Simply put, the O-1 visa is for non-U.S. citizens who have extraordinary ability or extraordinary achievement in any of the following industries; science, art, education, athletics, business, television (TV) or motion pictures - who have also been recognized nationally or internationally for their works. 

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) establishes that foreign nationals seeking to work in the U.S. within the above fields of expertise must have risen to the absolute top of their field, are well-known and distinct, and display skills that are recognized as significantly higher than others ordinarily found in their same field.

The purpose of this article is to discuss who is eligible for an O-1 visa and present the two subcategories, O-1A and O-1B, and assist you in determining where your line of work falls in the O-1 category. Technically speaking, the O-1 visa has four subcategories, including O-1A, O-1B, O-2, and O-3, however this article delves more so into O-1A and O-1B.

Understanding O-1A and O-1B Visas

The O-1 visa is a pathway for acclaimed field professionals in the sciences, arts, athletics, business or education to temporarily live and work in the United States. Proving eligibility in this nonimmigrant visa category may be somewhat difficult since the criteria are stringent. 

The initial visa is valid for three years, though it fortunately comes with unlimited renewals for all beneficiaries. Furthermore, each visa renewal is granted in increments of up to one year, indefinitely.

Once you become an O-1 (A or B) beneficiary, and if you play a leading role in film or TV, or are an olympic athlete, you are legally permitted to bring an assistant, spouse or child(ren), or any other supporting team members with you to the U.S. as O-2 and O-3 beneficiaries.

The average O-1A and O-1B visa processing time is about two months, though this truly depends on the workload of the service center at the time of application.

O-1A Beneficiaries in Sciences, Education, Business, or Athletics

The O-1A is a nonimmigrant visa for individuals with extraordinary ability in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), education, business, or athletics. 

Experts with regards to STEM, education or business are:

  • People with a level of expertise that is of a small percentage of the population
  • Who have risen to the very top of their field

O-1B Beneficiaries in the Arts 

Alternately, if you have extraordinary ability — as defined by the U.S. government — in the arts, or extraordinary achievement in motion pictures or the TV industry, the O-1B visa would be the best option for you. 

This subcategory differentiates experts and professionals in the following capacity:

  • Experts with distinction in the arts:
    • People with a high level of achievement in their field
    • Whose field population regards them as renowned or otherwise well-known leaders
  • Motion picture and TV industry professionals:
    • Individuals whose citizenry views them as leaders, outstanding or otherwise notable

O-1A and O-1B Visa Eligibility Requirements

Eligibility is exceptionally competitive as just a small percentage of the world population qualifies, however the average approval rate for an O-1 Visa is 90 percent. So, if you have a major award like an Olympic medal, Emmy, Grammy, or a Nobel Peace Prize, your chances of obtaining an O-1 visa are extremely high.

In order to establish eligibility for an O-1A petition, the beneficiary must have proof of the following three items:

  • Extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics, demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim
  • Achievements recognized through extensive documentation
  • Purpose for coming to the U.S. is to continue working in the area of extraordinary ability

Conversely, in order to establish eligibility for an O-1B petition, proof of the following must be supplied:

  • Demonstration of extraordinary achievement in
    • Motion pictures, or
    • TV productions 
  • Intent for coming to the U.S. is to continue to working in such productions

Note, even though the USCIS requires O-1 (A and B) applicants to provide evidence regarding their intention for coming to the U.S. and how it is for working in their fields of extraordinary ability, the USCIS does also allow for what is referred to as Dual Intent. The purpose of this allowance is so that O-1 applicants seeking to live and work permanently in the U.S. can apply for permanent residency (a green card).

Once it has been established that you have extraordinary ability, or extraordinary achievement in either category, you’ll then need to ensure at least three of the below specific eligibility criteria have been satisfied.

O-1A Visa Eligibility Requirements

O-1A visa applicants will need to have evidence of at least three of the following requirements about themselves as well as their fields:

  • Nationally or internationally recognized award proving excellence
  • Association member, of once require previous outstanding achievements
  • Previously been featured in a
    • Major trade publication, or
    • Other professional publication, or
    • Major newspaper, or
    • Other publicity releases
  • Participation as a judge (individually or on a pane) of others’ work
  • Previous or current critical role as an employee of an organization with a distinguished reputation
  • Original contributions (science, scholar or business) of major significance
  • Published authorship of scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media
  • High salary

Additionally, you would need to have evidence that your purpose for living and staying in the U.S. is temporary and is to continue working in the particular field with which you’ve applied.

O-1B Visa Eligibility Requirements

O-1B visa applicants will need to have evidence of at least three of the following requirements about themselves as well as their fields:

  • Past, current or future performances as a lead (or other starring role) in distinguished and reputable productions 
  • National or international recognition for achievements (from critical reviews or materials)
  • Major commercial or critically acclaimed success such as box office or TV ratings
  • Significant recognition from an expert, critic or from a government agency
  • High salary

It is important to note that if the above items do not exactly pertain to the applicant’s role (barring film or TV), comparable evidence can be submitted along with their petition.

O-1 Sponsoring Employer Requirement

As an O-1 applicant, it is important to understand that you will be required to have a U.S.-based employer to sponsor your visa (or otherwise have an agent). This includes them petitioning on your behalf, as well as paying the fees associated with the process. 

Note, agents function similarly to the U.S.-based sponsoring employers, with regards to O-1 visa applications. Meaning, they must petition on the beneficiary’s behalf and pay all filing fees.

O-1 Visa Application Requirements

Firstly, the application process begins with the applicant (this is the visa beneficiary) gathering his or her supporting evidence of visa eligibility. This would be in the form of documents proving satisfaction of three or more of the above evidentiary criteria for extraordinary ability. Though the applicant must gather the following evidentiary documents, it will be the petitioner who will need to submit them with the petition packet.

Secondly, their U.S. sponsoring employer (this is the petitioner) will need to file a Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129) and pay the associated government fee of $460. These tasks must technically be done within 45 days of when the applicant would begin working in the U.S., though it is highly advisable to complete this 12 or more months before.

O-1 Contracts

Such contracts include written agreements between the applicant and their agent, his or her employer, or any other contracts pertaining to the job or event that he or she will be performing in the U.S. after receiving the O-1 visa.

O-1 Statement of Salary 

A statement of salary is a document listing the remuneration (must be a high salary) amount that will be earned for services rendered during the beneficiary’s employment while in the U.S.                     

O-1 Association Documentation 

Association meaning either proof of organization affiliation or membership, and/or any other field-related certificates as they relate to the applicant’s extraordinary ability in their field. Such memberships must require extraordinary ability of its applicants for membership.

O-1 Advisory Opinions 

Such documents are consultation letters written from peers from within the field community, officially recognizing the applicant's extraordinary ability, as it relates to their work. 

In the event where the beneficiary has already obtained an O-1 visa (and thus U.S. employment within the last two years), the petitioner would need to file a request to waive the requirement, accompanied by a copy of the original advisory opinion. Conversely, when a peer group does not exist, the USCIS will rely on the evidentiary documents when making a case determination.

O-1 Itineraries

All itineraries relating to the work performed by the O-1 beneficiary must indicate their planned jobs, activities and/or events in the U.S. and how they will occur solely within the visa validity period.

Such itinerary requirements include, but may not be limited to the following:

  • A description of the planned events and activities
  • A list of all work dates, including the start and end dates, of each event or activity
  • A list of all work locations
  • Copies of all itineraries as they relate to each event or activity

O-1 Consular Processing

Applicants residing outside of the U.S. at the time of petition submission would need to apply for the O-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate from within their home country.

To begin this process, applicants will need to submit an Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application for Form DS-160, pay the filing fee of $190, and schedule an interview appointment at the embassy. 

It is crucial to print a copy of the DS-160 and all other documents related to the visa application to the appointment.

O-1 Change of Status

Applicants residing in the U.S. with a visa other than an O-1 visa can simply submit an Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status (Form I-539) and pay the filing fee of $370. The addresses for which to use when mailing Form I-539 can be found on the USCIS Filing Addresses web page.

O-1 Premium Processing

Those who wish to expedite the process of their O-1 visa application can elect for Premium Processing by submitting a Request for Premium Processing Service (Form I-907) by mail or online. This is a request to process the I-129 expeditiously, in 15 calendar days or less. The filing fee is $2,500.

If the handling officer has issued a Request for Evidence (RFE) in the form of a Notice of Action (Form I-797E), there certainly won’t be a way for the visa application to be processed in the promised 15 calendar days. Therefore, it is vital that all evidentiary documentation is gathered before requesting Premium Processing.

Note, if a decision simply cannot be made within this time, the USCIS will send a refund of the $2,500, though the handling officer will still work to adjudicate as quickly as possible.

O-1 Visa Extensions

If the O-1 visa holder wishes to extend their visa so they to continue working in the U.S., the sponsoring employer would need to file the following documents:

  • A new I-129 indicating the reasoning for the visa extension
  • A copy of the beneficiary’s Departure Number/Admission Record Number (Form I-94
  • A written statement detailing the basis for the extension request

O-1 Employment Changes

Certain situations could arise where you are met with some changes in employment while in the U.S., on an O-1 visa. Including, but not limited to changes of employer, terms and condition changes, resignation, or even termination. There are three changes that the USCIS deems as significant, as they relate to the terms of your employment, so here’s what to do in the event any of this occurs.

O-1 Employer Changes

If the O-1 visa beneficiary is offered new employment, and accepts it, the new sponsoring employer will need to submit a new I-129 and pay the associated filing fee. Otherwise, original agents will need to submit an amended petition on behalf of the beneficiary. In either case, a request for a visa extension will need to be submitted when applicable.

O-1 Conditions of Employment Changes

Normal material changes, such as being transferred to a different location for work, being promoted or demoted require the petitioner to file an amended petition noting the circumstances that have arisen. 

On the contrary, athletes who have transferred to another team, have a temporary validity period of 30 calendar days, in which the new sponsoring employer will be required to file a new petition (and await a visa approval). If this requirement is not adhered to by the new employer, unfortunately the foreign athlete will lose his or her employment in the U.S. and will be out of status. This is also the case if the USCIS rejects the new visa application.

O-1 Employment Termination

In the case where the O-1 beneficiary’s employment has concluded or is terminated, the responsible sponsoring employer or agent will be required to pay for the traveling expenses for the beneficiary to return to their homeland.

O-1 Employment Resignation

Lastly, if the O-1 beneficiary resigns, he or she will be responsible for arranging all travel accommodations related to the immediate return to their home country. Meaning, the sponsoring employer or agent will not be held liable for these expenses.

How do I prove I am eligible for an O-1 visa?

Applicants must be science, art, education, athletics, business, TV, or motion picture professionals. They must have extraordinary ability or documented extraordinary achievement. Additionally, they must provide evidence documenting their expertise and how the have risen to the very top of their field. They must also be individuals recognized nationally or internationally for their work. Lastly, they must possess skills that are significantly higher than others ordinarily found in their profession.

How long does the application process take?

In general, O-1 visa petitions are processed in two months.

How long can I stay in the U.S. with an O-1 visa, and can I extend my visa to stay longer?

The validity period is three years, and yes it can be extended — in one-year increments.

Can my assistant come to the U.S. with me on an O-1 visa?

Yes, support team members can accompany an O-1 beneficiary to the U.S. (on an O-2 visa). As well as spouses and children, under the O-3 category.

What happens if my O-1 employment is terminated?

Terminated employees with an O-1 visa will need to return to their home country immediately, and their sponsor will be required to pay for the travel expenses.

Conclusion of Who Is Eligible For an O-1 Visa and How to Prove Eligibility

In conclusion, the O-1 visa is a nonimmigrant visa category designed for individuals with extraordinary ability or extraordinary achievement in fields such as STEM, arts, education, athletics, business, television, or film. The difference between an O-1A and an O-1B is that the first is for experts in science, education, athletics, or business, and the later is for experts in the arts, TV or the motion picture industry. 

The application process is generally the same for either subcategory, with the difference lying on the evidentiary documentation required therein.

Some important highlights to take into careful consideration when applying for an O-1 visa are the following:

  • Eligibility is highly competitive, as applicants have to demonstrate extraordinary ability or achievement in their profession by supplying extensive documentary evidence
  • The O-1A visa is for those in sciences, education, business, or athletics
  • The O-1B visa is for individuals in the arts, motion pictures, or the TV industry
  • The visa is initially valid for three years, with unlimited renewals (in one-year increments)
  • O-1 visa holders can bring spouses, children and/or support team members to the U.S. with them, as O-2 and O-3 beneficiaries
  • The visa petition is Form I-129, which is a fee of $460
  • Premium Processing is available for expedited application processing, and is an additional fee of $2,500 (reducing processing times down to 15 calendar days or less)
  • Any visa extension, change in employment, termination and/or resignation of employment have procedures with specific requirements which differ from case to case