Getting a visa to stay in the United States to work has been one of the toughest challenges I have faced up to date. When it comes to visa issues, it’s an insanely complicated process which entails all sorts of puzzle pieces to fit together. I’m by no means an expert on this matter – I’m not a lawyer, but after 2.5 years of visa troubles and endless hours of research, I wanted to share what I know with those who find themselves in the same boat and/or needing some guidance. This will not be an easy process. You’re going to spend months working on your application. You’re going to spend thousands of dollars on your lawyer fees. You’re going to go through hundreds of dollars buying printer ink to print your evidence. You’re going to need a lot of paper. You’re in for one of the most stressful experiences you’ll probably ever face in your life. You’ll have too many moments where you’re going to break down & cry about the process. It’s okay. Breathe and do one thing at a time. Staying organised is the key to a smooth process. Below are some things I have learned over the years which will hopefully ease the process for you & wish someone would have told me. This post will be geared towards artists (because that’s my livelihood), but there are truly options for anything. You just have to consult a lawyer & see what your best options are.
I’m going to quickly give you a ballpark of how much you should expect to spend. Lawyer fees for the O-1 typically range from $5000-6000 (USD). Filing fees for the O-1 are either $460 or $1440 depending on if you do regular or expedited processing. Processing time for the O-1 is anywhere from 2 weeks to 4 months, which is why a lot of people want to expedite their case so they can hear within 15 days. Lawyer fees for the EB-1 are $10,000; the filing fees are $1925. The EB-1 is a much longer wait – it’s average processing time is 8-9 months, & it’s more expensive because this particular visa is considered an Artists’ Green Card, which means you will be granted resident status. The criteria for both visas are very similar, but they are looking for different details in terms of your application. For example, the EB-1 is self sponsored (you don’t need an Employer), but the O-1 requires someone as your Petitioner (this is usually your Employer or Talent Agent). I’m not going to go into details because your lawyers will explain this to you, but you should consult with a lawyer to see which visa is a better option depending on your prior work experience & portfolio.
If you graduate from a program at a U.S. university, you are entitled to something called the OPT. The OPT stands for “Optional Practical Training” visa. You are guaranteed one year of legal employment status post-graduation. You need to make sure to talk to your school’s international office to apply for the OPT. They will help you out, but you need to stay on top of this your senior year especially if you have work set for the beginning of summer right after graduation. If that’s the case, you need to get your application in at the correct time because it takes time to process.
Choose your Lawyer wisely
This part is perhaps the most important of your entire visa process. I cannot stress enough how important it is to choose a skilled, competent lawyer who knows what they’re doing and how they can achieve best outcome (an approval) for you. You need to meet with different lawyers and bring your resume with you. Ask them questions. Ask them which criteria they think you’re most suitable or. Ask them how they usually present a case to immigration. It is not enough for them to say “I believe in your case” or that “you have a good case” or “you have a good chance of getting approved.” You need to make sure they are the types of lawyers who will stay on top of your case and are pro-active about everything. Of course you have to be on top of your case too. It’s also vital that whoever you decide to go with understand you as an individual artist and all the details of your resume so that they can present your case and advocate for you to the best of their ability. You don’t want your application to get lost in translation. You want them to present your credits in the best light possible. You want someone who is detail oriented, organised and respond to you in a timely manner. This is the truth: someone with an impeccable resume but mediocre lawyer will most likely raise complications compared to someone with an weaker resume but with an outstanding lawyer. So I’m going to tell you right now – you getting approved is not really about talent, it’s about the way your talent is presented on paper.
Both visas are for people who possess extraordinary ability. I’m not going to list the criteria for the visas here. To simplify the criteria a lot, you basically have to check off 3 individual criteria in their eligibility criteria. There are definitely significant differences between both visas – for the O-1, you have to show a 3 year itinerary of steady work & have union letters advocating for you, whereas for the EB-1, you don’t need those things, but you do have to prove you are working in the top 1% of your field. The usual criteria most actors aim for are the leading role in distinguished productions, leading/critical role in distinguished organisations, significant recognition and national/international recognition demonstrated by press. That being said, it’s important to remember that no resume is the same. You don’t need a Tony/Oscar (like they asked) to get an approved visa. You are your own person. Make sure your application reflects the best version of you as a professional performer. So just because those are the popular criterion people aim for, it doesn’t mean you have to as well. Work with a lawyer to see which criteria you have the best chances of fulfilling. Cater the application to you.
Work you should aim for
You want to aim for things that will read to the immigration officers. So while being a background actor/extra on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is great experience for your artistic experience & your ‘normal’ resume (I recommend you doing it for sure!)… just remember that any extra/background work will not appeal to immigration because they’re after leading actors. I’m not trying to tell you to only think about your visa every time you audition for something or book something, but unfortunately, it’s the reality of the situation so it doesn’t hurt to be more mindful of it. Be sure to stay connected to your artistry too and do what you think will help you grow. All I’m saying is just keep it in the back of your mind what could make your case stronger and stand out. For example, if you booked a show as ensemble, that’s amazing. Congrats! Ensemble members are immensely valuable. We all know that, but they don’t see it that way. Ensemble is another thing they don’t put much weight on, so on top of your ensemble contract, try asking if you could be featured ensemble, an understudy of a lead, or if you could be dance captain/assistant dance captain to fill the ‘critical role’ criteria. Avoid the word ‘ensemble’ in your petition at all costs.
What can you do to prepare for your physical application during your OPT?
My application was close to 1000 pages. Save everything related to your employment. This will be your evidence for your employment. Paystubs. Playbills. Website pages. Press releases. Emails. Thank you cards. Your scripts and scores. Articles. Production photos. Behind the Scene photos. Callsheets. Rehearsal Schedules. Everything relevant. Take a lot of Behind the Scene photos if you don’t get a lot of Production Photos. Save all the information about a show, press about the theatre, press about the show, production company, the theatre you worked at, people you worked with, revenues for big brands you’ve worked for. If you can, save all this information ahead of time as PDF documents so you don’t procrastinate later. It will make your life so much easier.
You can also start asking around for those who are willing to endorse you via recommendation letters. Immigration doesn’t put a lot of weight on educational things, so professors unfortunately are not ideal candidates for this unless you know them through a professional setting as well (worked with them outside of school). These employment letters should serve as both confirmation you worked a job & show how outstanding you are.
Letters of Recommendation
The biggest thing I learned about recommendation letters are that they should be as specific as possible. How many solo lines did you have? Did you sing a well-known song? Was your show nominated for any type of award? What was so special about your performance? How high or low did you have to sing? What dance techniques did you utilise? Did you move the audience to tears with a scene you were in? AS. SPECIFIC. AS. POSSIBLE.
I think the best way would be to scan everything once you finish a project or show. Put it in a google drive or a folder on your desktop.
Proofread your case
Make sure you proofread your cover letter and look over ALL the evidence included in your petition before you send it off. Make sure there are no spelling errors on shows, theatres, directors, people who are important etc. When you finish reading your entire petition, make sure that you feel like it showcases the best version of yourself as a performer. The petition, & especially your cover letter should make you feel like a star (seriously).
If I book a Broadway show or National Tour, will they secure my visa for me?
It all depends on the producers. It has happened before, but rarely to ensemble members. Unless you’re a famous person or someone they’re specifically bringing in for the show, I’m afraid you are on your own for obtaining your visa. It never hurts to ask though, but don’t get your hopes up. Regional theatres will never secure a visa for you.
Good luck! Be prepared
I covered everything I wish someone had told me when I was going through this process. Your lawyer should be able to clarify the rest for you & guide you through the technical/legal jargon. I hope this has been helpful and gives you enough motivation to get started and stay on top of it all. This is your livelihood, so take it very seriously. Don’t rush into things. Take your time in deciding which lawyer to go with. If you have any more specific questions about anything, contact me – you are not alone.9 I Love This! ♡