U.S. Visa Rules Debunked: How International Stars and Entertainment Professionals Get to Work in the U.S.

L.A.-based attorney Fuji Whittenburg explains the hurdles foreigners must clear to work on U.S. productions

Last Updated: October 2, 2015 @ 4:08 PM

Many of our favorite filmmakers and artists are from abroad — from Argentina to Australia. And many American filmmakers go abroad to create, promote and sell their films. This cross-border fluidity has been mutually beneficial for all sides — from artists and studios to the fans and consumers. The globalization of Hollywood is a good thing, enhancing international cultural exchange and deepening our appreciation of films worldwide.

After your last movie experience, when you stayed in your seat to watch the credits, did you stop to think about the names rolling down the screen at the end of the film (i.e. Cinematographer, Director of Photography, etc.), who they are and how they got there?

Probably not, but it was probably not very easy. Not only have these individuals built strong enough careers worthy of landing work in a blockbuster film, but beyond that, they very likely had to undergo a rigorous visa application process to land themselves the illustrious O-1 visa to be able to actually work in the U.S.

In motion pictures and television, the O-1B visa is the most common visa category for artists of “extraordinary achievement” like actors, writers and  VFX artists.

What does it take to land an O-1 visa these days? Well, quite frankly, a lot. Not an unjustifiable amount, but more than you may think. Because it is so case specific, I cannot give you the exact formula for putting together a viable O-1 visa application, but for the sake of illustration, I will try.

  • Each O-1 petition must have a U.S. sponsor or petititioner. This can be an agent/manager/representative, employer, studio, label, production company, etc. You need to submit a contract confirming the terms of the representation or employment. Self-sponsorship is not permitted.
  • You have to prove that you have work lined up. You cannot apply for an O-1 to come to the U.S. for the sole purpose of auditioning or making pitches.
  • You should include an itinerary detailing your future work in the U.S.
    • For each event/project, you should include the name of the production, anticipated start/end dates, and work location.
    • If publicity and/or appearances are related to your work, you should mention this to your attorney — include all related activities.
    • Corroborate your itinerary with deal memos.
    • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will look to your itinerary when determining the length of your visa so the more the better.

  • The maximum length of a visa is three years, but USCIS may limit your approval to the duration of your projects. Your visa should be renewable indefinitely.
  • You need to provide objective, primary documentation of “extraordinary achievement.” The exact amount of evidence will vary based on your particular field, but you have to meet at least 3 of the 6 criteria.

Types of evidence include, but are not limited to:

    1. Credits (IMDB printouts for yourself and your films/projects)
    2. Lead roles in distinguished productions for distinguished organizations (past and future), with letters from directors and press about the event/production.
    3. National/international awards and nominations, with information about the award/organization/festival as well as past nominees/winners.
    4. Reference letters from experts in the industry, detailing specific accomplishments. General fluff letters will not carry as much weight.
    5. High salary compared to others in your field (top 20 percent), with pay stubs, tax returns, reports, etc.
    6. Evidence of commercial success in terms of ratings, box office figures, chart listings, financial figures and social media popularity.
    7. Published material by or about you, including reviews, interviews, “Chat With an the Expert” columns — with English translations.
    8. Proof of service as a judge at an industry festival or competition.
    9. Appearance of your work at festivals or other well-known industry events.

  • Each O-1 petition to the USCIS  must include an advisory opinion from the relevant management organization (usually the Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers) and labor union. It typically takes three to five days, with a fee varying from $250-$500.
  • Generally, the O-1 process has two stages: filing the petition and supportind documents, and then attending a visa interview and obtaining a visa at a U.S. consular post abroad.
  • USCIS takes about 2-6 weeks to adjudicate the petition. Regular government filing fee is $325. For an additional filing fee of $1,225, USCIS will adjudicate your petition within 15 calendar days — approve, deny, or, issue a request for evidence.

To conclude, you need to make it as easy as possible for the officer to approve your case. Be thorough and stay organized. Approval will ultimately rely on the strength and credibility of your evidence combined with a dash of good luck, but armed with the right tools, this list should give you a very decent shot.

For newcomers, start building your portfolio of credits, keep record of all press and honors, and accept all invitations from the media. For more established professionals, you should now have a better understanding of the O-1 process so you can start organizing your visa.

And as always, consult an experienced immigration attorney for a more thorough analysis of your eligibility.