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O-1 Visa Where to Start and How to Qualify

Qualifying For The O-1 Visa


The O-1 visa, called the “genius visa” by some, is also one of the most misunderstood. While you may have heard the O-1 is reserved for celebrities and athletes, they represent a very small portion of O-1 visa holders. Many individuals with the O-1 visa have extraordinary abilities in science, technology, and business such as startup founders, researchers, and artists. "Extraordinary ability" essentially means that the individual is at the top of their field. 

When it comes to qualifying for the 0-1 visa, you must meet three of the eight criteria below. Everyone has different backgrounds and experiences, and since the O-1 visa is based on all of your professional accomplishments, no two cases are the same.

Awards: You raised venture capital.

Critical Employment: You founded a venture-backed company.

Press: You’ve been covered in major media.

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

Memberships: You’ve gone through an accelerator or belong to a professional org.

High Remuneration: You have significant equity in a venture-backed company.

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.

Venture-backed founders often satisfy the awards, critical employment, and high remuneration criteria. Founders that have also participated in a selective accelerator program likely meet the membership criteria.


While you might not expect it, securing a venture capital investment may classify as an award. With no minimum amount of capital required, Legalpad has helped founders get visas who have raised anywhere from $25,000 to more than $200,000,000. The number isn’t always what matters. The importance is showcasing an investment in your company.

There are also more traditional awards that meet this criterion. Individuals who have won awards such as Forbes 30 Under 30, Fortune’s 40 under 40, The Thiel Fellowship, and similar meet this criterion.

Unfortunately, the USCIS will not accept awards or most other achievements from your time as a student. There’s a very heavy focus on your professional career, so, while you may have great credentials from school, don’t look to these to help qualify for the O-1.

Not there yet? Take these steps:

Remember that your awards don’t necessarily need to be related to your startup. They could be awards you received prior at another organization. If you obtained any awards that stand out from previous jobs, they may fit this criterion.

There are also probably many more awards in your field than you know of. 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.

You can also look for awards to be nominated for. Again, it’s a delicate topic to broach, but if you can find someone in your personal network that’s received an award, reach out to them. With many of these organizations, a letter of recommendation from a previous winner goes a long way in getting nominated yourself.

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. That’s an easy two-for-one.

Critical Employment

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

If you're a founder, you are an essential player in your company’s success. The same case may be made for some early employees. Beyond getting press about how awesome you are, you can demonstrate critical employment by including letters from your company that explain your role as a founder.

There is not a specific definition as to what it means for an organization to have a distinguished reputation, however, you can prove a distinguished reputation through funding, awards, revenue, a large user base or downloads, press in well-known outlets, and key partnerships or contacts with well-known organizations. 


Getting yourself or your startup featured in major media or industry publications is a great way to meet this O-1 criterion. Featured in TechCrunch? Check! Interviewed by the Wall Street Journal? Yes!

Not there yet? Take these steps:

If you haven’t been featured yet, there are several ways to get your name out there. Many founders lean on their personal networks or pitch their products to publications. 

While the readership and esteem of the publication is a big factor, you may not always get a “yes”. 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, you might 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, while you’re applying for an O-1 visa in the U.S., your press doesn’t need to have come from an American publication. The publications in your country - or anywhere else - are just as relevant.

You may also want to consider engaging with a PR firm specializing in getting press for startups.  Companies big and small leverage PR firms to get their name out there, or in this case, help you meet one more criterion for the O-1.


As a startup founder, a great way to meet this requirement is to judge a competition in your field. The USCIS wants to see that you’ve been deemed an expert to judge other people’s work in your field. If you’ve been a judge at a startup competition, let the world know about it!

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. And, it goes without saying be confident in your ability within your field! 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 but they can be a great way to parlay your way into judging an industry competition. If you’ve been involved in competitions at your Alma Mater, 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!


This requirement can be met if you are a member of a professional organization that requires outstanding achievement.

The same is true if you’re a member of an accelerator program like YCombinator, 500 Startups, or Techstars. Accelerators have become increasingly popular in the United States and internationally.

Not There Yet? Take These Steps:

There is no shortage of societies to reach out to. Engineers who are members of organizations like IEEE (electrical engineers), ASME (mechanical engineers), ACM (computing), Chi Epsilon (civil engineers) are just some of the societies you can contact. Find the professional society that’s relevant to your specific degree -- a must to be considered -- and find out the acceptance requirements.  Be sure to highlight your company’s work in the field, and include as much detail as possible.

You can also apply to startup organizations like the Young Entrepreneurs Council (YEC) and other entrepreneurial organizations.

High Remuneration

If you have significant equity in a venture-backed company in addition to a moderately high salary, you may qualify for this criteria. That said, if you don’t have a high salary now, this is another criterion where your experience can come into play. If you’ve received a salary in the top 10% of your field, this is another way to qualify for high remuneration.

It’s also worth noting that outside of this criteria, there isn’t a minimum salary requirement for the O-1, unlike other visas. You will have to pay yourself something, but the O-1 visa doesn't have a prevailing wage requirement like the H-1B visa. 

Scholarly Articles

Scholarly articles are typically research published in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g. Science, Nature). If you’ve done 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’ve done your Ph.D., you’ve probably been authored multiple times and can meet this criterion.

If you went on to start a company after your bachelor's, it’s unlikely you’ve been published, but if you have, we applaud you and you may be able to qualify for this criterion! If you were a member of a research team at school, this may work too, with a letter from the Research Director.

That said, you may have also written an opinion piece as a subject expert in any number of publications. Publishing in Popular Science, WIRED, Forbes… these are all ways to meet this criterion. 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 much 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

This category is super subjective. You’ll need to have invented something of ‘major significance’. In other words, something you created has made a significant impact in your field. What about your startup or your startup’s product is both unique and significant? 

This may require more discussion as it’s very open to interpretation. While we obviously think you’re awesome, amazing, and extraordinary, there may be additional legwork here to ensure that USCIS knows it too.

Putting It All Together

All of these requirements may seem like a lot at first, but it’s also no coincidence that these achievements are very familiar to you. The O-1A visa is usually the best option for startup founders and entrepreneurs like you because it really captures everything you’ve accomplished to get to where you are!

We’re always happy to be a resource for enterprising companies and people like you–reach out to us any time for your immigration questions and needs! And 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.