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The O-1A Visa: Requirements and Process for Hiring Foreign Workers with Extraordinary Ability

In an increasingly interconnected world, the ability to tap into the global talent pool has become a strategic advantage for organizations aiming to stay at the forefront of innovation and excellence. 

The O-1A Visa emerges as a crucial instrument in this endeavor, providing a legal pathway for U.S. companies to hire foreign nationals who possess extraordinary abilities in their respective fields. 

This article aims to unravel the complexities of the O-1A Visa, shedding light on its requirements, application process, and the strategic benefits it offers both to employers and the extraordinary talents seeking to enrich the U.S. workforce.

 Whether you are an HR professional, a hiring manager, or a potential candidate with exceptional skills, understanding the nuances of the O-1A Visa can be the key to unlocking new horizons of professional collaboration and innovation on a global scale.

What is the O-1A Visa? 

The O-1A visa allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrant foreign workers who have extraordinary abilities in the sciences, education, business, or athletics.  

What are the Eligibility Requirements for the O-1A Visa? 

To qualify for an O-1A visa, the foreign worker must demonstrate extraordinary ability in their field, which has been recognized through sustained national or international acclaim. The supporting documentation must include evidence of at least 3 of the following:

  1. Receipt of a major, internationally recognized award (e.g. Nobel Prize, Olympic Medal).
  2. Membership in associations that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by recognized national or international experts.
  3. Published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about the individual’s work, including the title, date, and author.
  4. Participation as a judge of the work of others in the same or allied field.
  5. Original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field.
  6. Authorship of scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media.
  7. Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations with a distinguished reputation.
  8. Command of a high salary or other significantly high remuneration about others in the field.

The employer must also demonstrate that the individual’s entry will “substantially benefit prospectively the United States.”The O-1A petition is filed by the U.S. employer using Form I-129.

What is the process for obtaining an O-1A visa? 

The process for obtaining this visa is driven by the employer of the potential employee who possesses extraordinary ability. 

Step One: Employer Files Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker

The first step to obtain this visa requires the U.S. employer, U.S. agent, or foreign employer to file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker with the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the potential employee’s behalf.  Commonly, a U.S. agent who is inside the U.S. will file Form I-129 on behalf of the employer. 

When submitting Form I-129, the employer must include the required evidence showing the potential employee’s qualifications for the visa.  The employer or agent must not file the form I-129 more than one year before the date the employer needs the potential employee’s services.  The USCIS recommends an employer or agent file the form I-129 at least 45 days before the date of employment. 

Documentation Filed with the Form I-129

When submitting Form I-129, the employer, or an agent on the employer’s behalf, must provide the following documentation to the USCIS: 

  • Evidence demonstrating the potential employee’s extraordinary ability.
  • A written advisory opinion from a peer group or a person with expertise in the beneficiary’s field.   
    • This requirement may be waived if it can be demonstrated that no applicable peer group exists to provide evidence, in which case other evidence provided by the employer will be considered instead. 
  • The contract between the employer and potential employee or a summary of the oral agreement under which the employee would be employed. 
  • An explanation of the nature of the events or activities of employment, the start and end dates of the events or activities, and a copy of any itinerary for the events or activities. 

Step Two: USCIS Processes Form I-129

Once the USCIS receives Form I-129, the employer or agent will receive the following in return: 

  • A receipt notice confirming the petition was received; 
  • A notice to appear for an interview, if required; 
  • A biometric services notice, if applicable; and 
  • Notice of decision. 

Step Three: Visa Applicant Files Online Form DS-160

After the employer’s I-129 petition is approved by USCIS, the prospective O-1A visa applicant (the employee) must complete the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160. This involves uploading a photo of the applicant that conforms to the U.S. Department of State photograph requirements. Once Form DS-160 is submitted, the employee must download and print the confirmation page showing Form DS-160 was completed and the filing fee paid. The confirmation page will need to be brought to the visa interview at a U.S. Consulate or Embassy.

Step Four: Schedule an Interview and Biometrics Appointment 

When Form I-129 is approved, the USCIS will send Form I-797, Notice of Action. This may include with it a notice to appear for an interview and a biometric services appointment.  The O-1A applicant is responsible for scheduling and appearing for his or her interview and biometrics appointment. 

Step Five: Attend Interview and Biometrics Appointment 

If requested, the O-1A applicant (employee) must attend an interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate, where an official will evaluate the applicant’s documentation and ask questions about why the applicant is seeking the visa, including about the applicant’s employment with their employer and the applicant’s extraordinary ability.  The visa applicant may be able to schedule the biometrics appointment to take place at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate when the visa interview is scheduled. 

Before attending the interview, the applicant should compile certain documentation to bring with them to the interview.  

The documents listed below must be brought with the visa applicant to the interview: 

  • Confirmation page for Form DS-160; 
  • Passport valid for travel to the United States that will remain valid for at least six months beyond the visa holder’s period of stay in the United States;
  • Application fee payment receipt; 
  • Contract or letter of employment that confirms upcoming employment
  • Documentation proving the applicant meets the extraordinary ability requirements for their profession.


Can O-1A visa holders study while in the United States? 

Yes. visa holders may study full-time or part-time while in the United States so long as the original conditions of the visa are adhered to.  If the educational program lasts longer than the period of validity for the visa, the visa holder should apply for a student visa that would permit them to remain in the United States for the purpose of completing their education.  Continuing education is not a valid basis for extending the visa. 

Can O-1A visa holders change employers? 

The visa holders who will see any material change in the terms and conditions of their employment or eligibility must have their employer or their agent file an amended form I-129 with the service center where the original petition was filed. 

Professional athletes using the visa who are traded to a new team must have their new employer file a new form I-129 within 30 days of the trade.  Filing the new Form I-129 extends the athlete’s employment authorization while his or her petition is processed.  The athlete will lose his or her employment authorization if the petition is not filed within 30 days of the trade or if the new form I-129 is denied. 

Can O-1A visa holders apply for a green card? 

Yes.  Generally, there is no requirement that a visa applicant or visa holder prove foreign residency in order to qualify for the visa.  A visa will not be denied to applicants who also apply for permanent residency in the United States. 

For how long is the O-1A visa valid? 

The visa is valid for up to three years.  Extensions are available for up to one year; however, the exact length of time will be determined based on how long it will take an applicant to accomplish the event or activity for which they seek U.S. entry.  

The visa holders may be in the United States 10 days prior to the beginning of their validity period, and 10 days after.  However, O-1A visa holders may only work during the validity period. 

The visa holders who need to extend their stay in order to continue or complete the same event or activity for which the O-1A visa was approved, the employer or agent must file the following documents with USCIS:

  • Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker;
  • A copy of your Form I-94, Arrival/Departure Record; and
  • A statement explaining the reasons for the extension.

How much does it cost to get an O-1A visa? 

The application fee when filing Form I-129 is $460, which is commonly paid by the employer.  The cost to file Form DS-160 is $160. An applicant can pay $2500 for premium processing, which expedites the application process.   

If an O-1A visa holder’s employer terminates his or her employment for any reason other than the visa holder’s voluntary resignation, the employer must pay the reasonable cost of return transportation to the visa holder’s last place of residence before entering the United States. 


The O-1A Visa offers a gateway for U.S. employers to access and hire foreign professionals with unparalleled skills and achievements. By meticulously navigating its requirements and process, organizations can bolster their teams with individuals who bring extraordinary talent and a fresh, global perspective to their fields.

This visa not only enriches the U.S. workforce but also fosters an environment of diversity and innovation, proving to be an invaluable asset for companies striving for excellence in the competitive global landscape.

Sweta Khandelwal

Sweta completed her Masters in Law from the University of California, Los Angeles and her JD from the Faculty of Law, Delhi University in India and has been practicing law for 15+ years getting visas, green cards, and citizenship for 1000+ clients, 100+ companies across 50+ nationalities.

Sweta has been recognized as a ” Super Lawyer, Rising Star,” and as amongst the ” Top 40 under 40″ immigration attorneys in California (American Society of Legal Advocates). She is also the recipient of the Advocacy Award by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Sweta is also a chartered accountant — the equivalent of a CPA. This makes her uniquely positioned to understand the immigration needs of her business clients in the broader context of their corporate objectives.

Sweta is actively involved with immigration issues and immigrant communities in various capacities. She has assumed key roles at the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), both at the local and national level. She has been a past chair at the Santa Clara Valley Chapter at AILA and has also been involved in various practice area committees at AILA National. Sweta has addressed multiple conferences/forums in the United States and worldwide on immigration and business issues.