O-1 Extraordinary Ability Visa Process for Administrators

The O-1 visa is a temporary work visa designated for individuals who have achieved and sustained national or international acclaim for extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or individuals who have demonstrated a record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and television industries.

O-1 Extraordinary Ability visa status is reserved for those who are among the small percentage of experts who have risen to the top of their field. The approval of an O-1 petition by the United States Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) decides whether an individual qualifies for O-1 classification. This classification requires a substantial amount of evidence. The O-1 is a very complicated visa category subject to high levels of scrutiny by the U.S. government. Due to the complexity, the O-1 visa is used very infrequently.

The below information is intended for department administrators working on visa sponsorship with the HIO. For more information about maintaing status on the O-1 visa for scholars, see here.

O-1 Visa Eligibility Requirements

During the O-1 application process, an individual must demonstrate their extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, arts or athletics, or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and television industries.

To qualify as an individual of extraordinary ability, an individual must show evidence of receipt of a major internationally recognized award, such as the Nobel Prize, or satisfy at least three of the following:

  • Receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field.
  • Membership in associations in the field that require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by recognized experts in the field.
  • Evidence of authorship of scholarly articles in the field, in professional journals, or other major media.
  • Published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about applicant's work.
  • Evidence of participation on a panel, or individually, as the judge of the work of others in the field.
  • Evidence in the form of five or six letters and affidavits from prominent colleagues who can confirm applicant's original scientific or scholarly contributions of major significance to the field. Regulations require a "peer group" must attest to the applicant's outstanding qualifications. We have found that this requirement may be fulfilled by letters of recommendation in which the referees outline their own standing in the field.
  • Evidence of employment in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation.
  • Evidence of commanding a high salary or other compensation for services. This category does not usually apply to academic positions.

USCIS decides whether an individual qualifies for O-1 classification. The O-1 visa is employer specific, which means that a USCIS-approved petition that was submitted by the HIO only authorizes the scholar to work in the position specified in the petition filed by Harvard.

A scholar who has an O-1 approval from another employer is not eligible to work at Harvard. An O-1 visa holder may work for more than one employer, but each employer must file a separate O-1 visa petition.

Duration of the O-1 Visa

The O-1 visa may be valid for an initial period of three years and may be extended indefinitely in one-year increments.

Requesting O-1 Sponsorship (including O-1 Extensions)

Departments must initiate the O-1 sponsorship process with the HIO at least six months in advance of a scholar’s O-1 start date to ensure timely filing and adjudication of the petition, allow time for the individual's visa application abroad (if needed), and facilitate international travel. An O-1 petition involves processing time by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Overview of O-1 Application Process:

1. Department contacts HIO to initiate O-1 request process and obtain intake forms (at least 6 months before O-1 start date)

Departments who will be sponsoring or extending a scholar’s O-1 visa must contact the HIO at least 6 months in advance to discuss the scholar’s eligibility for an O-1 visa and request the required intake documents and checklists.

The HIO will provide the department with instructions for the O-1 application process, including checklists for the documentation that a scholar must assemble to satisfy the O-1 eligibility requirements listed above.

2. Department and the scholar compile supporting documentation and HIO intake forms (timing varies – HIO advisor will confirm deadline)

The O-1 petition requires an immense volume of supporting documentation and paperwork. In some cases, gathering sufficient paperwork to satisfy the application requirements may take a scholar several months.

It is the department’s responsibility to work with the scholar to obtain all required supporting documentation indicated on the HIO’s O-1 checklist. The documentation must be carefully and precisely organized per the O-1 instructions sent by the HIO. Departments should set a reasonable deadline with their HIO advisor for submission of the supporting documentation. 

3. Department requests filing fee checks from Harvard’s Accounts Payable office (AP processing is at least 3 weeks)

The HIO's instructions to the department will include details about the required governmental O-1 filing fees. The department must request checks to pay the required governmental processing fees from Harvard’s Accounts Payable office at least one month before the O-1 will be filed. The Harvard-sponsoring department is required to pay all filing fees for the O-1 petition.

4. HIO reviews all supporting materials; prepares O-1 petition forms (20 business days)

After the completed intake forms and supporting documentation are submitted to the HIO, the HIO advisor will prepare the relevant USCIS petition forms, assemble the O-1 materials, and submit the petition to USCIS for adjudication.  Once O-1 materials are submitted to the HIO, HIO processing time is up to 20 business days from the time that complete information is submitted.  The HIO may make recommendations for additional or amended materials.

5. HIO submits O-1 petition to USCIS; USCIS makes decision within 15 calendar days (premium processing) or several months (regular processing)

Standard USCIS processing time for an O-1 petition is four to six months or sometimes even more. The petitioning department has the option of paying an additional Premium Processing fee to secure a more favorable processing time. With Premium Processing, USCIS guarantees that it will either issue an approval, request additional evidence, or send notice of intent to deny within 15 calendar days from the date the petition was received at a USCIS Service Center. Questions about Premium Processing and whether it is necessary or beneficial should be directed to your HIO advisor.

Change of Status vs. Consular Notification

There are generally two ways that an individual may go about obtaining O-1 status: through a change of immigration status or extension of status within the U.S. or through Consular Notification outside of the U.S. In both cases, the department must work with the HIO and follow the steps outlined above to first submit an O-1 application to USCIS.

The first method to obtain O-1 status is known as a change of status petition. Generally, individuals in the U.S. who have filed a timely application for change of status to O-1 or have filed an application for extension of stay can remain in the U.S. while their application is pending with USCIS. This option is only available to individuals who have been maintaining a valid nonimmigrant status through the filing of the application. It is essential that the applicant remain in the U.S. while the change of status petition is pending with USCIS or it will be denied.

The second method is referred to as Consular Notification. If the scholar is abroad or has travel plans to go abroad, that individual may apply for an O-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate after the O-1 petition is approved by USCIS. The visa stamp from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate is required for that individual to enter the U.S. in O-1 visa status. Canadian citizens are exempt from the visa requirement and may enter the U.S. directly in O-1 status on the basis of the O-1 petition approval notice.

Individuals who are subject to the two-year home residency requirement (212e) based on a prior or current J visa status may obtain an O-1 visa only through consular notification. Being in the O-1 visa status does not waive the requirement, but it postpones the requirement for the time the individual holds O-1 status. In such cases, the individual would have to leave the U.S. and re-enter in O-1 status once the petition is approved.

The HIO will assist departments in evaluating which option is appropriate for the scholar depending on department needs and the individual’s plans.

Changes in Employment

During sponsorship of an O-1 visa, departments must notify the HIO of any substantial changes in employment, including:

  • Change in department or employer
  • Resignation
  • Termination
  • Early departure (ending employment before O-1 end date)

USCIS regulations may require the employer (HIO) to notify USCIS of such changes; in some cases, a new O-1 petition must be filed. Failure to notify the HIO may result in fines and penalties imposed on the University and the revocation of the petition/visa approval.

Changing Employers

The O-1 visa is employer specific. If an individual is currently working in the U.S. on an O-1 visa through another institution, Harvard will need to file and obtain an approval of the O-1 petition before the individual may begin working for the Harvard department.

Extending O-1 Visa Status

Extending O-1 visa status requires the same documentation and processing as an initial O-1 visa request. For more information, please see the “Requesting O-1 Sponsorship” tab above.

The HIO strongly recommends that the department prepares the application materials as early as possible. If funding support for the individual’s position is in question and may not continue, departments must alert their HIO advisor immediately so they can advise accordingly. 

Initiating the extension 6 months before the expiration of the current O-1 status ensures timely filing and adjudication of the petition, time for the individual's visa application at a U.S. embassy or consulate (if needed), facilitates international travel, and averts a lot of unnecessary anxiety for both the department and the individual.

O-3 Dependents

Spouses and unmarried children under 21 are eligible for O-3 visa status. Individuals in O-3 status are not permitted to work in the U.S. O-3 dependents may study in the U.S., full-time or part-time, for the duration of the O-3 (and the primary’s O-1) status.