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Are you an immigrant looking for ways to live and work in the United States? If so, chances are you’ve heard of the H-1B visa – the most popular visa out there. But, did you know there’s a better alternative called the O-1 visa - a visa that was created specifically for experts at the top of their field and gives a lot more flexibility? In this guide, we’ll help you understand the differences between an H-1B and O-1 in-depth, so you can make a more informed choice.
TL;DR - Here is a quick snapshot of how much the H-1B and the O-1 differ.
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.
The H-1B and the O-1: The eligibility criteria
Who can obtain the H-1B?
If you're looking to work in the US, the H-1B visa could be a great way to do it! But there are a few things to keep in mind:
- You'll need to have a bachelor’s degree from a US school or an equivalent from a foreign institution.
- The H-1B is a “capped” visa – only 65,000 visas are issued each year.
- If you have a master's degree from a US school, there are an extra 20,000 spots available for you.
- And, of course, you'll need to have an employer who can sponsor the visa for you.
Who can obtain the O-1 visa?
The O-1 is a great option (yet less explored) for anyone who is deemed “extraordinary” in their field of work. Don’t get too intimidated by the term “extraordinary” here though. While the O-1 does have a much higher bar than the H-1B, you don’t need a Nobel Prize to get it. Talented immigrants from all walks of life – including entrepreneurs, engineers, and researchers – have gotten it before. You need to satisfy three out of the eight requirements set by USCIS. So as long you understand them in depth and build out your profile to meet them, you too have a shot at it.
Also Read: The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your O-1 Visa
Now, one great thing about the O-1 is, unlike the H-1B, this visa is not “capped.” This means you can apply any time of the year when you have gathered enough evidence regarding your accomplishments.
Now that you have a basic understanding of the two visa choices, let’s find out how similar they are and where they differ.
H-1B vs O-1: Understanding the Differences
The H-1B and the O-1 may appear similar. For instance, they both are temporary, non-immigrant visas that require an employer to sponsor your stay. But they differ in more ways than you’d think. Here are five key ways in which they differ:
The H-1B visa is pretty popular, and hence it does get a lot of applications. But not all applications are approved for visas, thanks to the lottery process. For example, in 2022, 308,613 applications were submitted for the lottery, of which only 85,000 (or 27.5%) were selected at random. Looking at the trend over the past few years, the number of applications only seems to keep increasing each year, thus reducing your chances.
On the other hand, the O-1 doesn't require a lottery, and there’s no cap on the number of applications each year. In 2022, almost 25,000 O-1 applications were submitted, of which close to 90% were approved. But that does not mean that you have a 90% chance of approval if you apply because, unlike the H-1B, the O-1 is a merit-based visa, and you have to satisfy the requirements.
You can apply for the H-1B only at a specific time of each year – usually in April. Even if your application is accepted, your visa will not be valid until October of the same year. However, this does not apply to the “cap-exempt” H-1B, which you should absolutely look at if you’re working at a university or non-profit.
The O-1 visa gives you way more flexibility. You can submit an application at any time throughout the year as long as the job start date is less than a year away. And the best part? Once your application is approved, you'll have access to your visa right away!
The H-1B and O-1 visas are both valid for three years to start with; then, they get a little different.
With an O-1 visa, you can keep extending it – as long as you're working on the project. Say, you’re a chemical engineer researcher working on a project that will take ten years. After the initial three-year period, you can usually extend your O-1 visa for seven more years, one year at a time.
On the other hand, after the initial admission period expires, an H-1 visa can only be extended for another three years– not any more than that. But, you can stay beyond the six-year margin if you apply for a green card in a timely manner (usually by the end of your fourth year).
So if you've got a long-term project, the O-1 might give you some extra breathing room when it comes to how long you can stay in the U.S.
Green Card Pathway
The good news is: both the H-1B and the O-1 are “dual-intent” visas that let you apply for a green card (although does not guarantee one!).
The difference with the O-1 is that you might find yourself in a better position to apply for an EB-1A extraordinary ability green card since the requirements for them are similar (although the bar for an EB-1A is much higher than the O-1).
To apply for an H-1B, all you need is a U.S. Bachelor’s degree or its foreign equivalent. If you have one, you’re good to go! But, with an O-1, it’s a different story. You’ll need to meet at least three of the eight criteria set by USCIS and be deemed extraordinary in your field by the officer who reviews your application.
O-1 vs. H-1B: Which one should you choose?
Most people opt for the H-1B as an easier route to live and work in the US, which is true. But, it’s worth knowing that the O-1 is an option – and a much better one at that – for people who have significant accomplishments in their field and are willing to invest time to strategically build out their application.
The H-1B is easier to get in the short term but has a longer path and more restrictions for the long term. The O-1 is harder to get in the short term but gives you more flexibility on how you spend your future in America. As Robert Webber, an immigration attorney, says,
" In the current environment, where many F-1 students are not able to get H-1B visas due to the H-1B cap; and the PERM labor certification process is extremely slow, there are more and more reasons for employers (and foreign nationals) to explore O-1 and EB-2 NIW as alternatives to H-1Bs and PERM. Too many people assume O-1s are only for famous movie stars or internationally recognized athletes. That is not true, and in fact, the Biden Administration has issued policy guidance to make O-1s increasingly available to STEM graduates."