O and P visas: Are You a Superstar?

By Attorney Robert L. Reeves

How do international film stars, professional athletes and Nobel-prize winning scientists who are citizens of foreign countries work in the United States? Despite their fame and international stature, like other foreign nationals they still require a visa to work in the United States. As a result, many of these “superstars” have at one time or another most likely applied for an O or P visa to allow them to do just that.

However, one does not necessarily need to be an international film or sports star, or have won the Nobel Prize, in order to obtain an O or P visa. O and P visas allow foreign nationals who may not qualify for other work visas to instead work in the United States in a field based on their national or international acclaim or talent. Typically, many artists, athletes, entertainers, chefs, business people lacking professional degrees and others who excel in their field of work can qualify for O or P visas. In fact, the O visa is sometimes the preferred alternative for workers who qualify for professional occupations under the H-1B visa because there is no minimum wage or education requirement, no limitation on the time spent in the United States, and no cap on the number of visas issued per year as there is under the H-1B visa.

However, in order to qualify for an O visa, the foreign national must demonstrate “sustained national or international acclaim” in the field of sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. While this can be shown through the receipt of a major international award such as the Nobel Prize, those who have not achieved this standard but who have still distinguished themselves in their field may also qualify for an O visa. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) considers a variety of factors in deciding whether a foreign national qualifies for an O visa including, but not limited to, if the person received national or international awards, is a member of a prominent association or organization in his field, or has been featured in published material such as newspaper or magazine articles. Once approved for an O visa, a foreign national can work in the United States for up to three years initially and renew his visa each year as needed.

A foreign national may also try to apply for a P visa. P visas differ from O visas in that they are generally limited to athletes and entertainers. These include individuals such as professional baseball and basketball players and circus acts or acting troupes visiting the United States. Under certain circumstances, culturally unique artists and entertainers may also qualify. In order to qualify for P visas,  foreign nationals must show that they have accomplished “a high level of achievement in the field…” in which they specialize. This standard is generally easier to meet than the standard set forth under the O visa. However, while certain individual athletes may remain in the United States for up to five years under the P visa, most groups are limited to the time needed to participate in their event or complete their performance in the United States, not to exceed one year.

While a foreign national may not be an international film or sports star or a Nobel prize-winning scientist, if he has made significant achievements in the fields of athletics, the arts, entertainment, or various other fields, then the foreign national may still qualify for a work visa in the United States if there is a U.S. employer willing to employ him in that field. Given the complex regulations involving O and P visas, and the amount of documentation required to support such a petition, it is recommended that a foreign national seek consultation with an immigration attorney familiar with O and P visas to determine whether he might qualify for such a visa.