The O-1A visa for “individuals with extraordinary ability” is arguably the best US work visa. Yet very few international students ever apply for the O-1. Why? The O-1 criteria can be intimidating and even confusing. Even worse, many international students are led to believe that they don’t qualify for the O-1 even when they do. This article will dispel the myths behind the “genius visa” and dive deep into every O-1 criterion.
This article was written in partnership with Legalpad. Legalpad specializes in the O-1 and has helped hundreds of immigrants—including recent graduates and college dropouts—get O-1 visas.
Understanding the O-1A visa
The O-1 is a nonimmigrant visa that enables foreign talent to live and work in the United States indefinitely. It is initially valid for three years but is eligible for unlimited renewals.
The O-1 is sometimes called the “celebrity visa” because it’s best known as the visa used by figures like Justin Bieber, David Beckham, and Rihanna. However, qualifying for the O-1 is more common than you might think. Many early-stage startup founders, accomplished artists, researchers, and engineers live and work in the US on the O-1.
You don’t have to be famous or have decades of experience to qualify for the O-1. You just need to meet three or more specific criteria. For individuals in certain career paths—particularly startup founders—satisfying three criteria is reasonably straightforward. We’ll detail each O-1 criterion later in this article.
Advantages of the O-1A
The advantages of the O-1 far outweigh other US visas; if you’re unmarried. The main downside of the O-1 is that it does not provide work authorization for spouses. If that’s not a concern, the O-1 is likely your best option.
- No degree requirement: The O-1 does not require you to have any academic degree. If you need to drop out of school to grow your startup, or can’t qualify for other visas because you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, consider the O-1.
- No minimum salary requirement: Unlike other work visas, like the H-1B specialty occupation visa, the O-1 does not have any sort of prevailing wage requirement. This is an advantage as some employers may want to hire you but might not be able to pay the H-1B minimum wage.
- No limit on the number of O-1s granted each year: There is no lottery system, and you can file your O-1 and begin working on it at any point in the year.
- Eligibility for premium processing: You can speed up your O-1 processing time by paying an additional fee, generally about $2500 USD.
- Unlimited status extensions: You don’t have to worry about running out of time on your visa. The O-1 is approved in three-year increments, and there is a high likelihood that extensions will be approved based on USCIS’s dereference policy.
- The ability to hold numerous O-1 visas: Perhaps you have plans to launch your own startup but continue working for the company that hired you on an O-1. That is entirely possible because the O-1 allows you to hold numerous O-1s simultaneously.
- Sponsor your spouse and children on the O-3 visa: Your spouse and any unmarried children under age 21 can come with you to the US under O-3 status. Your spouse will not have work authorization, but they can go to school in the US without needing an F-1 visa.
O-1A requirements deep dive
There are two ways to qualify for the O-1 visa. First, you can qualify with evidence that you’ve won a major award, like a Grammy or Nobel Prize. But most people qualify the second way—by meeting three of eight extraordinary ability criteria. You only need to satisfy three criteria, but the more you can satisfy, the better.
Judging the work of peers in your field, either individually or on a panel
For occupations, the judging criterion is the easiest to satisfy. You can meet this criterion in several ways, for example, peer reviewing articles, sitting on a judging panel at a business competition, or judging a hackathon.
Published material about you in professional publications, major trade publications, or other major media
Have your accomplishments been featured in articles online (or in print)? Depending on the content type and the publication’s reputation, you may satisfy the published material criterion. The strongest pieces come from highly circulated news outlets, such as the New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Times of India, Nasdaq, or TechCrunch. Still, you can also satisfy this criterion with articles in smaller news outlets.
Membership in associations that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by international experts
To satisfy the O-1 membership criterion, you must be a member of a selective organization in your field. A few examples include On Deck, Forbes Business Council, IEEE, American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and Association for Computing Machinery. Many startup founders satisfy this criterion by arguing that their business accelerator counts as a membership.
Authorship of scholarly articles in professional publications, major trade publications, or other major media
Peer-reviewed journals or articles published on business sites can satisfy this criterion. The key is that the article must relate to your current work.
Employed in a critical or essential capacity at a company with a distinguished reputation
There are two parts to the critical employment requirement: (1) you were/are a critical employee (2) at a company with a distinguished reputation.
Many startup founders satisfy this criterion if they can show that their company is distinguished. Early employees at startups, senior-level employees, and other essential players in successful companies have success here. As a reminder, your critical employment can be your current role or a role from ten years ago. There are no time limits for any of the O-1 criteria.
Original contributions of major significance to your field
Original contributions is easily the most underused O-1 criterion. There are so many ways to apply it to your unique career accomplishments. You must submit evidence that you created something that is both original and majorly significant. For example, you patented something that your employer is using. Or you started a new business process that has impacted your field.
You have commanded a high salary or other significantly high remuneration
You would meet high remuneration if you were paid more than others in the same role in the same city. The most straightforward way to show you meet high remuneration is through your salary, but some O-1 applicants have success by showing a high amount of equity.
Nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in your field
Have you ever won an award? It might help you get an O-1 visa. The award needs to be (1) nationally or internationally recognized, and (2) awarded to you for excellence in your field. Many startup founders satisfy this requirement if they have raised venture capital funding.
General pointers for satisfying O-1 extraordinary ability criteria
Satisfying an O-1 criterion means nothing if you can’t prove it. Document all your successes and save your old emails; you’ll thank yourself later! There is no time limit for the O-1 criteria, so your accomplishments now can help your future O-1 petitions.
It’s also helpful to know that university-related accomplishments hold little weight for the O-1. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) wants to see that you are an expert in your profession. Although student accomplishments are impressive, they don’t necessarily demonstrate that you are accomplished among other professionals in your field.
Other US visa categories to consider
H-1B visa for specialty occupations: The most well-known work visa and a natural choice for many recen grads.
E-2 visa for investors: Nationals of certain treaty countries can invest in a US company and then work for it.
TN visa for Canadian and Mexican nationals: An easy choice for Canadian and Mexican nationals in a diversity of occupations.
L-1 visa for managers, executives, and specialized knowledge workers: Transfer from an office abroad to a US office.
Green cards: Become a US permanent resident and have the flexibility to work for any US company without the need for visa sponsorship.
Final thoughts: the O-1A visa
The O-1 visa is an incredible immigration option for many recent grads, startup founders, and accomplished professionals. If you’re interested in exploring your unique O-1 case with an immigration expert, get started with Legalpad.