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The Ultimate Guide To Getting Your O-1 Visa

January 23, 2023
|11 Mins Read
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Setting foot in the United States for work is something that many professionals aspire to do. However, navigating through the immigration landscape and finding the visa that fits your needs can seem intimidating - with the popular misconception that H1B is your only option.

While the H1B visa may be the most popular option, the O-1 visa is another option worth considering (and a better one than the H1B as you'll see). But, due to the perceived complexity of the application process, it's not considered as often. We want to help simplify that with this guide.

In this guide, you'll get to know about:

  • What is an O-1 Visa?
  • O-1 Visa Types
  • What makes the O-1 visa different from the H-1B?
  • What makes you eligible for the O-1 visa?
  • How long will it take to get the visa?
  • What is the cost involved?
  • Who can sponsor an O-1 visa?
  • How to apply for an O-1 visa?

Let’s begin.


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.


What is an O-1 visa?

The O-1 visa is a temporary visa given to those who have "extraordinary ability" in the fields of science, art, education, business, athletics, motion picture, or the television industries.

It's a temporary visa that lets you stay for 3 initial years, followed by -- and here's the best part -- unlimited renewals in increments of one year.

Although the term "extraordinary ability" makes it sound like it's reserved for ethereal superhumans, it's really not. If you understand the requirements in depth and have a great strategy to gather evidence, you too can get the seemingly impossible visa. Let's dive in to understand more.


How many O-1 visas have been issued so far?

Here’s the good news: since 1995, the number of O-1 visas issued each year has nearly doubled every 10 years!

The chart below shows the total number of O-1 visas issued at U.S. consulates across the world. This is fewer than the total number of O-1 visas approved since many immigrants who get the visa don't get their stamping at a U.S. consulate the same year.


Screen Shot 2023 01 25 at 3.52.24 PM
Figure: A graph of O-1 visa stamps issued by U.S. consulates following O-1 petition approval by USCIS. If you didn’t already guess, the big dip in 2020 and 2021 was due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Further, the approval rates of the O-1 visa have consistently stayed above 90%, except for 2020 when it dipped slightly.


Screen Shot 2023 01 25 at 3.52.40 PM

Figure: A graph of the percentage of O-1 visas approved versus the total number of applications per year.


This is great for you! Despite the pompous name given to the O-1 visa – that it’s for “aliens of extraordinary ability” – these numbers and the growth rate are proof of its growing attainability. What you need is a great plan that uses all of your achievements to craft a compelling narrative that shows that you are indeed an asset to the country.


Types of O-1 visa

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.

  • O-1A: You will be eligible under the O-1A category if you demonstrate extraordinary abilities in the field of education, science, athletics, or business.
  • O-1B: If you are an accomplished artist or if you have earned a reputation of international scale in the motion picture of the television industry, you can avail of an O-1B visa.

While the O-1A and O-1B account for the various archetypes of immigrants, there are two more categories under the O-1 to account for those who can accompany you.

  • O-2: If you happen to accompany an athlete or artist on an O-1 visa to help them with their events or program, then you should consider the O-2 visa category.
  • O-3: If you are the spouse or child of someone who holds an O-1 visa in the United States, then the O-3 visa is designed to help you join them during their stay.


Now that you have a fair idea of what O-visa stands for, let's explore the other details.


What makes the O-1 visa different from the H-1B?

If you’re wondering, “Hey, is the O-1 visa all that different from the H-1B?”, the answer is, “Yes! It’s very different.”

The O-1 and the H-1B do have some similarities:

  • They are temporary non-immigrant visas, and
  • They require someone to sponsor your stay in the US.

But take a look at how much they differ:


O-1 Visa H-1B Cap Visa
There is no cap on the number of visas issued each year. There is a cap of 85,000 visas that are issued each year (with 65,000 available to every applicant and 20,000 reserved for those with an advanced degree).
You can file the application any time. You have to register in the lottery that opens up in a certain window every March, followed by filing the application if your name gets picked.
If approved, your change of status to the O-1 visa can be immediate. If approved, your change of status to H-1B is only effective in October. Although, if you already have an H-1B or apply for a cap-exempt one, this doesn't apply.
There is no limitation on the duration of the visa. It can be extended indefinitely after the first three years. The visa is limited to 6 years. After that, you need to leave, change your visa, or start the green card process (ideally by your 4th year).
There is no minimum salary that you need to get paid. In fact, you don’t even need to have a salary. There is a minimum salary you need to get paid based on the Wage data published by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Because of their similarities in requirements, you might be in a better position when you begin your EB-1 Extraordinary Ability green card process. Getting the H-1B approved does not have any immediate bearing on getting the EB-1 Extraordinary Ability green card.
There’s no need for a direct relationship between your education and your field of O-1. There has to be a direct relationship between your education and the work you do.


So, now, that gives you at least 7 more reasons to think of applying for the O-1 visa!


What makes you eligible for the O-1 visa?

The O-1A and the O-1B visas have different eligibility requirements.


Eligibility criteria - O-1A Visa

The O-1A is meant for those who have extraordinary ability in the fields of science, education, business, or athletics and have risen to the top of their field.

When you don’t have obvious international acclaim, such as a Nobel Prize or an Olympic medal, USCIS measures your excellence through eight criteria.

  • Original contribution: You have contributed original scientific, scholarly, or business-related works that have had major significance in your field.
  • Critical capacity: You have been employed in a critical or essential capacity at an organization that has a distinguished reputation in your field.
  • Judging: You have participated on a panel as a judge of the work of others in your field.
  • Press: You and your work have been featured in professional publications, major trade publications, or major media.
  • Authorship: You have authored scholarly articles that are published in professional journals, major trade publications, or other major media in your field.
  • High salary: You have commanded or will command a high salary or other payments that come from the services you give in your field.
  • National or International recognition: You have received nationally or internationally recognized awards or prizes for excellence in your field of expertise.
  • Membership: You are a member of an association that requires outstanding achievements in your field as determined by recognized national or international experts.

If USCIS agrees that you meet a minimum of 3 out of the 8 criteria based on the evidence submitted, and feels satisfied with the totality of the evidence provided, you get the coveted visa!


Eligibility criteria - O-1B visa

The O-1B is meant for those who have extraordinary ability in the fields of arts, motion picture, or television production and have sustained national or international acclaim.

Similar to the O-1A, in lieu of a Grammy award or an Oscar, you can show evidence of the following six pillars to prove that you’re extraordinary.

  • Critical capacity: You have performed, or will perform, a critical role for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation (proven via articles in newspapers, trade journals, publications, or testimonials).
  • Lead or starring role: You have performed, or will perform in a, lead or starring role in productions or events that have a distinguished reputation (proven via critical reviews, advertisements, press releases, contracts, etc.).
  • National or International recognition: You have achieved national or international recognition, which is proven by critical reviews and published materials in major newspapers, trade publications, or magazines.
  • Commercial success: You have a record of commercial or critically acclaimed successes evidenced through ratings, box office receipts, title, standing in a field, or other achievements reported in trade journals, major newspapers, & other publications.
  • Testimonials: You have received significant recognition from organizations, critical government agencies, or other recognized experts in the field. Such testimonials must clearly state your authority and expertise.
  • High salary: You have commanded or will command a high salary or other payments for services in relation to others in the field (proven by contracts or other reliable evidence).

If USCIS agrees that you meet a minimum of 3 out of the 8 criteria based on the evidence submitted, and feels satisfied with the totality of the evidence provided, you get the coveted visa!

Finally, if some of the criteria above do not apply to you or your profession, it's okay. You can still apply for the visa using something called "comparable evidence." Regardless of what you use, reach out to an immigration lawyer to first do a profile evaluation.

Now that you have an understanding of the subcategories, let's look at the timeline to get your O1.


How long does it take to get the O-1 visa?

Generally, there are three phases involved in the timeline:

  • Preparation phase: Most people who learn about the O-1 visa spend anywhere between 2 months to a year preparing or gathering the evidence required to satisfy the eligibility requirements. The nature of evidence entirely depends on your area of expertise and the criteria you are looking to meet. In general, you might get involved in peer-reviewing journal articles, publishing papers in scientific journals, writing and publishing a book, judging competitions in your area of expertise, raising more money for your startup, or getting invited to join a distinguished organization. Although the minimum requirement is to satisfy three criteria, we recommend gathering evidence for at least four so you have a better shot.


  • Filing phase: Once you feel confident with the evidence you’ve gathered, it’s time to hand over the baton to your lawyer, who will begin preparing your application. The timeline of this phase primarily depends on the speed of your lawyer: how fast they create the recommendation letters, review and assimilate the evidence, draft the initial application, and compile everything to prepare your final case. This could range anywhere between a few weeks to a few months.


  • Waiting phase: Finally, once you send over the application to the USCIS, you wait. Depending on whether you went through premium processing or not, you could wait anywhere between 2 weeks to several months. If you end up getting a Request for Evidence (RFE) from your office, it could add another few months to your overall journey.


post journey

So, be prepared to spend anywhere between 3 to 18 months (or even more) in the overall journey!


What is the cost involved in the O-1 visa process?

The cost involved in the O-1 visa process can vary depending on several factors. But in general, you need to be aware of the 4 types of costs involved.


What kind of fee? How much would it cost? What’s this for?
Form I-129 Non-Immigrant Worker petition fee of $460 $460 A mandatory fee for anyone who wants to file the O-1 application
Lawyer fee $5000 - $15000 What you pay to your lawyer to file your application. Note: Some lawyers charge you additional fees when your case gets approved.
Form 1-907 Premium Processing $2500 Optional fee if you want to fast-track your case to receive a response in 15 days.
DS-160 $200 (approx) This becomes applicable once your O-1 is approved, and you need to take up an interview at your home country’s consulate. Note: This amount is country-specific.


To sum up, it might cost you anywhere between $5000 - $18000 before you get your O-1 visa stamped.

Remember, this does not include other expenses that you may incur, say, for example, the money you pay to the PR firm to publish your articles.

But don't worry. Since you go through an employer or an agent, they should take care of these expenses for you as your sponsor. The only place where these expenses matter is when you file for an O1 through a company you set up.


Who can sponsor your O-1 visa?

The USCIS gives you two options to choose from for your employment:

  • You can either work with a single employer or
  • You can work with an agent, who in turn can represent you with multiple employers.

Although the word agent sounds like it refers to an individual acting on your behalf (or a secret agent on a classified mission), an agent can mean three things here:

  • An employer: That’s right, the agent can also be the actual employer. This scenario happens when you want to work for multiple employers, and one of them agrees to be your agent.
  • A representative of both you and your employer: Here, the agent is a third party acting on behalf of you and your employer (this could be in exchange for a percentage commission of your salary).
  • A person or entity authorized to act on behalf of your employers: Similar to the second case, the agent here is once again a third party acting on behalf of all of your employers to streamline the process, once again in exchange for a percentage commission of your total salary.

The advantage of going with the agent is that you have greater flexibility to add or remove employers during the course of your stay in the U.S. This is unlike the employer route, where any change in your employment requires that you submit a new, amended O-1 application which needs to be approved by the USCIS.


The O-1 visa process: Steps

We have talked at length about all that you need to know before you begin the application process. Let’s now take you through the actual process.


Step 1: Filing the petition

Your employer in the U.S. begins the petition process on your behalf. For this, they will be filing the I-129 along with the necessary documentation.


Step 2: Waiting for approval

Once your employer files the petition, there's a waiting period. If you went via premium processing, you can expect a response in 15 calendar days. Otherwise, on average, the response time can be anywhere between 2 weeks to a few months.


Step 3: Once you have your O-1 approved

Once you get your approval notice, the next step depends on whether you’re in or out of the country:

  • If you’re in the United States: You don’t need to do anything else! Your lawyer must have applied for a change of status while filing, which means your status gets automatically transferred to an O-1 visa.
  • If you’re outside the United States: You have one final step - to apply for a visa at your home country’s U.S. embassy. This involves the following steps.
    • File Form DS-160
    • Pay the O-1 Visa Few
    • Schedule an interview appointment at the US consulate
    • Attend the interview


If all goes well at the interview, you should receive your visa in the mail within a few weeks. We don’t mean to be a party pooper. But, despite all the hard work you have put in, the interviewer could still deny your visa if they suspect any trace of immigrant intent. Put simply, show them that your heart lies at home; demonstrate your strong attachment and commitment to your home country. Make it very clear that you don’t intend to permanently immigrate to the US.


Wrapping Up

Applying for an O-1 visa may seem overwhelming, but don’t let that discourage you. When you understand the process in-depth and plan strategically, it’s entirely manageable and even enjoyable.

In a way, the O-1 acts as a catalyst for you to do well in your career, fast. Whether or not you get it, it will still put you in a much better position than someone who is not thinking of applying for it. It’s a framework to help you pursue opportunities without hesitation, opportunities you otherwise would ignore or not know about.

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