The O-1 Visa: Who qualifies as “extraordinary”?

The O-1 visa can be a great tool for talented individuals who have found opportunities to work in the United States, but getting a job offer is only the first step in the journey towards obtaining an O-1 visa. Only those with “extraordinary” abilities in the fields of science, education, business, athletics or the arts are eligible to come to the U.S. on an O-1 visa[1]. So what exactly does “extraordinary” mean? Well, it depends on what you are extraordinary in.

If you’re an individual who works in the fields of science, education, business, or athletics, then the regulations are quite stringent; you have to be one of the small percentage who has risen to the very top of your field to be considered “extraordinary”[2]. This can either be demonstrated by having received nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in your field, or by a combination of factors such as having been published, having made original contributions of major significance in your field, or having received a high salary for your work, to name a few.

In the motion picture or television industry, the rules are slightly more lenient; you have to be able to show that you have a degree of skill and recognition “significantly above that ordinarily encountered”.[3] Thus, so long as you are recognized as outstanding, notable or leading in the motion picture and/or television field, you likely qualify as extraordinary for O-1 visa purposes. This can be demonstrated by proving, among other things, that you have performed as a lead or starring participant in productions, have a record of major commercial or critically acclaimed successes, or have received significant recognition for your achievements.

If your expertise is in the arts, the standard is more relaxed (relatively speaking). You simply need to have achieved “distinction”, defined as a high level of achievement that is evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered.[4] Thus, to so long as an artist can be described as prominent, renowned, leading, or well known in the field of arts, they will likely qualify to come to the U.S. on an O-1 visa.

One significant advantage of the O-1 visa is that O-1 visa holders are allowed to have “dual intent”. This means that you can come to the U.S. temporarily even if you are thinking about, or in the process of, becoming a U.S. permanent resident. In fact, many individuals who are extraordinary enough to qualify for an O-1 visa may also be eligible for a first preference employment-based visa, a category that leads to permanent residency. If you are interested in coming to the U.S. to work in any of the above-mentioned fields, we encourage you to contact one of our experienced immigration attorneys to find out if you qualify for an O-1 visa.

[1] 8 C.F.R. §214.2(o)(1)

[2] “O-1 Visa: Individuals with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, last updated 03/16/2011, available here.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

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