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O-1 Visa: Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

O-1 Visa Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

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Last updated: April 1, 2024.

By Asel Williams, Esq. · Columbia Law School · Licensed immigration attorney

There are multiple pathways for a foreign-born individual to enter the United States for employment, which may/may not lead to permanent residency.

If the foreign-born individual possesses extraordinary ability in the fields of sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or holds a record of exemplar achievement in the areas related to motion picture or television industry, while recognized on a national or international platform for the same, then he/she must consider applying for an ‘O’ visa status.

An O visa is a classification of non-immigrant visa, which provides a ‘short term’ or temporary employment opportunity to foreign born people demonstrating extraordinary record in their line of work.

This non-immigrant visa category is also extended to certain assistants and immediate family members of such extraordinary aliens.

USCIS classifies the O visa into the following three categories.

  • O-1A: For individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics,
  • O-1B: For individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry,
  • O-2: For individuals who will accompany an O-1 artist or athlete to assist in a specific event or performance, and
  • O-3: For spouses or children of O-1 and O-2 visa holders.

What is an O-1 Visa?

An O-1 visa is a short term employment based, non-immigrant US visa, which allows foreign nationals depicting extraordinary abilities and/or achievements in their professional disciplines, to work on a particular project(s) or event(s) held in the U.S.

For this purpose, a major requirement to apply for an O-1 visa is to have a job offer secured with a U.S. employer.

The O-1 visa is divided into two subcategories, namely the ‘O-1A’ visa and ‘O-1B’ visa.

O-1 Visa Subcategory Designed for Individuals
O-1A Demonstrating extraordinary ability and/or achievements in the sciences, education, business or athletics.
O-1B Demonstrating exceptional in the arts, motion picture or television industry.

The O-1A visa is similar to an EB-1A visa, except the former doesn’t grant permanent legal residency in the US and cannot be self-petitioned.

To learn more about the first-preference employment based visa category (EB-1A), read our detailed guide.

This visa category grants foreign individuals to temporarily work in the US for a period of up to three years, which can subsequently be extended to periods of one year.

When granted an O-1 visa, the foreign individual can help his/her essential assistants to qualify for an O-2 visa, which allows them to temporarily work and reside in the U.S. for as long as the corresponding O-1 visa holder’s stay is valid.

While the processing time of an O-1 visa is shorter compared to other employment based visas of similar kind like the H-1B visa, it is very difficult to obtain an O-1 visa.

This is mainly due to the large number of documents proving the extraordinary abilities and achievements of the alien’s case, besides the USCIS too has very specific requirements and screening parameters assigned for selecting such a visa candidate.

Consequently, it is highly recommended to get in touch with an immigration attorney, who can help you gather all the evidence and documents required to support your case, along with expediting the processing time for your O-1 visa.

Eligibility Criteria for Filing O-1 Visa

The foreign individual looking forward to applying for an O-1 visa, either O-1A or O-1B must satisfy the following two requirements:

  • He/she must have a job offer in the U.S. before applying the visa, and
  • He/she must be a paragon in their line of work, demonstrated by possessing extraordinary abilities and recognized achievements.

O-1A Visa Criteria

To qualify for an O-1A visa, the foreign applicant must possess extraordinary abilities in the sciences, education, business or athletics.

Demonstrating an ‘extraordinary ability’ as per the U.S. immigration law, means that the foreign national must fall under a ‘small percentage of individuals who have risen to the very top of a particular field of endeavor’.

This requirement can be met by showing that the individual has received national or international acclaim, in the form of recognitions like a Nobel Prize or an Academy Award, among others.

For petitioners who do not have any such critical awards/acclaims, submit evidentiary documents of at least three of the following ten criteria.

  • Receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence
  • Membership in associations in the field which demand outstanding achievement of their members
  • Published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • Your role as a judge, judging the work done by others, either individually or on a panel
  • Your original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field
  • Your authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media
  • Your work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases
  • Your performance of a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations
  • Your salary slip or remuneration is significantly higher in relation to others in the field
  • Your commercial successes in the performing arts

A foreign applicant is permitted by the law to submit comparable evidence(s) not listed above, shall they demonstrate his/her eligibility for extraordinary ability in their field.

O-1B Visa Criteria

The O-1B visa requires the applying candidate to demonstrate extraordinary ability in the field of arts, motion picture or television industry.

‘Extraordinary ability’ in the field of arts means distinction, or a highly valued achievement. In order to depict this, the individual must hold a recognized degree of skill exceeding the ordinarily encountered, proving that he/she is prominent, renowned, or well-known in the field of arts.

The same requirements stand corrected for proving extraordinary ability in the spheres of motion picture and/or television field.

If the foreign individual possesses a highly acclaimed award like a Grammy, Oscar or Emmy, among others, they can proceed with filing the O-1B visa.

If not, providing suitable evidence for at least three of these other achievements is a major requirement.

  • You have performed and/or will perform in a leading role or as a star participant in events or production of distinguished reputation.
  • National or international recognition for your role/performance(s), critically reviewed and covered in major publications, journals, newspapers, or magazines.
  • Your past or upcoming role as a lead, or star participant for organizations and establishments having a distinguished reputation.
  • Record of your work achieving significant commercial success or critical recognition.
  • You have received high praises and recognition for your work by significant critics and members of the industry, in the form of testimonials or articles written about you.
  • Your salary or remuneration is significantly higher compared to those providing the same services as you, in the industry.

The foreign individual willing to enter the U.S. on an O-1 visa must continue working in their respective field of extraordinary ability.

Who Files the O-1 Visa Petition?

The O-1 visa cannot be self-petitioned by the foreign born individual. The petition must be filed by the US employer.

Not limited to only a US employer, the O-1 visa can also be filed by a U.S. agent, or a foreign employer (compulsorily) through a U.S. agent on behalf of the foreign-born applicant.

An  agent is allowed to petition a candidate under the following scenarios:

  • While filing for traditionally self-employed workers, or workers who use agents to arrange short-term employment with numerous employers.
  • A foreign employer who authorizes an agent to act on his/her behalf.

Additionally, a U. S. agent can be:

  • The actual employer of the beneficiary
  • The representative of both the employer and the beneficiary, or
  • A person or entity authorized by the employer(s) to act in place of the employer(s) as its agent.

O-1 Visa Application Process

1. Filing Visa Petition: Form I-129

The first step while applying for the O-1 visa is to complete and file the USCIS Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker, by the U.S. employer or agent, on behalf of the foreign applicant.

The petition (Form I-129) must be filed no sooner than one year prior to when the foreign candidate’s services are required, and no later than 45 days before the date of employment of this candidate.

Besides submitting the Form I-129, the petitioner must also submit a series of documentary evidence.

A detailed list of breakdowns of all the aforementioned documents is provided further in the guide.

Check the Form I-129 filing address on the USCIS website (“Where to File” section).

Make sure to add all the supporting documents carefully while filing your petition, in order to minimize the chances of your visa being denied due to lack of enough documents/evidence.

2. Receiving Form I-797 from USCIS

Once your employer submits the I-129 petition, the USCIS will review it and if everything is satisfactory, your employer will receive the Form I-797, Notice of Action, indicating that your petition is approved.

Here onwards, the employer’s role in your O-1 visa application comes to an end and your role begins.

3. File Form DS-160

Once your I-129 form is approved, you (the beneficiary employee) can begin the visa application from your country of residence.

File Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. This form must be filed by all the U.S nonimmigrant visa applicants.

Learn how to fill out Form DS-160.

Make sure to file the form correctly, following the information mentioned on the embassy website.

You will need to pay the government fees in order to continue filling the Form DS-160, besides other additional fees (if applicable) depending upon your country of residence.

On submitting the form, you will get a confirmation page with a barcode, which you will need while booking your appointments with a U.S. Embassy, further in the application process.

4. Schedule Visa Interview at the U.S. Embassy/Consulate

After you complete the Form DS-160, you have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy. You can do this online, through ustraveldocs.com.

After completing the application form, the embassy will send you a notice indicating how to schedule your nonimmigrant visa appointments and the required documents needed to book and attend the appointment.

You must schedule an interview for you, along with all of your dependents (if any).

Apart from certain country-specific items, you will need to attend the interview with the following O-1 visa-related documents:

  • The interview appointment notice for your visa
  • The DS-160 confirmation code
  • Form I-797 (approval notice for I-129)
  • Receipts of all the filing fees paid during application
  • Your photographs that which must meet these requirements
  • Proof of your employment with a U.S. employer (e.g. an employment letter)
  • Proof that you meet the eligibility criteria for extraordinary ability
  • Proof of a qualifying family relationship with your dependents (if applicable) – marriage certificate and birth certificate
  • Certified English Translation of Foreign Documents

5. Attend the Visa Interview

The last step in the application process is the visa interview in the U.S. Embassy.

O-1 Visa Processing Time

I-129 Petition

The processing time for the I-129 petition depends upon various factors, including the USCIS service center your case has been filed at.

Note that the USCIS processing times change frequently and for the latest information on processing times please visit the website.

On an estimate, the Form I-129 takes about 2-3 months or for some cases up to 6 months to process.

If the beneficiary (you) wants to speed up the processing of his/her I-129 petition, they can opt for the premium processing feature (at an additional charge) provided by USCIS, which expedites the processing time of the form to up to 15 calendar days.

USCIS guarantees that if the processing is not completed within 15 days, the premium processing fee will be refunded.

Consular Processing

After this, the estimated time range for consular processing varies widely across different embassies or consulates in your home country.

The complete consular processing time can vary from several months or sometimes longer depending upon the workload on the embassy, when you file your case and your efficiency while handling the interview and visa application procedures.

Adding all of that up, the O-1 visa processing time can range from under a month to about a year.

Changing status to O-1 in the U.S.

O-1 visa is known to have ‘dual intent’ which means that while on this visa status, beneficiaries can temporarily reside and work in the U.S. and can pursue permanent residency or green card.

USCIS allows beneficiaries currently on a different valid nonimmigrant visa status to change status to O-1, provided they have:

  • not violated their status by committing a crime or any other unlawful activity, and
  • are eligible to change status to that of an O nonimmigrant without having to depart the U.S.

Here is a basic overview to change the visa status to the ‘O-1’ category, while on a valid non-immigrant visa.

  • Your U.S. employer or agent must file the I-129 petition for you, prior to the expiry of your current visa status. The petitioner must also indicate that the request placed is for a change in status.
  • Unless your (beneficiary’s) change of request is accepted and the petition approved by USCIS, you cannot work under the new nonimmigrant classification.
  • If USCIS accepts your eligibility for the O-1 visa but not for change of status, you will have to depart the U.S. and later if you wish, apply for the visa through the consular process.

If your change of status to the O-1 visa category is accepted by USCIS, you can start working for your employer right away, i.e. from the ‘Valid From’ date printed on your I-129 approval notice.

O-1 Visa Costs

Form I-129 filing fee (to be paid by employer):

Form I-129 Filing Category Paper Filing Fee
  1. If you are filing an E-1, E-2, E-2C, E-3, or TN petition.
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,015 plus additional fees
  2. $510 plus additional fees, if applicable
  1. If you are filing an H-3 petition.
    (limited to 25 beneficiaries per petition)
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,015 plus additional fees
  2. $510 plus additional fees, if applicable
  1. If you are filing an O petition.
    (limited to 1 beneficiary per petition for O-1; limited to 25
    beneficiaries per petition for O-2)
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,055 plus additional fees
  2. $530 plus additional fees, if applicable
  1. If you are filing a P petition.
    (limited to 25 beneficiaries per petition)
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,015 plus additional fees
  2. $510 plus additional fees, if applicable
  1. If you are filing a Q petition.
    (limited to 25 beneficiaries per petition)
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,015 plus additional fees
  2. $510 plus additional fees, if applicable
  1. If you are filing an R petition.
  2. If you are filing as a Small Employer or Nonprofit.
  1. $1,015 plus additional fees
  2. $510 plus additional fees, if applicable
Additional Fees:

  1. Asylum Program Fee
    • If you are filing as a Nonprofit;
    • If you are filing as a Small Employer.

If paying by check or money order, submit the fee separately.

  • $600
  • $0
    • $300 

Premium processing fee (optional, only if you want to expedite the processing):

Premium Processing Category Paper Filing Fee Online Filing Fee
Form I-907 with Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker

  • E-1, E-2, E-3, H-3, L-1 (including Blanket L-1), O, P, Q, or TN nonimmigrant classification.
$2,805* N/A

DS-160 fee: $205 (only if you are applying for a O-1 visa outside the U.S.)

O-1 Visa Validity

O-1 visa is initially issued for a period of up to 3 years, post which it can be extended for a period of 1 year.

A beneficiary may be admitted to the United States for the validity period of the petition, plus a period of up to 10 days before the validity period begins and 10 days after the validity period ends.

During the period of three years, the visa holder can travel to and from the U.S., as many times. However, while returning to the U.S., you must carry Form I-94 with you.

If you have an electronic I-94, retrieve and print your I-94. To access your record you will need your passport. Go to www.cbp.gov/I94.

O-1 Visa Renewal

While other non-immigrant visas like H-1B and the L-1A visas are valid for longer periods, up to 6 and 7 years, respectively, the O-1 visa is valid for only a period of 3 years.

However, O-1 visa holders can apply for 1-year extension periods after 3 years. They are granted extensions in one-year increments but not guaranteed.

In order to renew your O-1 visa, your U.S. employer or agent will have to send these three documents to the USCIS.

  • A new Form I-129 (and the filing fee),
  • A copy of your Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record
  • A detailed written statement specifying the reason for your extended stay and why your presence needs to be longer. The employer must also add that you will continue working in the same activity.

For changing to a new employer, he/she must file an I-129 petition for you in USCIS. If you wish to work for multiple employers, then all the employers will have to file petitions for you in the USCIS.

If an O-1 or O-2 beneficiary’s employment terminates for reasons other than voluntary resignation, the corresponding employer, who is also the petitioner (if both of them are the same), or the employer and the US agent will jointly be held liable for reasonable cost of return transportation of the beneficiary to his/her place of residence, before entering the U.S.

O-1 Visa Checklist of Documents

A petitioner must include the following documents while filing the beneficiary’s I-129 form to USCIS.

  • Evidence specific to the particular classification sought, i.e. evidence depicting extraordinary abilities of the beneficiary,
  • Copies of any written contracts between the petitioner and the beneficiary or, if there is no written contract, a summary of the terms of the oral agreement under which the beneficiary will be employed,
  • An explanation of the nature of the events or activities, the beginning and ending dates for the events or activities, and a copy of any itinerary for the events or activities, and
  • A written advisory opinion(s) from the appropriate consulting entity or entities.
Record Form of Documentation or Evidence Please Note
Consultations A written advisory opinion from

  • a U.S. peer group (labor organization can be included), or
  • a person(s) with expertise in the beneficiary’s area of ability.

For beneficiary applying in motion picture or television, written advisory opinion must come from

  • an appropriate labor union, and
  • a management organization with expertise in the beneficiary’s area of ability.
  • If the consultation includes a watermark to verify the authenticity of the document, submit the original version to USCIS.
  • Make copies of this consultation and keep it with you.
Consultation Requirement Exception
  • If an appropriate peer group does not exist for your field of expertise, then your petitioner must prove the same to the USCIS.
  • If you have extraordinary ability in the field of arts and you are seeking readmission to perform similar services within two years of the date of a previous consultation.
  • Your employer or agent should submit a waiver request and a copy of the previous consultation with the petition.
Petitioner and Beneficiary Contract Evidence of an oral agreement may include but is not limited to:

  • emails between the contractual parties,
  • a written summation of the terms of the agreement, or
  • any other evidence demonstrating the presence of an oral agreement.
The summary of the oral agreement must contain:

  • The terms offered by the petitioner, and
  • The terms accepted by the beneficiary.
Itineraries The petitioner must provide

  • an explanation of the nature of the events or activities,
  • the beginning and ending dates for the events or activities,
  • a copy of any itinerary for the events or activities, a copy of any itinerary for the events or activities.
Agent If your petitioner is a US agent, then he/she will have to submit:

  • contractual agreement between the agent and the beneficiary which specifies the wage offered, and
  • terms and conditions of employment.
  • contractual agreement should lay out how the beneficiary will be paid.

USCIS maintains a list of organizations that provide advisory opinions on O-1 and O-2 beneficiaries.

Can O-1 Visa Holders Apply for a Green Card?

Yes, O-1 visa holders can apply for legal permanent residence (green card) in the U.S., as O-1 visas are of dual intent.

Such visa holders can apply for U.S. residency through different green card routes, like the EB-1 green card pathway or the EB-2, among others.

The most preferred or desirable route chosen by most O-1 visa holders is through the EB-1A , EB-1B or EB-2 NIW green cards.

While the EB-1A green card is for aliens with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, the EB-1B green card is for outstanding alien researchers and professors.

The application requirements for EB-1A and EB-1B green cards are very close to that of an O-1 visa.

This is also why most visa holders opt to file for permanent residency through these two green card pathways.

Besides, the EB-1A and EB-2 NIW beneficiaries can self-petition their case.

The O-1 visa holder can also apply for an EB-2 green card but that requires going through an intensive PERM labor certification process.

The O-1 holder can start his/her application process for an EB-1 green card by either self-petitioning the Form I-140, or getting it petitioned through a US employer. For EB-1 green card application, a US agent cannot petition your case.

Dependents of O-1 Visa Holder

O-1 visa holders can bring their spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, into the U.S.

For this, the O-1 visa holder’s dependents will have to apply for an O-3 visa. They will be subjected to the same period of admission and limitations as you.

They may not work in the United States under this classification, but they may participate in full-time or part-time study on an O-3 visa.

Related links:

Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker