Updated July 10, 2020:

What Is the O-1 Visa?

The O-1 visa is a temporary work permit for those with extraordinary talents or skills. It's an easy visa to get, but only if the job is set up ahead of time and the person doing the job has special skills that the position needs.

The O-1 visa first appeared in 1990. Special status for exceptional immigrants had been around since 1965, but it was still a slow process. The O-1 gets around some of that by being a temporary work visa, and visa holders can still petition for a permanent green card while they work in the U.S.

What Gets You an O-1 Visa?

The extraordinary ability you need to get an O-1 visa can include any field, such as science, medicine, education, athletics, business, art, and entertainment. However, the people who apply for the visa have to prove their skills go above and beyond what you would normally expect. Some of the things that can qualify you for an O-1 visa include:

  • An Olympic gold medal or other major athletic award
  • A national-level scientific award
  • Membership in an organization with very high standards
  • An article written by you or about you in a major publication
  • Acted as a judge and evaluated the work of others in your field
  • A significant accomplishment in the fields of science, scholarship, or business
  • Employment as a key figure in a major business or organization, or a very high salary in a less critical position

That's just for the O-1A visa, which covers the fields of business and academics. The O-1B visa covers the arts, and U.S. Immigration has a very broad definition of art that includes writing, fine arts, performing arts, visual arts, culinary arts, music, motion pictures, television, and all the jobs connected to these professions. An artist can get an O-1 visa if he or she has a national or international award, or three of the following:

  • A starring or lead role in a major production or event
  • National recognition from important critics
  • A critical role in a reputable organization connected to the applicant's field
  • A reputation for significant success
  • Significant written recognition from other experts in the field
  • A significant salary or other financial success

If the applicant can prove that some or all of the above apply, then it's easy to get an O-1 visa. You can do this by gathering six to eight reference letters from respected figures in your field. Make sure you don't use template letters for this, since they don't impress Immigration officers the way an original document does. These letters are very important to the petition.

You'll also need a report or advisory consultation letter created by a group of the applicant's peers or a relevant labor union. This is to make sure independently that the person qualifies as exceptional. Having an immigration lawyer handle this step and double-check your reference letters can save you a lot of time.

Remember, there's no such thing as too exceptional. Feel free to keep your career going even as you wade through the O-1 visa process, and remember you can try again after you accomplish more.

Who Sponsors an O-1 Visa?

To get an O-1 visa, you need a U.S.-based agent, because foreign individuals can't petition for themselves. This agent can be a U.S. employer, a foreign employer working with a representative in the U.S., or a person who represents several employers. This last option lets someone who works on contract or commission work in the United States without being a traditional employee. In fact, a U.S. agent is the only way for multiple employers to petition together instead of separately.

Immigration officials will want to know the details about which employer needs what, since the O-1 visa is only temporary. The application also has to explain the holder's wages, but there are no restrictions on how or what the wages are. The employer or U.S. agent is responsible for legal and filing fees for the petition, but the visa applicant is responsible for visa fees and dependent costs like moving the spouse and children. You should also expect the process to take six to seven months, so plan with that in mind.

How Does the O-1 Visa Work?

The O-1 visa offers a lot of permissions you can't always count on otherwise. With this visa, you can live and work freely in the United States, at least as long as you stick with one job and keep up your relationship with your sponsor. You can also study as a part-time student if you want.

The visa holder can travel in and out of the U.S. freely, along with his or her immediate family. This also means the holder's spouse and children under 21 can get O3 visas and live in America. They can even go to school, but only the O-1 visa holder is allowed to work.

In exchange for these permissions, O-1 visa holders should expect site visits by U.S. Immigration officers. This is to make sure the visa's paperwork and the job itself match up. This is because O-1 visa holders also have obligations:

  • They must work for the employer or employers who petitioned for the O-1 visa and perform the job described by the petition
  • If the job has an end date, they must stop working on the date in the petition and then go home
  • Multiple employers must each sign form I-129 by Immigration Service's deadline for the holder to work for them

How Long Does an O-1 Visa Last?

An O-1 visa can be very short, or it can keep going indefinitely. It all depends on what the job is that the applicant wants and how long that job will last.

An O-1 visa's standard length is three years. However, you can keep applying for one-year extensions with no limit. If the job is only temporary, the visa will only last as long as the job does. Also, if you want to switch to a new job with a new employer, even if it has the same description and requirements, you'll have to get a new visa for it. Either way, the O-1 visa ends when the job does, and the relationship with the visa sponsor ends.

What Makes the O-1 Visa Unique?

A big part of the reason you'd want an O-1 visa if you qualify is because the O-1 visa has no annual quota like the more traditional H1B. 83,000 people entered the United States with an O-1 visa in 2014, nearly triple where it was a decade ago. Not all of these are new visas, but for contrast the government issues only 85,000 new H1B visas every year.

It also has looser standards than the H1B, at least if you qualify as extraordinary. For example, you don't need a college degree to get an O-1 visa, but you do to get an H1B.

This makes the visa very appealing to actors and others involved in stage and film, since greatness is relative when it comes to art. National recognition in a small country with a small film industry is still national recognition, and it's enough to get an O-1B visa. It's no wonder that 63 percent of O-1 visa holders settle in New York or California. Still, you do have to be one of the absolute best in your home country to qualify.

With an extra $1,000 payment, the USCIS will guarantee a 15-day processing period. That's the advantage of meeting the higher standards. Also, if the O-1 visa ends because the job does, the employer has to pay for the visa holder to go back home unless the holder resigns.

Another distinction is that O-1 visas apply to almost every profession. As long as your peers recognize you as someone with extraordinary abilities or accomplishments, and as long as you get six to eight documents proving that fact, you can get an O-1 visa.

Unfortunately, not everyone is fond of O-1 visas. Despite the visa's high standards, the fact that it has different requirements than the H1B and no annual cap makes some people think it's a back door to get around the quota. Others say it's an unfair advantage given to celebrities born outside the United States like Hugh Jackman and Ryan Gosling.

There are also O2 and O3 visas. The O3 visas are for family members of O-1 and O2 visa holders, and the O2 visas are for assistants to O-1 visa holders who will help out for a specific job or event. Unlike O-1 visas, O2 holders also have to keep a residence in their home country. The O2 visa also has strict standards. The assistant must have at least one of the following:

  • An integral role in a performance
  • Skills that are difficult or impossible to replace
  • A longstanding working relationship with the O-1 visa holder

You can switch to an O-1 visa while you're already living in the United States. For example, if you're visiting and you found a job or your work in the U.S. qualified you for the extraordinary ability requirement, you are eligible. If you meet that requirement and you have a sponsor, you can get an O-1 visa.

You can also use the O-1 visa as a first step toward living in the U.S. permanently, since there are no restrictions about wanting to be a permanent resident. Specifically, you can switch from an O-1 to an EB1 visa, which is for people with extraordinary ability who want to stay as permanent residents instead of temporary workers. If you have a J1 visa, you can switch to an O-1 visa and skip the usual two-year period when you'd normally have to live in your home country before applying again.

Applying for an O-1 visa is appealing, but it can also be a stressful process. That's why UpCounsel provides a marketplace for businesses and individuals to seek legal advice from the leading attorneys in America. If you need help understanding the visa or filing the paperwork, either as a sponsor or an applicant, then you should post your job on UpCounsel.