The Immigration Laws of the United States of America are getting stricter and more specific than in the past. Visa issuance is a process that may have a direct impact on national security, and that is why today’s visa application procedures are quite complex, paying great attention to detail, and requiring applicants to meet dozens of qualification criteria.

The majority of visa types are designed for specific narrow audiences, making it difficult to determine whether or not one is eligible to obtain a particular type of visa. Immigration law is a very sensitive matter, and those with little or no legal background may get confused by details and exceptions, and may easily misinterpret the requirements.

The I-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa that was designed for representatives of the foreign news media who want to travel to the United States to work in their profession. However, the applicants must have a clear understanding of what types of activities, and under which circumstances they qualify for the I visa, and they should be aware of potential traps and pitfalls they may encounter in the process.

In this article, I will try to shed some light on the I visa and its application process. I will provide answers to common questions such as: who is eligible to apply, how to apply, the process for extension, and other related issues.    

What is an I-1 Visa?

The I visa falls under the umbrella of nonimmigrant types of U.S. visas, and is meant for individuals who intend to enter the United States for the purposes of working for the foreign media. The I visa applicant must be a foreign media representative who works for an information outlet and resides in another country, which in turn grants similar privileges to media representatives from the United States.

It should be taken into account that the I visa does not guarantee its holder entry to the United States. The I visa holder must first travel to the U.S. port-of-entry and pass an interview with a representative of the U.S. immigration office, and get permission to enter the country.

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The purpose of entering the U.S. by I visa holders is limited to activities which are informational and associated with the news gathering process, which involves reporting on current events. Some examples include:

  • Primary employees of foreign information media engaged in filming a news event or documentary;
  • Members of the media engaged in the production or distribution of film will only qualify for a media visa if the material being filmed will be used to disseminate information or news;
  • Journalists working under contract;
  • Employees of independent production companies when those employees hold a credential issued by a professional journalistic association;
  • Foreign journalists working for an overseas branch office or subsidiary of a U.S. network, newspaper or other media outlet;
  • Accredited representatives of tourist bureaus, controlled, operated, or subsidized in whole or in part by a foreign government;
  • Employees in the U.S. offices of organizations, which distribute technical industrial information.

However, I visa holders are also allowed to participate in some other activities, such as media studies or informal speaking engagements, but only within strictly determined limits.   

I-1 Visa Qualifications

The Applicant

Requirements for those desiring to apply for the I-1 visa are very specific and strict. Applicants who are “representatives of foreign media” must prove to the United States consular officers that they are outstanding members of the information media whose organizations rely strongly on the success of their employees’ activities in the U.S.

The foreign media organization must have their office in the country where the I visa applicant permanently resides. The organization must belong to press, radio, film, print industries or some other type of information media.

The media representative may be required to provide proof of employment, which can be a letter from their organizations or a copy of a contract with the sponsoring party. Their activities must rely solely on the process of gathering information and reporting on events currently taking place in the United States. Any commercial uses, such as entertainment or advertising are not allowed, and, will not qualify for an I visa.

Obtaining the I visa is obligatory for every foreign media worker who is planning to visit the U.S. for information media purposes, regardless of whether he or she qualifies to enter the U.S. under another visa or status, including the VWP (Visa Waiver Program). However, media workers representing the interests of the United Nations are not required to apply for the I visa.   

Applicant’s Spouses and Children    

Immediate family members – spouses and/or unmarried children who have not reached the age of 21 – have the right to join the holder of the I visa. To apply for the media visa (derivative visa) together with the primary applicant, they are required to undergo the same procedure. If a spouse and/or children apply for visas after the primary applicant has obtained the status of I visa holder, applicants must provide a copy of the principal visa, together with applications and required documentation.

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Family members of the I Visa holder are allowed to:

  • Study in the US without applying for a student visa (F-1) during the I visa holder’s stay
  • Visit the US (without the intention to stay) holding visitor visas (B-2)
  • Visit the US without visas under the VWP

Spouses and children of the I visa holder are not allowed to work during their stay within the territory of the United States.

Exceptions for Getting the I Visa

There are some cases where media representatives are not required to obtain the I visa:

  • Foreign media workers who are planning to visit the U.S. for the purpose of attending certain events as a participant, meaning that they will not be engaged in their occupation
  • Foreign media workers who are planning to visit the United States to attend any academic event, such as guest speaking or lecturing for which they will receive payment
  • Foreign media workers who are about to visit the U.S. for the purpose of purchasing specific US media equipment or broadcast rights, or to take orders for foreign media equipment or broadcast rights
  • Foreign media workers who are planning to visit the U.S. solely for the purpose of vacation and travel, without engaging in reporting or filming media events

There are some activities that do not qualify for the I visa:

  • Filming for commercial or entertainment purposes
  • Proofreading, library work, set design, etc.
  • Production of staged events and television shows intended for entertainment
  • Production of artistic media content

In other words, foreign media representatives who are not planning to engage in their vocation within the territory of the United States can obtain other types of visas, such as visitor or business visas. Foreign media representatives who are willing to come to the United States to work, but whose work does not include any reporting or gathering of information on newsworthy events do not qualify for the media visa.  

How to Apply for the I Visa?

An applicant can apply for a visa directly at the US Embassy or Consulate located in the country of his or her permanent residence. All applicants between the ages of 14 and 79 are required to pass an interview with the consular officer. Those who do not fall within this age category are not required to have an interview, but may be asked to do so at the request of an embassy or consulate.

Step-by-Step Guide to the Application Process:

  • To begin, an applicant must complete an online visa application (Form DS-160) and submit a photo (see the photo requirements here). After submission, an applicant must print the confirmation page and bring it to an interview.
  • The applicant must schedule an appointment for an interview at the Embassy or Consulate in the country where he or she permanently resides beforehand.
  • If required, an applicant must pay the nonrefundable fee (currently set at $160) for visa application before he or she is granted an interview.
  • An applicant should prepare all necessary documentation before the date of the interview. Documentation includes:
    1. Valid passport that will not expire during and 6 months beyond the applicant's stay in the United States
    2. Visa application, printed confirmation page
    3. Application fee payment receipt
    4. Photo (in case the upload fails)  
    5. In some cases, depending on the country and occupation, an applicant may be also be required to provide some additional documentation such as proof of employment.

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A proof of employment is obligatory for representatives of the following occupations:

  1. Staff Journalists
  2. Freelance Journalists working under contracts
  3. Media Film Crews
  4. Independent Production Companies working under contracts

Normally, the proof is either a letter from the employer or organization, or a copy of the contract providing information about the applicant, the work, its duration and other essential details.   

  • As a final step, an applicant must pass an interview with the consular officer who will determine whether the applicant qualifies for the I visa. During the interview, an applicant may be asked to leave ink-free digital fingerprint scans. However, they may be taken later.
  • After an applicant passes the interview, some further administrative processing may take place. If the I visa is approved, an applicant can pick up the passport at a place and time determined by the Consulate. Normally, an applicant has to pay a visa issuance fee (the amount varies by countries).

Entering the United States

As mentioned earlier, the I visa does not guarantee its holder permission to enter and stay in the U.S.. The I visa gives the right to travel to a US port-of-entry (airport, seaport or land border) and request permission to enter the country from the DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection). If the holder of the I visa is permitted to stay in the US, the CBP official will provide a relevant admission document (Form I-94) and a stamp.

Period of Stay and Visa Extensions

The I visa is usually issued for one year. By the document and stamp provided at the port-of-entry, officials determine the period of authorized stay of each I visa holder. Normally, the I visa holder receives permission to remain in the United States without a need to leave and re-enter the country, but only within the timeframe of their authorized stay.

According to immigration law, individuals with the I visa must leave the United States on or before the date determined in their Form I-94, unless they apply for an extended stay from the USCIS by filing an Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status (Form I-539), and providing relevant evidences and fees in advance. Otherwise, the I visa holder will be considered to be in violation of immigration law and will lose his or her status.  

The I visa holder can extend his or her stay for an unlimited amount of time without leaving the U.S., while revalidation of the I visa must be performed strictly outside the country.   

Change of Status or Employer

An individual who currently stays in the United States may request to change his or her status from one nonimmigrant category to another by filing the above-mentioned Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status – Form I-539. The person who requests the change of status has to follow the prescribed procedure and pay all necessary fees.

An individual who currently holds the I visa may request to change employers. An employer may also be changed by filing the same application (Form I-539). In both cases, applicants must provide relevant evidence of their status and a letter from a foreign media organization that employs those individuals. This letter must prove that individuals are officially employed representatives of the foreign information media.  

Conclusion

As someone who has been practicing immigration law for years, I must say that no two cases are identical. There may be similar patterns, but each case is unique. The procedure and the list of necessary documentation may vary by the country of an applicant’s residence, and may depend on an applicant’s particular circumstances and context.

This article is intended to give the applicant a general understanding of the application process. For more specific details about circumstances that can potentially impact your application procedure, it is recommended you contact the embassy or consulate in your country of residence.