You may have heard of the “O-1 visa” before. Some people call it “the genius visa.” Most assume that it’s reserved for the foremost experts in their field; the researchers curing cancer and COVID, scientists sending rockets into space, and the business leaders with billions at their disposal. After all, the government specifically calls out Nobel Prizes and Olympic gold medals, and their language about “extraordinary ability” scares a lot of people away.
To qualify for an O-1 visa, you must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim, and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.
But while the “extraordinary ability” language used on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website might imply otherwise, the O-1 visa is actually easily attainable for “regular” people that want the flexibility it affords. You don’t need to have started a multi-billion dollar company. The O-1 visa is a good fit for entrepreneurs with bootstrapped businesses, consulting practices, and side hustles. The application process can be hacked, and I’m going to show you how.
Dear US government, if you’re reading this, I mean “hacked” in the sense that a concerted effort over a few months can provide someone with the accolades for a successful petition.
Why should you listen to me? I’ve helped thousands of founders and startups sort out their visa problems. I’ve been involved in hundreds of O-1 applications. I’ve compiled evidence and built petitions for people. And, I’ve received four O-1 visas myself.
Why is the O-1 visa so awesome?
Before we look at how to qualify for the O-1 visa, let’s take a minute to go over why the O-1 visa stands out.
Unlimited renewals: You can renew your O-1 visa over and over again. You get 3 years duration when you first get accepted, and can keep renewing it for 1-3 years at a time. You can stay on the O-1 for 3, 6, 9, 12, 15 years.
Apply anytime: You can apply for the O-1 visa at any time. There’s no lottery process, like with the H1B visa, and there’s no limit on how many times you can apply.
Fast processing: The whole process could be done in just 75 days. 60 days for an attorney to submit a petition (it’s possible to do this faster), and 15 days for the government to review and approve your application.
College dropouts accepted: Many people think that you need a PhD or be able to prove that you excelled in your studies, but the truth is, you don’t even need to have a college education.
All job titles / salaries considered: With other types of visas, there’s usually a required combination of job title and salary for that position to be eligible for that visa. With the O-1 visa, any job title, industry, and salary are acceptable as long as you can show that you stand out in your field.
Okay, now onto the criteria for “extraordinary ability”.
O-1 visa criteria for “extraordinary ability”
There are 8 different criteria, and you only need to hit three of them in order to be accepted. The best part is many of them are hackable. A sprint to show that you are prolific and respected in your space can be all it takes to secure the visa.
And hey, if it doesn’t work out right way, there are worse things for your career than having a beefed up resume and a lot of attention in your field.
Receipt of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field.
Basically, you just need to show that you’ve won awards in your field. For example, if you’re an entrepreneur who has won pitch competitions or hackathons in the past, or if you’ve received any awards of recognition in your professional field, these can all be considered.
Don’t worry if you haven’t, there are easier criteria we can hit.
Membership in associations that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by recognized national or international experts.
The membership criteria is hackable. Find a prestigious group, club, association, accelerator, or anything that can be considered as a “peer group” in your field. Find out what it takes to join. Ideally, whatever membership you apply for should have an acceptance rate of under 10% to demonstrate exclusivity.
Published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about the applicant, relating to their work in the field.
The press criteria is also something you can game. Do things to get press about your work; reach out to local papers or blogs about interesting things you’ve done, give quotes to reporters on topics they need (check out HARO).
You could start a side project and launch something on platforms where journalists look for new products to write about like Kickstarter or Product Hunt.
Even paying for press can work. For example, you can pay to get yourself featured on Forbes through Forbes Business Council articles. You don’t need a 10 page feature about you in a high profile magazine. You just need something to show that you’re a recognized expert in your field whose work has been profiled in a media outlet.
4. High salary
A high salary or other significantly high remuneration for services, in relation to others in the field.
The high salary criteria is an easy one to figure out. You only need to show that you’ve been paid in the 10% of professionals in your position, in your region, at some point in time. It doesn’t need to be your current salary; you only need to show that you’ve been highly compensated at any point in your career.
The “in your region” language is also critical here. For example, if you make $100,000 as a software engineer in San Francisco, you probably aren’t in the top 10% among your peers in terms of salary level. However, if you work remotely, you could move somewhere with a lower cost of living, and with the same salary, be able to demonstrate that your $100,000 compensation is in the top 10% in your region.
5. Critical role
Employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments with a distinguished reputation.
There are two parts to the critical role criteria:
- First, you should be able to demonstrate that you’ve been critical to the business. For example, if you’ve led a division, department, product, or team that is crucial to the business.
- Second, the business itself should be well known and accomplished in the industry. To demonstrate this, you can gather all press about the company, show any significant funding in the company from established VCs, and any partnerships with big organizations or well-known customers.
Participation as a judge of the work of others in the same or related field, either individually or as part of a panel.
The judging criteria is the opposite of awards. With the awards criteria, you need to show that important people in your industry awarded you with something. With judging, you need to show that you are the important person doing the judging.
It’s usually easier to get on a judging panel than to win an award, so the best way to meet this criteria, if you haven’t already, is to start reaching out to organizers in your industry.
7. Scholarly articles
Authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media.
For the scholarly articles criteria, you must demonstrate that you’ve gone through an editorial process to get published in a major media publication, or an outlet relevant to your field. You could write opinion pieces on your industry for your local or national press outlets. You could publish research papers (if you’re a complete masochist). I’m sure there are ways to be creative here, though I haven’t really tried myself.
8. Original contributions
Significant original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field.
The last criteria, original contributions, is difficult to hack. You need to have created some innovation or change in your industry. For example, an algorithm, tool, device, or a new kind of business model. To demonstrate this for an O-1 application, you normally need to already have been recognized for your innovation.
How to apply for the O-1 visa
Go through the list of 8 criteria for the application. If you hit 3 of them, you can apply for the visa. Aim for more though! If you’re not comfortable with at least 3, spend the next three months sprinting. Get a membership, judge an event, get mentioned in the press, find a client that will pay you a high rate.
How long does the O-1 visa application process take?
A bonus feature of the O-1 visa is that it’s very fast.
It takes roughly 60 to 90 days to prepare and submit the application, but it’s possible to do it much faster if you need to. I’ve helped clients put their applications together in about 2 weeks. If you want a super fast petition from a team that has specialized in these visas, reach out to us: compassvisas.com.
It takes anywhere between 3 weeks to 4 months for the government to process your application. However, there’s also an option to expedite your processing for a fee, and by paying the “Premium Processing” fee, the processing time is sped up to just 15 days.
How much does the application cost?
Costs can vary quite a bit for the O-1 application, and it depends on the quality and reputation of the attorney you work with. To get the O-1 visa application processed, it’ll cost between $7,500 to $20,000, most of it going towards legal fees. Here’s the cost breakdown:
- $7,000 – $15,000 in legal fees.
- $460 government filing fee.
- $2,500 premium processing fee (optional, if you need express processing ~15 days).
What are my odds of getting accepted if I do everything right?
There’s an element of luck with the application process. Presenting yourself and the company sponsoring you in the best light is key, but at the end of the day, the decision comes down to the person at the desk saying yes or no.
Oftentimes, the O-1 visa approvals are decided by agents who don’t know much about your industry or area of expertise. I’ve seen people with $100 million companies get denied, and I’ve seen 16 year old kids get approved. Even with a strong application, you may have to reapply for a second time.
Still, the first step is to put together a strong application by checking off all the required boxes.
Now that you know getting an O-1 visa is more within reach than you might have thought, it’s time to start preparing for your O-1 application.
By the way, if you want my personal help with this application, fill out my questionnaire here and I can get in touch with you to evaluate your criteria and position to see if the O-1 or another visa would be a good option for you.
To apply for the O-1 visa, you’ll need 3 things:
- A qualified O-1 visa attorney
- Strong letters of reference from well respected people
- A sponsoring business
Every US work visa requires a US company to sponsor it. Without a business, there cannot be a visa.
Interestingly, the “sponsoring business” requirement is also one of the biggest hacks around the O-1 visa application. Instead of finding an employer to sponsor you, you could technically sponsor yourself through your own business.
You don’t need to be in the US, have a visa, or have an American cofounder to set up a business in the US. Anybody, anywhere, at any point in time, could set up a US business. It costs between $100 to $500 to set up, and only takes around two weeks for everything to be set up.
If you’re interested in starting your own business and sponsoring your own US visa, I recorded an entire free lecture on exactly this.
It’s pre-recorded so you can just sign up and watch it instantly without having to wait. Enter your email below to get a private replay link.