From the outside, obtaining an artist visa to the United States can appear like a black-box process: applications go in, decisions come out. And even to insiders, the fiercely bureaucratic system can seemingly yield unpredictable results. But the visa is of course not unattainable — it just requires talent, and the paperwork to back it up.
An artist visa, also called an O1B, is issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, and is granted to those with “extraordinary ability or achievement.” To parse what that means and get some tips on the process, ARTINFO spoke to immigration lawyer BoBi Ahn of Warshaw Burstein, LLP.
What exactly is an individual with “extraordinary ability or achievement”? Well, not everyone has an Oscar or Emmy. But that shouldn’t deter a candidate. “In lieu of those things, you can show documentation of national or international prizes, publication about your work, that you have been involved in big name events, that you are a member of some critical organization, or something that shows distinction in your field,” Ahn said. “You have to show the government that you have something that is outstanding, something that sets you apart, something that is an act of distinction — that says that we should take you in to do this type of performance instead of hiring someone in the United States.”
There is no clear timeline for this process. It can take as little as 10 days and up to six months to approve the application. But to expedite it, you can pay an additional fee and expect to hear back within 15 days. But that will cost you an additional $1,225, plus the regular filing fee of $325 — not always the easiest to swing for an artist. But once approved, the candidate has up to three years in the US, during which time she needs to be booked with shows and performances to justify her stay in the US.
How do you prepare?
Before seeing an immigration lawyer you can prepare by pulling together your resume and enumerating your top three performances or shows. “And show me as much documentation as you can to support what you are saying,” Ahn added. You also must have a petition sponsor in the United States lined up — usually a management agency or gallery — that guarantees you’ll have shows.
Artists also have to do a peer review, conducted by a management group that approves their credentials. (For dancers, it’s AGMA; for actors, SAG.) But not all disciplines have formal boards. “There is no advisory group to govern over hip-hop dancers, for instance” Ahn said. “So what we have done in the past is get 10 to 15 letters from people well established in the field: celebrities, agents, etc.”
Things can get tricky when your documentation leaves your hands. “The problem is the interpretation of that regulation. The people who are actually looking are not in the arts industry. So they might apply arbitrary standards.” According to Ahn, even John Lennon was asked for further evidence when he applied. An appeal process is always possible. But more often it is better to try applying through a different visa category all together.
Ahn noted that officials like to see big names on resumes. Well-known shows like “America’s Got Talent” or “American Idol” can make a difference, even if you didn’t make it as a finalist. It’s the name value that counts. “They see Chris Brown and Rihanna and that raises the approvability, even if they are a minor background dancer. If you can show that you have associated yourself with big names in the mainstream, you are better off than if you have played a bigger role in a no-name production.”