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The O-1 Extraordinary Ability Visa is a non-immigrant visa for people who have extraordinary ability and skill either in the sciences, education, business, athletics, arts, television, or the motion picture industry.
When most people initially think about the O-1 visa, they think about it as if it were a single entity. However, the O-1 is supposed to encompass immigrants from many different backgrounds and careers. For instance, an extraordinary chef cannot be evaluated along the same parameters as a prodigious programmer. To account for these differences, the government introduced two sub-categories: the O-1A, and the O-1B.
Both the O-1A and the O-1B are meant for individuals with extraordinary abilities. The big difference is in who they target. According to USCIS,
- O-1A is meant for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics.
- O-1B is meant for Individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts, motion picture or television industry.
Today, we will talk about the process of obtaining an O-1 visa and what the timeline looks like to get it. Let's dive in!
DISCLAIMER: None of the information in this guide is, or should be construed as legal advice. The information shared is for general purposes only. Please consult with a licensed immigration lawyer to work on your O-1 application.
Also read: The O-1 visa vs H-1B: A Detailed Comparison
Steps to Get an O-1 Visa Approval
Here is a breakdown of the process to get your O-1 visa:
Step 1: Gather All Documents
To get started, your employer in the US must file Form I-129, along with all the necessary documents. These documents will include:
- A written letter from a group of people who work in the same field as you, stating that you have exceptional abilities in that area.
- A copy of your employment contract, or if you don't have one, a summary of the terms of your oral agreement with your employer.
- You'll need to provide copies of evidence showing that the work you'll be doing:
- Is mainly related to a specific project, conference, lecture, exhibit, or convention that is sponsored by educational or scientific organizations.
- Involves a particular business project that requires someone with exceptional executive or technical skills because of the project's complexity.
- Proof of your extraordinary abilities or achievements. For that, you'll need to provide evidence of at least one of the following:
- Receipt of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in your field of work.
- Membership in associations in your field that require exceptional achievements, as judged by recognized international experts.
- Published material about you and your work in professional or major trade publications or newspapers.
- Participation on a panel or as a judge of the work of others in your field or a related field.
- Significant contributions to original scientific or scholarly research in your field.
- Authorship of scholarly articles in your field for professional journals or other major media.
- Evidence that you are paid a high salary or other high remuneration for your services.
- Evidence that you have played a leading or critical role for an organization or establishment with a distinguished reputation.
This is the most important – and longest – step in the process as it involves gathering hundreds of pages of documents as evidence of your extraordinary ability!
The Fee Involved
When submitting your O-1 Visa application, you'll need to pay the following fees:
- The mandatory Form I-129 Non-immigrant Worker petition fee of $460 for all O-1 applicants.
- It's recommended to hire a lawyer to help with the application process. Lawyer fees typically range from $5000 to $15,000. While you can apply on your own, it's not recommended due to the complexity of the process and the importance of getting it right.
- An optional premium processing fee of $2,500 if you want to receive a response to your application within 15 days. It's worth noting that the premium processing fee is subject to change. In 2020, the government increased this amount from $1,225 to $2,500, which surprised many applicants.
Hence, the total cost to file for an O-1 visa can range from around $5,500 to $18,000. However, typically, it's the employer or agent who covers the expenses, so you may not have to worry about it.
Step 2: Submit Your Application
After gathering all the required documentation and paying the fee, the next step is to submit your application to the appropriate USCIS service center. Now, all you have to do is wait for your visa approval!
Depending on whether or not you opt for premium processing, the wait time can vary from just 2 weeks to several months. So, be sure to plan accordingly and stay patient throughout the process.
Step 3: O-1 Visa Gets Approved!
Congratulations! You've got your O-1 visa approval notice.
The next step will depend on whether you're currently in or out of the US:
- If you're already in the US: You don't have to take any further action. Your lawyer should have filed for a “change of status” while submitting your application, so your status will automatically be transferred to an O-1 visa.
- If you're outside the US: There's just one more step to take. You'll need to apply for a visa at your country's US embassy. This involves filling out a Form DS-160 online and booking an appointment for an interview with the embassy.
If You Live Outside the United States
1. File Form DS-160
Once your O-1 visa petition is approved, it's time to move on to the next step - filing Form DS-160. It's important to make sure you fill out all sections of the form accurately and completely, as any errors or omissions can delay the visa application process.
2. Pay the DS-160 Fee
After getting your O-1 visa approved, you may have to pay a DS-160 fee of around $200.This fee is usually required when you need to attend an interview at the consulate in your home country. It may also be applicable if you're traveling back to your home country temporarily. The exact fee amount can vary depending on the country you're applying from.
Note: Ensure that you save your receipt to present it during the visa appointment.
3. Schedule Your Interview
Once you have completed the Form DS-160 and paid the fee, the next step is to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy. Your appointment can be scheduled online using ustraveldocs.com (while applying from Asia) or ais.usvisa-info.com (while applying from other regions). Make sure to bring all the required documents to your interview to avoid any delays or issues:
- Latest valid passport
- Interview appointment letter
- DS-160 form confirmation page
- I-797 Approval Notice obtained from USCIS
- Your photo (ensure it meets Department of State requirements)
- Proof of payment for the MRC (Machine Readable Visa) fee
4. Attend The Interview
On the day of your visa interview, you'll be required to bring all the necessary documents.The visa officer will be interviewing you mainly on your field of expertise, why you think you’re at the top of it, and what you plan to work on in the U.S.
Assuming the interview goes smoothly and all requirements are met, you can expect to receive your visa by mail within a few weeks. However, it's important to note that even if your O-1 application is approved, there is still a chance of being denied the visa if the interview does not go well.
Navigating the O-1 Visa Timelines
The O-1 process is divided into three distinct stages, each with its own schedule.
The Preparation phase: 2 months - 1 year
When it comes to the O-1 visa, most people don't have all the necessary evidence ready to go from the get-go. It's common for it to take anywhere from a couple of months to a whole year to gather everything you need to meet the criteria listed. This process can include things like getting your work peer-reviewed, publishing papers in scientific journals, writing a book, judging competitions in your field, raising more funds for your startup, or getting invited to join a prestigious organization. The specific steps you'll need to take will depend on your area of expertise and the criteria you're trying to meet. Although the minimum requirement is to show evidence for three criteria, we suggest aiming to provide evidence for at least four. This will give you a better chance of being approved!
Filing phase: Few weeks - Few months
Once you gather the evidence, the next step is to find a lawyer, who will initiate the process of preparing your application. The duration of this phase primarily hinges on the efficiency of your attorney: the promptness with which they compose the endorsement letters, scrutinize and comprehend the evidence, draft the preliminary application, and gather all necessary components to finalize your case.
Waiting phase: 2 weeks - months
Upon submitting your application to the USCIS, it becomes a waiting game. Depending on your choice of utilizing premium processing or not, the waiting period could vary from as short as 2 weeks to as long as multiple months. In the event that your office issues a Request for Evidence (RFE), it could further extend the overall duration of your journey.
Also read: The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your O-1 Visa
As a result, the total journey can be anywhere between 3 to 18 months, or sometimes longer.
In summary, the O-1 is far from a short, or simple, process. But, if you approach it with a strategic mindset and a competent lawyer, it’s more attainable than you might think!