A systematic guide to successfully applying for an O1 visa
Learnings and templates from jumping through the hoops of the US immigration system
August 2023 updates
- I’ve created a Discord community for those who pursue an O1/EB1 visa with the hope that collective knowledge will demystify the application process and make it easier for eligible petitioners to gain their visa faster and cheaper http://o1-discord.saharmor.me.
- I’ve aggregated memberships, hackathons, and recommended law firms by the community here.
- A ChatGPT prompt for writing your O1/EB1 visa Letters of Recommendation http://o1-chatgpt.saharmor.me/
On November ’21 I got my O1-A visa and joined Stripe as a PM. It took me several months to prepare and collect evidence before I was ready to submit my petition. There were multiple resources and guides covering the requirements for those who seek an O1 visa, yet not many which share Letter of Reference templates, tips on how to collect the required evidence, and best practices on how to position yourself to increase the likelihood of your petition getting approved.
Throughout this process, I read multiple articles, worked with a couple of immigration lawyers, and gathered best practices from other O1 visa holders. After a Linkedin post offering advice to others pursuing an O1 visa led to multiple reach outs, I’ve decided to share my learnings in a more scalable manner through this article.
Who is it for? Those who seek to apply for an O1-A visa, i.e. people who have shown extraordinary abilities in fields such as business, athletics, education, and science, and based on an employment setup. While this guide would also be relevant for those who seek an O1-A visa for self-sponsoring through their venture, I won’t focus much on the details of such a path.
The petition timeline
Preparation and collection of evidence → drafting the petition, mostly with your partner immigration lawyer → submitting your petition to the USCIS (U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services) → waiting for ~six months, or 15 days upon premium payment → [optional] Getting a Request for Further Evidence (RFE) and sending missing documents → scheduling an appointment at the U.S embassy → getting your passport stamped with the O1 visa.
For the purpose of this article, I will focus on the first step, which is the preparation and collection of evidence for your petition.
Extraordinary achievements according to the USCIS
There are nine criteria USCIS uses to qualify individuals as having extraordinary abilities:
- Receiving a major national or international awards such as a Nobel or a Pulitzer prize
- Receiving national or international awards
- Membership in associations in the field, which require its member to have outstanding achievements as judged by recognized national or international experts
- Participating on a panel or individually as a judge of the work of others in the same or an adjacent field
- Having a contribution of major significance to your field through an original scientific, scholarly, or business-related evidence
- The authorship of scholarly articles in the field in professional journals or in other major media
- Having published material in professional or major media about the applicant
- Being employed in a critical capacity for organizations that have a distinguished reputation
- Commended a high salary
To qualify, you need to either tick the first criterion of receiving a major international award or tick at least three of the other criteria.
All the criteria should tie into one coherent story. You therefore need to decide what expertise you would be applying. What is your specialty? For example, “Software architecture for self-driving cars” or “Product Manager automating human-labor workflows using AI”.
One common way of proving eligibility is through Letters of Reference (LoR), where someone reputable from your field vouches for your expertise and unique contributions.
There is this wrong misconception that the more letters one has, the better. The USCIS takes LoRs with a grain of salt as it understands those are subjective and can be easily forged. Therefore, you should prioritize criteria that are objective. For example, your work getting featured on Nature or you judging at a well-known hackathon will score more points.
Receiving national or international awards
Have you received any notable awards or won a noteworthy competition in your field? Then you should include this in your petition as USCIS treats this as a signal of excellence.
Evidence required: a scanned version of the certification or evidence tying you and this award. This should be translated by a certified translator in case it is in a different language than English.
Member of reputable associations
If you’re part of an association that (1) has a screening process and requires past achievements to become a member and (2) operates in your field of practice, e.g. Artificial Intelligence — then you can include this membership in your petition.
Here are a few examples of programs that qualify as reputable associations: On Deck Fellowship, Y Combinator, and the Thiel Fellowship. Keep in mind that there are local versions of such memberships such as Entrepreneur First, TechStars, and the KI-Verband (Germany’s AI Association).
If you are yet to be a member of an association, I’d advise joining one. This can strengthen your petition and prove that you are part of an expert group of individuals contributing to their field.
Evidence required: a confirmation of your membership and the documentation of the membership evaluation criteria. For example, you can include your acceptance email and take a screenshot from the association’s website detailing the requirements for becoming a member. Another option would be to attach a signed letter by an association representative confirming your membership and the reasons you have been admitted–see this template.
Judging the work of others
Reviewing research papers for a leading conference or being invited to judge in a hackathon are signs that someone else sees you as an expert in your field. Have you judged a hackathon before? A pitch competition? Reviewed a paper? All those examples can help you satisfy this criterion.
You can further strengthen your petition by getting involved in future competitions and by sharing your expertise with aspiring enthusiasts in your field. Here is a list of organizations that would appreciate expert judge support, so do not hesitate to reach out to the event organizers:
- Devpost — sourcing multiple hackathons, sponsored by top-tier tech companies
- Hackathons UK — student hackathons across the UK
- Major League Hacking (MLH) — student hackathons, mainly in the US
MLH specifically hosts a hackathon every Sunday at 7am PST / 10am EST. You can join by filling out this Judges Form and reading these instructions in advance, followed by joining MLH’s Discord server.
Other than these public sources, consider going through your LinkedIn network and surface further opportunities such as reconnecting with your Bachelor’s university to judge their next hackathon or reaching out to your pitch competition organizer friend.
Evidence required: a letter confirming your participation as a judge (here’s a template) or other evidence such as the judging invitation email, pictures or screenshots from the event, and a post-event “thank you” email from the event organizers.
Publications in notable magazines
Two separate criteria will be covered in this part: (1) applicant’s work being featured in major media, which is criterion #6 above, and (2) the applicant being featured in major media, which is criterion #7. The reason for combining the two is due to the similar effort associated with each.
If you have written or published essays, articles, or research papers that got featured in notable magazines such as VentureBeat, TechCrunch, or Nature — you should include them in your petition. Defining a ‘notable’ magazine is subjective, but as long as you can prove that the publishing journal is of importance to your field or is general yet popular (e.g. NY Times), then you are good to go. For example, if you got featured in one of the leading magazines in your home country, that is valid evidence. Medium is another gray area, yet I have heard about others who managed to apply with a piece published in major publications such as The Startup or Towards Data Science.
Those who do not have published materials or want to strengthen their petition will have to put extra effort into satisfying this requirement. For simplicity, I detailed the approach I took into a three-part process — inception, research and reach outs, and evidence collection.
Inception: think of topics you are well-positioned to write about. What unique perspective do you have that people would like to read about? What are the current exciting trends in your field worth writing about? For example, since my O1 application was based on my experience in the field of AI, I shared my perspective on how the latest advancements in the field can unlock new innovations in the Brain-Computer Interface space.
Next, think about where you would like this article to be published. This will help you curate your style of writing for the targeted magazine–consider the difference when writing a piece for a highly-technical journal vs. a piece for Forbes.
Research and reach outs: do you already know writers or editors of notable magazines? If so, reach out with a crisp email or message sharing your piece. This reach-out should be concise and include the title of the article, a few sentences on what it is about, and a blurb about yourself and why you are the right person to write about it. Linking to a Google Doc or attaching a document can improve the chances of your article being selected.
If you are like most people, that means you do not have direct connections to magazine editors. That is okay. Go through your network and see if you can find someone that was recently featured in a major magazine. They usually have a few connections or have used PR agents they can connect you to. If no connections are found, you can apply directly through the magazine’s guest posts submission. Here is an example of VentureBeat’s guest post submission guide.
Evidence required: once one of your articles gets published (great job!), you will need to collect the evidence showing your article and the reputation of the publishing magazine. A simple PDF printout will suffice as evidence of your article. If the article is not in English, it should be translated by a certified translator.
For the magazine’s reputation part, you will need to collect evidence from sources such as SimilarWeb showcasing significant traffic and by PDF-ing official information from the magazine’s website sharing stats on their viewership. This information can usually be found under an “advertise with us” section. Here is VentureBeat’s page.
Major contribution(s) to your field
Having contributed a novel idea or an approach in a way that shaped another successful company’s trajectory or known academic research is another strong signal of your extraordinary skills. Examples of such contributions are GitHub repositories with significant traction (e.g. stars), a popular research paper that tackled a well-known problem, or a novel product you have built and was widely used.
You do not need more than three to five letters for this criterion. Select the most promising contributions and reach out to those who were affected. For example, if your Python package was used by thousands of programmers, including ones at Google, where it allowed them to ship code 10x faster — reach out and ask them to share this in a letter.
Evidence required: a printout of your contributions, e.g. screenshots of your GitHub repository or a PDF version of your paper. As for the Letter of Reference, you will need to ensure it outlines why this organization is reputable, who is the referring person — credentials-wise, and why she is the right person to vouch for you, e.g. the Head of AI. Lastly, the letter should describe how your contribution had a major impact on their work.
You can use this template as a starting point.
Being critically employed in a distinguished organization
Being a core team member who had a fundamental impact on the trajectory of a widely successful company speaks to your traits. Have you joined a startup in its Seed stage and grown the company from thousands of $ in ARR to millions? Were you a VP in a known company and led a major change that had a profound impact on the company’s trajectory? If so, you can apply for this criterion.
Evidence required: a Letter of Reference from a past senior colleague from your time at the organization, e.g. the CEO or the Head of Product. This letter should outline (1) the credentials of the company, outlining what makes it a distinguished organization, (2) the context and background of the author, and (3) your unique contribution to the success of the company.
You can use this template as a starting point.
This is the most straightforward requirement. The USCIS is using high compensation as a proxy for one’s expertise with the fair assumption that if you have earned, as an example, 3x of the average salary — that means you have been perceived, and therefore compensated, as an expert of your field.
Evidence required: last three payslips showing how much you have earned as well as benchmarking data that shows why this compensation was above market. For the latter, you can use Pave, Payscale, or any other reliable source that shows the average salary for someone in your field with roughly the same years of experience.
- The more organized you are, the faster your immigration lawyer will submit your petition. I had a Google Drive with each directory representing a different criterion.
- Create a HelloSign or DocuSign account to share and get your letters of endorsement signed.
- Be diligent, consistent, and creative. You will get a few no’s in this process and will sometimes have to be patient when exchanging with your immigration lawyer. Keep the spirit high and keep the ball rolling.
Keeping track of all the multiple ongoing workstreams and the evidence you would need to collect in each can get quite overwhelming. To address that, I tracked all of my O1 progress in one spreadsheet template, with each sheet representing a different criterion.
Working with an immigration lawyer
Applying for an O1-A visa requires a company to sponsor your petition. If you self-sponsor, i.e. as a founder, or if the company you are joining does not have any immigration lawyer they work with — then I would recommend finding one instead of going through this process yourself.
There are some immigration firms that offer a one-stop-shop solution where they take care of everything, from drafting the reference letters to the final submission. Others will ask you to do all the evidence creation and collection yourself, with them mainly sticking this all together into a coherent petition.
There is no right or wrong approach. It all depends on how much you are willing to pay. When I applied in August 2021, the lawyer fees ranged $5k-$7k, with another $500 for governmental fees and $2.5k for premium processing if you are looking to expedite your application. Premium processing guarantees a reply from USCIS within 15 days while normal processing can take up to six months.
Regardless of the path you end up choosing, I would recommend breaking down the lawyer payment into two installments — one part on commencement and the other part upon approval. This will incentivize your lawyer to keep on pushing your application forward until successful.
An accelerated path to Green Card
Once your O1 petition is getting approved, you can immediately apply for an EB1-A visa, which is an immigrant visa putting you on a Green Card trajectory. The main difference between the EB1 application and the O1 is that the USCIS wants to see your expertise being valid internationally.
Around six to eight months from the initial approval of your EB1-A petition (I-140), you should be getting an EAD card, which enables you and your spouse to change jobs, have multiple sources of income, and travel.
Not so long ago, I was exactly in your shoes, questioning if an O1 visa path is a feasible one for me. Only through talking to a few friends, an immigration lawyer, and a lot of hard work I realized that it is definitely attainable. Since then, I have recommended this path to many other friends and colleagues, and so far all of those who have consistently followed through with this process got approved.
Going through this process turned me into a better writer, allowed me to reconnect with past colleagues, make new friends, and more than anything — appreciate the journey I have been through so far and the people who made it that exciting.