Qualifying For The O-1
The O-1 visa, called the “genius visa” by some, is also one of the most misunderstood. You may have heard the O-1 is reserved for celebrities and athletes, and while there are a number of those talents on the O-1, they represent a very small portion of O-1 visa holders. Many O-1 visa holders are those with extraordinary ability in science, technology and business.
The O-1 has eight criteria, and you must meet three in order to qualify for the visa. If you’re a venture-backed startup founder, you likely meet three criteria right off the bat! And if you went through an accelerator, you likely meet four!
At Legalpad, we’ve helped hundreds of startup founders and key talent get their O-1 visas. Many meet the O-1 requirements right off the bat, and others need some help to get there. For those that do, we’ve been able to get them across the finish line with a 98% approval rate.
Let’s look at each category individually so you can get a better idea of where you stand. The O-1 visa criteria are:
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.
While you might not expect it, securing a venture capital investment classifies as an award and is one of the most common ways startup founders qualify for this criterion. If you’ve raised funding for your startup, you likely meet the award requirement. 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. Members of elite recognition like Forbes 30 Under 30, Fortune’s 40 under 40, The Thiel Fellowship, and similar groups also satisfy the awards criterion.
Unfortunately, the USCIS will not accept awards, or most other achievements from while you were a student. There’s a very heavy focus on your professional career, so, while you may have some great credentials during 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. Do a search for awards by looking at professional organizations within your field of expertise. It may feel awkward at first, 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 along with access to a network of investors post-program. Pro tip: Completing an accelerator program may satisfy the Membership criterion. That’s an easy two-for-one.
For this category, USCIS wants you to prove that you are a ‘critical’ employee at your startup. By virtue of being a founder, you can automatically be viewed as an essential player for your company’s success. The same case may be made for early employees with significant equity. 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.
You can also show you’re distinguished through your company’s reputation. This can come from contracts with other companies, partnerships, number of customers, app downloads, daily active users. If your company has already gained some traction, it’s a great way to show critical employment.
Another way to meet the awards criterion is your salary from a previous position. A salary in the top 10% of your field will put you in a strong position to meet this criterion, as long as it’s relevant to your company.
Getting yourself or your startup featured in major media or industry publications is a great way to meet this 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 a number of ways to get your name out there. Many founders lean on their personal network or pitch their product 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 that specializes 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 in reach 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, but 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 which 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.
If you’re a venture-backed founder, you may be able to check this box. This means you own significant equity in a venture-backed company. There isn’t a minimum salary requirement for the O-1 so you don’t need to be concerned about paying yourself a big salary.
That said, if you don’t have VC backing, this is another criterion where your past 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.
Scholarly articles are typically research published in a peer-reviewed journal (e.g. Science, Nature). If you’ve done a Masters 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 PhD, you’ve probably been authored multiple times and can meet this criterion.
If you went on to start a company after your Bachelors, 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 to meet this criterion. We’ve even helped clients meet this criterion by publishing pieces in 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.
This category is super subjective. You’ll need to have invented something of ‘significance and be able to prove that through letters, and other pieces of evidence. While we obviously think you’re awesome, amazing, extraordinary, there may be additional legwork here to make sure that USCIS knows it too. You should think about what you have previously worked on. What did you do? Why was the work important? For example, did the work create better processes, initiated further research in the field, or provided an innovative solution to a problem?
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 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, join us for one of our O-1 webinars here.