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O-1 Visa Where to Start and How to Qualify

O-1 Visa Requirements (2023)

The O-1A visa, called the "genius visa" by some, is also often misunderstood. While you may have heard the O-1 visa is for celebrities and athletes, they represent only a small portion of O-1 visa holders. Many individuals qualify for the O-1 visa based on their extraordinary abilities in science, technology, and business—for example, startup founders, researchers, and artists. In this article, we're going to discuss each O-1 visa requirement.

Perks of the O-1A visa

  • Unlimited status extensions: Extend your O-1 status as long as you need to.
  • No annual cap: There is no lottery system and you can file your O-1 and begin working on it at any point in the year.
  • No degree requirement: You can qualify for the O-1 as a college (or high school) drop out. Your academic background (or lack-thereof) does not impact your O-1 eligibility.
  • No minimum salary requirement: Unlike the H-1B visa, there is no salary requirement for the O-1. Pay can be flexible based on the employee and employer's needs.
  • Eligibility for premium processing time: By paying an extra $2500 fee to the government, you can get your O-1 reviewed in 15 calendar days or less.
  • The ability to hold numerous O-1 visas: If you need to, you can work at numerous companies at once on numerous O-1 visas.
  • O-3 status for dependents: O-1 visa holders can bring their spouse and unmarried children (under 21 years) with them to the United States on O-3 visa status.

O1 Visa Requirements Overview

There are two ways to get an O-1A visa.

First, you can qualify if you've won a significant national or international award, such as a Nobel Prize.

Or, you can qualify by meeting at least three of eight O-1A extraordinary ability criteria.

Awards: You have won awards in your field.

Critical Employment: You have held an important role at a distinguished company.

Press: Your work has been covered in press.

Judging: You’ve judged a competition in your field.

Memberships: You belong to a professional org.

High Remuneration: You have been paid a high salary or own significant equity.

Scholarly Articles: You’ve been an author or co-author in a peer-reviewed journal.

Original Contributions: You hold patents or a unique contribution in your field.

Today we're going to dive into each of these criteria and how you can satisfy them.

Each O-1 case is unique, but we generally find that venture-backed founders satisfy the awards, critical employment, and high remuneration criteria. Founders that have also participated in a selective accelerator program likely meet the membership criteria.


Nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in your field

With this first criterion, USCIS is looking for an award that:

  • Is nationally or internationally recognized; and
  • Was awarded to you for your excellence in your field

For instance, you may satisfy this criterion if you were selected to be a part of Forbes 30 under 30, were offered an industry award, or if you founded a startup that has raised funding.

While you may not expect it, securing a venture capital investment can satisfy this criterion. No minimum amount of capital is required, but we've helped startup founders with anywhere from $25,000 to $200 million of funding get O-1s.

Not there yet? Take these steps:

Remember that your awards don't need to be recent. They could be awards you received prior at another organization. If you obtained any awards that stand out from previous jobs, they might fit this criterion.

You can also apply for awards in your field. Search for awards by looking at professional organizations within your field of expertise. It may feel awkward initially, but reach out to them to see the qualifications for being nominated. If there is someone in your network that's received an award consider reaching out to them. A letter of recommendation from a previous winner can go a long way.

If you're a startup founder, you can also choose to apply for an accelerator program. Many accelerator programs provide seed funding and access to a network of investors post-program.

Pro tip: Completing an accelerator program may satisfy the Membership criterion for the 0-1 visa.

Critical Employment

Employed in a critical or essential capacity for organizations or establishments with a distinguished reputation

For this criterion, USCIS wants you to prove that you have a critical or essential role at an organization with a distinguished reputation.

The first part is easy to meet if you are a founder, C-suite, executive, or other essential employee at a company. But even if your role doesn't obviously point to your critical contributions at the company, you can still satisfy this criterion. Think about the impact you've left on your current (or past) company. How can you argue that you've had a high level of impact on the organization's direction?

To show your company has a distinguished reputation, you'll have to clearly demonstrate its prestige. For instance, what awards has your company won? How many users/customers do you have? What about press? Depending on the stage and level of your organization, this might be easy. For smaller startups, you may need to get creative.

Press (or Published Materials)

Published material about you in professional or major trade publications, or other major media

A strong published materials criterion would include numerous press articles about you in highly circulated news outlets, such as the New York Times, CNN, Forbes, Times of India, Nasdaq, or TechCrunch.

Features in lesser-known news outlets can also satisfy this criterion, but of course the larger the outlet, the more significant.

Not there yet? Take these steps:

If you have yet to be featured, there are several ways to get your name out there. Lean into your network or pitch their products to publications.

While the readership and esteem of the publication are important, articles in smaller industry-specific journals can also satisfy this criterion. Focus on publications that are relevant to your business. Are you an electrical engineer? Think IEEE Spectrum. Working on infotech or biotech? MIT's Technology Review might be the right option for you. Or, if you're looking for something more generic, consider publications like Science Daily, Seed Magazine, or WIRED. There is no shortage of publications. Just make sure you're putting your efforts in the right place!

Also, keep in mind that your press can be from publications outside the U.S. and can be written in other languages; you'll just need to get a certified translation.


Judging the work of peers in your field, either individually or on a panel

There are a few ways to satisfy this requirement. For example:

  • Sitting on a panel at a business competition
  • Peer reviewing articles
  • Judging a hackathon or other tech event
  • Reviewing a VC fund's prospective investments
  • Reviewing accelerator applications

You need to judge the work of peers in your field, so keep that in mind as you look into judging opportunities.

Not there yet? Take these steps:

Landing a judging opportunity may be more achievable than you think. Look for competitions within your field and reach out to them. Do your research on the competition and its past winners. Showing your passion for the competition can go a long way!

Again, as a reminder, student competitions don't typically meet the judging requirements for the O-1 visa. Still, they can be a great way to parlay your way into judging an industry competition. If you've been involved in competitions at your university, it's a great step towards getting involved in larger events. Are you still in touch with your advisor or researcher you worked with in the past? Use those connections to find the right competition for you!


Membership in associations that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by international experts

You can satisfy this criterion if you are a member of a professional organization that requires outstanding achievement.

Put simply, you need to join at least one organization fits within the following requirements:

  1. Is in your field or discipline
  2. Requires outstanding achievements; and
  3. Your outstanding achievements are judged by national or international experts in your field

While the most common type of O-1 membership is a traditional organization like IEEE or Forbes Business Council, many startup founders qualify for this criterion through joining an accelerator program like Y Combinator, 500 Startups, or Techstars.

Not There Yet? Take These Steps:

There are plenty of associations. IEEE (electrical engineers), ASME (mechanical engineers), ACM (computing), Chi Epsilon (civil engineers) are just some of the field you can contact. Find the professional society relevant to your industry or field. Be sure to highlight your company's work in the field, and include as much detail as possible.

You can also apply to organizations like the Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC) or On Deck.

High Remuneration

You have commanded a high salary or other significantly high remuneration

With this criterion, USCIS is looking for individuals who have been paid well above others in the same role within the same city. This could include your past salary, or a current salary.

You can also include bonuses and even equity as evidence of your high remuneration.

To see whether or not you qualify, compare your remuneration with national data (for the U.S: FLC Data Center) or on sites like IndeedPayscaleGlassdoorLinkedIn Salary, and Salary.com. Your salary should be within the top 5% of reported salaries for your role and city.

Scholarly Articles

Authorship of scholarly articles in professional publications, major trade publications, or other major media

Scholarly articles are typically research published in a peer-reviewed journal (for example, Science, Nature). If you have a Masters's degree in the physical sciences, you may have been co-authored in your lab or maybe even through your own research. If you have a Ph.D., you've probably been authored multiple times and can meet this criterion.

You could also qualify if you've written an opinion piece as a subject expert in a business or science publication like Popular Science, WIRED, or Forbes. We've even helped clients meet this criterion by publishing pieces on Medium, given the article has gotten some traction.

Again, you can reach out to publications with an idea for an article. In the age of online journalism, many publications are more responsive than you would think. The important thing is that your piece is relevant to their audience and you share a clear idea of what you'd like to write about.

Original Contributions

Original contributions of major significance to your field

The Original Contributions criterion is easily the most misunderstood O-1 criterion. It may seem out of reach, but many immigrants meet this criterion.

You need to have invented something of "major significance." In other words, something you created has significantly impacted your field.

If you're a startup founder, your startup can help you meet this criterion. What about your startup or your startup's product is both unique and significant? If you're unsure how to answer this question, consulting with an experience business immigration attorney can go a long way.

Putting It All Together

Whether you meet all eight O-1A criteria or are currently working on meeting just one criterion, Legalpad is here to help. If you have more questions about qualifying for the O-1 visa, connect with us today.

About the author:

Annie Blay

Content Marketing Specialist

Before joining the marketing team, Annie helped over 60 Legalpad clients navigate U.S. immigration on the client services team.