A guide on getting an O-1 visa.

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer. If you follow the advice in this article and screw up, I’m sorry but I’m not personally liable for any damage.  

I get a lot of messages from my online friends asking how I got my O-1. There’s not a lot of very useful information on O-1 besides articles repeating the same jargon from USCIS articles. Sadly, I’ve had to spend hundreds of hours of my time and over $10k on dealing with immigration, and that sucks. I hope this helps save you some time and encourages you to move to the US!

First of all, my O-1 wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing people at Bay Immigration Law who worked hard on my petition and tolerated my 3 am panic attacks about a change in the petition. They were amazingly patient and I’d highly recommend them!

So…what is O-1?

If you (or your biological parents) were not born on the US territory and you don’t have an American passport or green card, you need a visa to enter or work in the US. There are many types of work visas, with H-1B being the most popular. But there’s another, slightly lesser known visa category called O-1, which is a non-immigrant visa that lets you stay in the US for up to 3 years (can be extended) working for an employer (which can be your own company too!). O-1 requires you to prove that you’re in the top 1% of your field with evidence (discussed below). O-1 is more flexible and takes lesser time to process (15 calendar days with premium processing). And in some cases, it can be your only option because H-1B requires at least a bachelor’s degree.
If you’ve been wanting to move to the US to work on your startup, or do research, or work on anything, you should consider the O-1 visa!

What do I need to get an O-1?

You need two things: evidence that you meet at least 3/8 criteria listed here AND an employer to petition for you.

a) Evidentiary Criteria:
In simple words, the criteria mean you have: 1) Awards 2) Membership in exclusive groups 3) Media and news about you 4) Patents or something else original and significant 5) Publications authored by you 6) High remuneration (usually that means 2x the average salary of a person in your profession in your country, which is sourced from something like Glassdoor. So if you’re a software engineer from India where the average salary is $10k/year and if you had your app acquired for $20k+, you have satisfactory evidence for this criterion). 7) Spoke at a conference/ panel or judged a hackathon 8) Work experience somewhere in a non-intern role.

My lawyers applied for all 8 criteria in my petition.

Something that is not mentioned on the USCIS website but is very important and you may have probably heard about it from someone, is getting letters of recommendation from experts in your field. Typically, these letters have a specific format and most lawyers write the letters themselves after researching on the person, which you can send to the recommender to review and sign.

b) Petitioner/employer to file your petition:
Now you could just apply for a job in the US and if you get hired, your employer will fill out some forms and hire a lawyer for your O-1 petition.
But if you want to work on a startup or do independent research and things of that sort, you can form a company using Stripe Atlas which incorporates a company (LLC or C Corp) for you, opens a bank account for you, and more for just $500. I spent 10 minutes filling out a few forms for incorporating Harshita Apps, LLC, which petitioned for my O-1.
Keep in mind that O-1 requires that you either own ≤49% equity in the petitioning company or have an odd number of Board of Directions so that you can be fired. I went with the former. I added my aunt as a 51% equity owner.
Also, you’d need to submit a business plan for your company in the petition.

If you’re under 18 and are using Stripe Atlas to form an LLC, their banking partner, Azlo, will not be able to open a bank account for your company. In principle, they would love to support founders under 18 but there are significant compliance hurdles to figure out first. So when I was told this, I went to every bank in the Bay Area asking them to open a business bank account for my company (and before you wonder why I bothered with that if I could just open a personal bank account, check out the consequences of the O-1 section). None of them agreed. Chase said that my parents would need to be physically present at the bank to consent. Wells Fargo said that all founders need to be physically present. I didn’t want to spend ~$1k in flying my Dad or aunt from India for an administrative task. Even Silicon Valley Bank said no when I phoned them up. Eventually, several weeks later, a friend of mine contacted his connection at SVB, who assigned a Bank Advisor who called me up and it all worked out from there! I opened an account with my Dad as the manager (and he just signed the agreements online) and I don’t have transactional authority on the account until I turn 18.

I have an employer and meet the criteria, what’s next?

Hire a lawyer to write your petition. Your petition will include evidence for each criterion. So things like your media and news printed, letters of recommendation from people, etc. You should make a Google Drive folder with all proof for each criterion that you think you qualify for and share with your lawyers. My lawyers took about 3 weeks to write letters of recommendation, conduct research, and write the petition. You’ll also fill out Forms I-907 (Request for premium processing), I-129 (non-immigrant worker petition), and G-28 (another form).

Also if you’re already in the US on a non-immigrant visa (like B-1/2), you can apply for a change of status to O-1 without having to travel to your home country for consular interviews. I did consular processing anyway because you can’t travel internationally without an O-1 stamp on the passport.

Filing a petition and next steps

Your lawyers will print out the entire petition and mail it to USCIS along with a check for filing fees. If you paid for premium processing, then you should receive a response within 15 calendar days. I got an acceptance email in 3 days!
There are two possible outcomes at this stage — an acceptance (which gets you an approval letter mailed to you or your lawyer) or an RFE (Request for more evidence). If you get an RFE, then you have 87 days to respond and my lawyer told me that typically they just add more letters of recommendation. About 35% of the petitions get an RFE. No petitions are rejected outright.

If your petition has been approved, congratulations! 😀 Once you have your approval letter, you need to go through a consular interview to get the stamp (unless you applied for change of status, in which case, you don’t need to do anything). Your next step is to fill out the DS-160 form here and book an appointment with the US embassy in your country which you can do here. And then go for the interview and biometrics (if your country requires it). Make sure you take your approval letter, passport, DS-160 confirmation, and appointment confirmation pages. While I wasn’t asked for it, my lawyer suggested me to print my petition just in case they ask. They will collect your passport after the interview and you will go and collect it once it’s ready or they’ll ship it to you. Once you have your passport with the O-1 stamp, you’re all set! Check the validity period on your approval letter before booking your flight to the US. You’re eligible for a grace period of up to 10 days before the validity during which you can enter the US.

Once you travel to the US, you’d need to register for SSN and open a personal bank account. Also, you’d need to find a place to live and all the other stuff one needs to do when they move to a new place. Also, pay your taxes!

How much does it all cost?

$460 is the government filing fees
$1225 is the premium processing fee (this is optional. If you want your O-1 to be processed in 15 calendar days instead of months, then you need to pay this fee)
$500 for Stripe Atlas to incorporate your company, if you do
$7,500 for a law firm to prepare your petition (this is also optional. And the lawyer fee can vary, but $7.5k is the standard, I’ve heard).

Also, include the money you’d spend on traveling to your home country to do consular interviews (if you do consular processing instead of change of status and you’re already in the US).

Remember that you’re making an investment in yourself and your career!

Consequences of O-1:

1. You need to keep a paycheck stub that your employer gives you every month or biweekly or however often you’re paid. If you incorporated a company for O-1 purposes, this means that you need to make enough revenue to pay the promised salary from your company’s business bank account to your personal bank account. If you don’t have the paycheck stub, you won’t be able to apply for O-1 extensions or do a change of status to some other non-immigrant visas, and it’d basically be illegal if you’re not getting paid by your employer.
And this means you need to pay taxes, both your company and you. For LLC’s, I think it’s simpler and you can avoid double-taxation. Consult a tax lawyer if stuff like TurboTax is too confusing.


What’s next after O-1?

EB-1! This visa has the same criteria as O-1 but is harder to get. This visa gets you a green card and can be self-sponsored (unlike O-1 which needs to be employer sponsored). After getting a green card, you can apply for citizenship.
Personally, I plan on doing EB-1 in a year. Fingers crossed!
And you need to wait at least 90 days after entry on O-1 before you can petition for EB-1. Plus, you can’t travel internationally for 90 days prior to filing for EB-1.

If you don’t want to do EB-1, then you can extend your O-1 after the 3-year validity. My lawyer told me that you can extend it yearly, indefinitely, as long as you can prove that you’re adding value to the petitioning company (GitHub commits to show progress on the project would work if there’s nothing public/tangible).

FAQ:

  1. How big is an O-1 petition?
    My petition was a 795 paged document. Although my lawyer has told me that most O-1 petitions are 400-500 pages long. Mine was so long because they applied for each of the 8 criteria and I had about 50 media and news articles and I wanted to include all of them.
  2. How do I know if I qualify for O-1?
    Check out the criteria and talk to a lawyer to assess your case. Most lawyers do it for free.
  3. Can I go to college on O-1?
    Depends on the university’s policies. But usually yes, as long as you’re still full-time employed at the company that petitioned your O-1.
  4. What can I do to improve my chances of getting O-1?
    Apply to speak at conferences, go to hackathons and ideally win some, tap into your network to find important people in your field to get a letter of recommendation from, cold-email journalists to write an article about you and your work, win awards, etc. And don’t forget to document it all in a Google Doc!

 

Fun Fact: I think I may be the youngest recipient of O-1A at 16 years of age. Not the O-1 visa though because Kristina Pimenova got an O-1B (Extraordinary Ability in Arts) when she was 10.

If you want to speak to a lawyer, email my law firm’s Director of Operations (tj@bayimmigrationlaw.com). He happily gets on a call to discuss a case for free (and has done so for a couple of my friends!). I didn’t have to pay his firm for months while I was trying to figure out my future plans and he answered hundreds of questions that I had. He’s the most friendly, humble, and hard-working lawyer I’ve known. I got introduced to him through a Quora friend of mine, Dima Korolev.

Their firm charges $7,500. Though you can pay only $2.5k at the start, $2.5k after your petition is finished, and $2.5k conditional on whether you get the approval. And FYI, $7.5k is the like the standard rate. I know other friends who hired lawyers like Peter Roberts, Chris Wright, etc, and they charge the same.

A few friends have asked me if they need to hire a lawyer. While in theory, you could prepare your own O-1 petition by referring to approved petitions and mail it to USCIS yourself. That’d be a lot of work and your lack of experience with the legal jargon could put you at risk of an RFE. And if your case is unique/not that strong (like mine was being a 16 year old with barely 2 years of work experience), you’re better off with a lawyer. If you’re going to be working for a company that’s not yours, your company should be paying for the lawyer.

Good luck! Immigration is never fun to deal with. But you gotta persevere! All the hard work will pay off when you get your hands on this! 🙂

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The US and specifically the Bay Area (if you’re interested in technology and science) is a great place to be. You’ll get to meet other smart and ambitious people who will give you great ideas, support, and they’ll motivate you to do amazing things! And you’ll get to know about fantastic career and personal growth opportunities that you won’t find anywhere else. America is rightly called the land of opportunity! 🙂
If you move to the Bay Area, consider living in intellectual group houses like the Topos house (disclaimer: I’m a super happy resident of Topos!).

As much as I’d have loved to share, I can’t post my petition publicly. However, if you’re applying for your O-1 without a lawyer and would benefit from looking at an approved petition, email me. Also, feel free to email me any questions at harshita@harshitaapps.com!
If this guide helped you get an O-1 approval, please let me know — it’d make my day! ^_^