with extraordinary abilities leave their own countries to escape wars, poverty, totalitarian regimes and lack of opportunity. They invest their talents, advancing the arts, science, business, athletics and education in the United States. Historically, immigration of the world’s brightest has made America great.
The United States competes to attract global talent with Canada, Australia, United Kingdom and the EU. Unfortunately, these days the US is not the easiest country to immigrate to, even for best of the best.
An O-1 Visa is one of the legal pathways foreign citizens with extraordinary abilities can take to come to work, live and do business in the US. In this Definitive Guide to O-1 Visa, I will let you in on every detail you need to know to apply for, receive, extend, and transfer an O-1 visa.
What is an O-1 Visa?
The O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa issued as a pass which allows foreign individuals with an extraordinary ability or talent to legally enter, work, and live in the United States.
There are two different types of O-1 visa:
Plus, there are two “supporting” visas — O-2 and O-3.
The O-1A nonimmigrant visa is for individuals who have an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics fields. The applicant should be recognized nationally or internationally (with emphasis on international level), and possess a proven record of achievements.
The O-1B nonimmigrant visa is similar to O-1A, but it targets talented individuals in the arts, motion picture or television industries. Applicants should be able to demonstrate their abilities or acclaim in their respected fields — be it national or international awards, or any other form of achievement.
The O-2 nonimmigrant visa is for individuals who are going to accompany holders of O-1A and O-1B visas as their special assistants. Their knowledge and expertise should be essential to the O-1A or O-1B’s performance. Note: The O-1 has to prove that he or she cannot hire an assistant or a group of assistants with similar skills in the United States.
The O-3 nonimmigrant visa is for dependents of O-1A, O-1B, O-2 visa holders — specifically, for spouses and children.
Generally, an O-1 visa is issued for the duration of a project its holder is assigned to; however, the duration of stay cannot exceed three years. The O-1 visa can be extended, yet extensions are granted for no more than one year. After a passage of the year extended, a O-1 beneficiary has to extend it again.
O-1 Visa Qualifications
To qualify for the O-1 nonimmigrant visa, an applicant should meet certain criteria. To quote U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services:
The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.
But what do they mean by “extraordinary ability” and “ extraordinary achievement”?
Basically, this comes down to an applicant providing evidence that he or she possess an extraordinary ability in the respected field. Here is what is necessary:
- Documentation that proves that an individual has received prizes and awards that are recognized nationally or internationally. They should demonstrate an individual’s expertise and prove that he or she has risen to the very top in the respected field — be it science, arts, education, athletics, or business.
- Documentation that proves that an applicant is an active member of associations which are nationally and internationally recognized in the respected field. The membership in these associations should only be allowed for individuals who demonstrate outstanding achievements.
- Published works in the recognized media and professional publications that are relevant to an applicant's field of expertise. An applicant has to provide evidence that the works have been written/created by him or her (prove the authorship); plus, the title, date, and translation if necessary.
- Evidence that an applicant has participated or participates as an expert or judge in events relevant to his or her field of expertise — be it a panel, a movie festival, a scientific conference, an athletic competition, etc.
- Documentation that proves an applicant’s significant contributions in the respected field. This can be scholarly or scientific articles in professional journals, business-related research, works of art, etc.
- Evidence that an applicant has worked or works for nationally or internationally recognized institutions and organizations. An applicant has to be employed as a top professional whose role is critical to the institution’s work and research in the respected field.
- Evidence that an applicant received a high salary for his or her distinguished work in a nationally or internationally recognized institution. This can be contracts or any other documents that prove high remuneration for an applicant’s services.
The bottom line is that O-1 visa applicants need to prove that they:
- Are recognized, top-level professionals in the respected field. They should belong to a small percentage of professionals who demonstrate abilities that by far exceed what others do in the field of endeavor.
- Demonstrate a high degree of their skill. Other professionals should be able to describe them as well-known and leading specialists in the field. Distinction also plays a huge role.
- Prove extraordinary achievement. The achievement has to be evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition that by far exceeds what others can achieve in the field of endeavor.
Only the best in their field can quality for the O-1 nonimmigrant visa. These are top scientists, outstanding artists, businessman, well-known movie producers, and athletes, with a proven record of local and international achievement, etc. Thus, assuming an applicant does not qualify for the O-1 visa, an H-1B visa is also an option.
How to Apply for an O-1 Visa
Requirements for Application
To start the application process for the O-1 nonimmigrant visa, an applicant has to do the following:
- File Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker
- Mail the completed form to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Though the application process consists of only two steps, it is by no means easy. To apply, an applicant must meet certain requirements:
- File the form no earlier than a year before the applicant is going to enter the United States
- File the form no later than 45 days before the applicant’s entry to the United States
- Enclose and mail the evidence of extraordinary ability with the form
- Provide details of the work the O-1 visa holder will be doing in the United States
The third bullet point is key to successfully getting the O-1 nonimmigrant visa. Not only should applicants collect all the required documentation, but also provide a written advisory opinion (also called “consultation”) that proves their extraordinary ability.
A written advisory opinion should is a written statement provided by a peer group or a labor union that operates in the field of endeavor.
Note: In case an applicant’s extraordinary ability cannot be verified by a relevant peer group, a renowned person with a specific expertise in a non-relevant area can do it.
The opinion has to be an original document with all required watermarks or other marks that prove its authenticity. In case an applicant chooses to provide copies of a written advisory opinion, there can be a considerable delay in processing the application. This is true for other documents as well.
Note: Some applicants can be exempted from the written advisory opinion requirement. Simply put, they do not require a consultation. This is the case for applicants who can prove that their peer group does not exist, or there are not any labor unions or other institutions in the field that can verify their level of skill and expertise.
Applicants in the field of arts can also be exempted from a consultation. However, this is the case only if it has been fewer than two years from their last consultation, and they can prove it by submitting a copy of the previous consultation with the petition.
O-1 Visa Petitioner
An applicant is only one part of the equation, though. To receive the O-1 nonimmigrant visa, a foreign individual with extraordinary ability has to find an employer who is willing to bring him or her to work in the United States.
To prove a petitioner’s intentions, an applicant needs to submit a copy of the beneficiary contract between the parties to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The good news is that USCIS accepts oral contracts as well. To verify that an applicant has entered into an oral agreement with the petitioner, they can provide:
- Copies of emails or text messages (with the terms of the agreement)
- Any written materials that summarize the terms of the agreement between applicant and petitioner
- Any other evidence that supports and demonstrates the terms of the agreement
Basically, both written and oral beneficiary contracts have to feature the details (a) of what the petitioner has offered to the applicant; (b) on what terms the applicant has agreed to work in the United States. Most importantly between these two are the length of stay, nature of performance, and pay terms. The written contract needs to be signed by both parties; an oral contract, if it includes all the required details, is valid without signatures.
How to Extend an O-1 Visa
The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is pretty hard to get but easy to extend. To begin with, there is no limit to the number of times you can extend your O-1 visa. An applicant receives the original visa for up to three years and then can renew it every year.
To file the extension, an applicant needs to:
- File Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker
- Provide a copy of Form I-94, Arrival and Departure Record
- Enclose the employer’s statement with the details specifying why an applicant’s period of stay needs to be extended
Note: The latter bullet is very important. An applicant’s employer has to be specific in describing why he or she needs the applicant’s knowledge and expertise, and why the original application was approved in the first place. The employer has to specifically prioritize the reasons why he or she cannot hire an American with similar skills.
O-2 and O-3 visa holders can also apply for an extension of their stay in the United States. To do so, they need to file Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status.
Note: A foreign national with an O-1 visa status can easily apply for an H-1B visa instead of extending the O-1 visa. To do that, he or she needs to prepare an H-1B petition. H-1B can be a better option because its holders are subject to application for adjustment of status and/or change of visa. Basically, it allows its holder to get a Green Card.
How to Transfer O-1 Visa to Another Employer
To receive the O-1 nonimmigrant visa, an applicant should have a petitioner who is ready to employ him or her in the United States. It does not mean, though, that an applicant is assigned to one single employer for the duration of stay in the country.
A O-1 visa holder can transfer the visa to another employer. To do that, the following is necessary:
- A visa holder’s new employer needs to file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker
- A visa holder must file an amended petition to Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker in case there are major changes as to the nature of work, conditions of employments, salary, etc.
Note: In the case where the petition was initially filed by an agent, a visa holder should file an amended petition to Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, too. It needs to include all required evidence as to new employer’s ability and will to hire an O-1 visa holder.
O-1 Visa Termination: Implications for Holder and Employer
If an O-1 visa holder resigns voluntarily, he or she bears all the costs to return to the original place of residence. The visa holder has 10 days to leave the country after the O-1 nonimmigrant visa is terminated.
However, if a visa holder’s employer decides to terminate the visa of their own will (i.e. fire the holder), he or she has to compensate the cost of return transportation. If the original petition was filed by an agent, he or she shares responsibility with the employer to fund the cost of return as well.
Every year from 20,000 to 25,000 foreign nationals with extraordinary abilities immigrate to the United States. Most of them are talented scientists, professors, athletes, business managers, artists, motion picture or television industry producers. They enrich the nation, giving it “smart fuel” to move forward.
The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for the talented few, yet it allows them to bring dependents and immediate assistants to the United States. They can stay in the country for up to three years and then easily extend the visa or file a petition for H-1B visa.
The United States needs to attract more global talent, and the good news is that there is no cap on the number of O-1 visas granted per year. I encourage talented people to take their chance to move to the US. If you feel that you qualify, why not?