When Photography Meets Immigration: Foreign Freelance Photography Visas

Sep 3, 2015

Topic: General Legal
Time Investment: 9 Minutes

Photography is an awesome mobile career, but there can be legal barriers when coming and going from your native country. 

The United States attracts a lot of creative types from all over the world. Once photographers experience the creative vitality of places like Los Angeles or New York, they often want to stay. However, as most people know, you have to obtain some paperwork authorizing you to live and work in the United States legally.


I just want to be able to work in the US a few times a year for fashion week and do photo shoots.

If you want to work in the United States then, the O-1 visa is probably for you. The O-1 visa is probably one of the work visas that tend to get over-looked a lot! Unlike the H1-B visas, which require a quota (65,000 per fiscal year), the O-1 visa does not. An O-1 visa will allow you to stay in the United States for up to 3 years, with the option of renewing in 12-month increments. There is no maximum on how many renewals an O-1 visa holder can obtain.


What is an O1 visa?

The O-1 visa is for actress, models, photographers, writers, cast directors –, anyone in the creative or entertainment fields who have ‘extraordinary ability’. While most workers are set on obtaining their H1-B visas before the numbers run out, the O-1 visa sits in the corner. Although the term ‘extraordinary ability’ can seem daunting or unattainable, many more people qualify for this visa than you might think. The O-1 visas are awarded to a more elite crowd: those who can prove to U.S. Immigration that they are the cream of the crop in their fields.


What do I need to qualify for the O-1 visa?

First, you will have to find a sponsor who can be an agent or a production company… basically a U.S Company that says I want this person to come work for me. This means that a freelance photographer would have found an agency to work with. There is no self-sponsor in this visa category.

After you have found your sponsor, you will have to gather the evidence to prove to immigration that you are an artist or photographer who has extraordinary ability. In other words, you will be bringing a lot of money to the United States.


BUT…I am an extraordinary Photographer…Let me show you…

In order to prove to immigration that you are a foreign national with international recognition and extraordinary ability in the arts and motion pictures and television, the O-1 visa applicant may also provide evidence that s/he is the winner of an internationally recognized award, such as an Academy Award or a Grammy, or by demonstrating at least three (but, the more of these you can show the better) of the following:

  • Lead or starring role for productions or events with distinguished reputations;
  • National or International recognition demonstrated by published material about your work;
  • Lead, starring, or critical role for organizations or establishments with distinguished reputation;
  • Record of major commercial or critically acclaimed success;
  • Significant recognition for achievements from organizations, critics, government agencies, or other recognized experts in the field;
  • High salary in relation to others in the field.

If you’re working on photo shoots, then the case rests almost entirely on the number of tear-sheets you can compile; if you have upwards of 40, then you’re in a good place to consider this visa.


Recommendation Letters

If you are applying for this visa type, you will need 7 to 10 letters of recommendation from people in your industry. The letter must explain:

  • Who the person is giving you the letter of recommendation
  • How does this person know you and
  • Why does this person think you have extraordinary ability


Your union review

After you have compiled all the evidence, your application and supporting, document must be sent to two unions in your area. This will be the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG). After the unions review your application and supporting documents, it is ready to be submitted to immigration. Once the application gets approved, you will have to go to a US embassy or consulate (if you are applying outside the US) to attend an interview and receive a stamp in your passport.


Yay!!! You are approved, what happens next?

Now you will receive an “approval notice” in the mail from immigration. This is not a visa. Once you have this petition notice you still have to apply for a visa and take an interview at a US consulate in your home country or any approved third country outside the U.S. It is after you are invited for an interview at the consulate or US embassy is when you will be informed that you are approved and have your passport stamped with the visa.


A final note…

If you are a photographer considering working in the United States, please note that you have to invest a significant amount of time and due care in preparing the materials to get a visa. It does not happen overnight nor is it something you can approach in a lazy fashion…so plan accordingly and prepare thoroughly. Take adequate time to prepare your materials for the petition. Book your flights AFTER you receive the petition notice approval or are issued your visa in your passport. Finally, remember that once you apply for the visa you need to wait before your petition is approved before you are allowed to enter and work under a work visa.


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