I get lots of messages from my online friends asking how I got my O-1. The process can be very daunting and sometimes time consuming. I’ve compiled some my learnings and tips. I hope this helps save some time and potentially navigate the process a bit more clearly!
For context, I moved from Canada to the Bay/US about 2 years ago. I’ve worked at various companies, doing research, and founded my own startup. You can learn more about me here.
Quick disclaimer: This article is based on my own experience and is by no means legal advice. I definitely recommend reaching out to a lawyer to get any legal advice. I think the folks at LegalPad can be particularly helpful and have helped lots of my founder friends get O-1s.
What is an O-1 Visa?
The O-1 visa is a unique option for folks with extraordinary abilities in fields like the sciences, arts, education, business, and athletics (O1-A) or those with significant achievements in the television industry (O1-B). I’ll be focusing more on the O1-A visa, particularly for individuals in the tech/startup realm.
O-1 vs. H-1B
There are many types of work visas, with H-1B being the most popular. The O-1, on the other hand, is a non-immigrant visa that allows you to stay in the U.S. for up to three years (with possible extensions). What sets it apart is the need to prove you’re in the top 1% of your field with substantial evidence. Processing times for O-1 are generally faster (15 calendar days with premium processing) compared to H-1B. Plus, there’s no annual quota for O-1, making it a bit more flexible.
Understanding the distinctions between O-1 and H-1B visas I think can be really helpful for applicants. For example, the O-1 allows for indefinite extensions, making it an attractive option if you’re seeking longer-term stay in the U.S. However, in some cases, H-1B can also be a better fit.
How to Apply
To kick off the O-1 visa application, you can’t file the petition yourself. You need a sponsor (usually your employer) to do that for you. If you’re with a company, they’ll likely engage a lawyer to handle the petition. For those engaging in independent work or startups, forming an LLC or C Corp is necessary, with specific ownership requirements.
Specifically, if you work on a startup or do independent research, you can form a company using services like Stripe Atlas or Clerky which incorporates a company (LLC or C Corp) for you, opens a bank account for you (you can use Mercury or any other service for this), etc. You do have to make sure that you either own ≤49% equity in the petitioning company or have an odd number of Board of Directions. You also need to submit a business plan for your company in the petition. I would look into the specifics here if you’re going with this option as the details can be important (and I haven’t mentioned all of them here).
Change of Status
Now, if you’re in the U.S. on other lawful statuses (like OPT, F1, or J1), you can file a change of status form along with the I-129 form to transition to O status. It’s usually doable, but do check for your specific visa.
The application requires detailed documentation, including a contract with the employer, evidence of past stays in the U.S., and proof of extraordinary ability. You have to meet at least three of the eight criteria, like awards, membership in exclusive groups, media coverage, patents, publications, high remuneration, conference participation, and non-intern work experience. In my case, I hit about 6 or 7 of these criteria in my petition.
Working with a lawyer is advisable for the petition. They’ll guide you in gathering evidence for each criterion, like media coverage, recommendation letters, etc. You should gather proof for each criterion that you think you qualify for and share with your lawyers. The lawyers will then draft the petition together for you. You’ll also need to fill out various forms like Forms I-907, I-129, and G-28.
- To get an O-1 visa, you need to meet three of eight criteria. The more criteria you meet, the better your chances. I always recommend showing evidence for more than 3 (all 8 if possible) because if you are weaker in some category, it can be helpful to showcase more evidence in another category.
- Collect as much documentation as you can of your accomplishments for each criterion.
- Gather evidence for your accomplishments, including emails, flyers, photos, and website information. Use both past and recent accomplishments.
Strengthening Your Application
Extraordinary Ability Criteria
Understanding the term “extraordinary ability” is useful. It signifies being at the top tier in your field, which usually requires telling a compelling story of your career and achievements. As an exercise I did, I think it’s helpful to go through things you’ve worked on and try to weave a cohesive story for how you can portray each item in a story.
Advisory Opinion Letter
Also known as the recommendation letter, the advisory opinion letter is a critical component that is often not mentioned as much. Gathering 8–10 letters from high-status individuals in your industry, vouching for your extraordinary ability can be really useful and a game-changer.
Strengthening Each Criterion:
Here are some general tips on things you can do to strengthen your evidence for each criterion.
- If you’ve been through an accelerator or funded by VC firms, try to also judge events like hackathons.
- Collect emails, flyers, photos, or website information proving your role as a judge.
- Media Outlets: Aim for press articles in highly circulated news outlets. Smaller outlets work if they are highly circulated.
- Article Focus: Opt for articles about you specifically, not just about your company. Or if it’s about your company, highlight how it relates to you.
- Aim for memberships in top organizations. This is usually whatever organizations in your field might be of high calibre.
- Niche Associations: Look for associations specific to your expertise.
- Accelerators/Incubators: These can be considered memberships.
- Business Media: If it makes sense, write articles for business media sites like Forbes or TechCrunch.
- If you’re in research, this can mean co-authoring papers in your field.
- Pitch Ideas: Reach out to news outlets with article ideas related to your work.
- Focus on gaining press about your company, entering accelerators, and obtaining grants or awards.
- Documentation: Provide evidence of partnerships, userbase growth, downloads/reviews, and any other indicators of success in your company or work.
- Patents: While patents are ideal, alternative evidence includes white papers, business plans, or expert testimony.
- Past Contributions: Include contributions from previous roles or companies.
- Individual Awards: Emphasize awards offered to you as an individual.
- Company Awards: Argue that awards or accolades for your company are also yours.
O-1 visa processing usually takes two to three months, but you can opt for the USCIS Premium Processing Service for a 15-day turnaround at an extra cost of $2,500 (this might have changed so would double check). Attorney fees can range between $7,000 and $10,000.
What’s next after sending in your application?
You’ll either get an acceptance, which comes with an approval letter, or an RFE (Request for more evidence). If you get an RFE (around ~50% of applications might), you have 87 days to respond by attaching more evidence like reference letters.
If your petition gets approved, you’ll go through a consular interview to get the stamp. Fill out the DS-160 form and book an appointment with the U.S. embassy in your country if needed. You can fill out the DS-160 form here and book an appointment (if needed) here.