O Visas for the Film and Television Industry: 10 Common Questions (and Answers)

by Alexis Roblan

So you’re a German production company looking to shoot a feature film in the United States, or an Australian actor who has been hired for a recurring role in an American television series. You’ve done a little research, possibly read our previous post on special considerations for film and television visas or common O-1 misconceptions, and now you realize that you and/or your production team are in need of O visas. (Almost any foreign national working on commercial or entertainment film or television projects in the US, for any length of time, will need an O-1 or O-2 visa.)

At this point, any number of additional questions may arise. Who on your team should be the primary (O-1) beneficiary?  What does that even mean? How does one qualify? Do you really need a visa for just one or two days of filming? (The answer is yes.) How long will this all take? We address ten of the most common questions below:

1) Who qualifies for an O-1 in the film and television industry?

O-1s are petitioned for by a US entity on behalf of individuals who display proven extraordinary ability in their field. While O-1s can be obtained in the categories of business and science as well, most visas in the film and television industry will be under the category of O-1B: an artist of extraordinary ability. To be granted valid O-1B status, foreign nationals must show that they have “a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement.” This can apply to anyone involved with the project in an artistic role: the Executive Producer, the Lead Actor, the Director, or the Director of Photography.

What’s important is that the individuals can demonstrate their extraordinary ability in their specific field, through such evidence as awards, press, reviews, and letters from experts in the field (we’ll get into further detail about evidence below). An individual actor traveling to the United States to work on a specific film project for two weeks, a director who has been awarded a studio contract for multiple upcoming projects over the next three years, or a reality TV producer who is overseeing multiple shows for the same production company may all qualify for the O-1 visa.

For a film or television project that will involve a large production team working on a single project, the production company will generally select one artist as the O-1, and petition for O-2s on behalf of all the other associated artists as the essential support personnel for the O-1 beneficiary. In this case, the O-1 beneficiary should be the most accomplished member of the production team, and someone who has a leading role in the current project, often the Director, Producer, or Lead Actor.

2) Who qualifies for an O-2 Visa in the film and television industry?

O-2s are reserved for essential personnel who are needed by O-1 beneficiaries in order to conduct their extraordinary work. There are no limits in the regulations regarding the type of service the O-2 can perform, as long as they can prove they are essential.  There are two chief ways in which a petitioner can prove the essentiality of O-2 beneficiaries. First, through demonstrating a long and successful work history with the O-1 beneficiary. For instance, if an O-1 Director has been collaborating with the same Director of Photography on his past five feature films, two of which have been nominated for BAFTA Awards, then there is a very strong case to be made that this DP is essential to the Director’s work.

Second, and specific to film and TV productions shooting in the US, if the O-2 beneficiaries are scheduled to work on pre- and post- production outside of the United States, the petitioner may contend that the O-2 beneficiaries are essential to the continuity of the project, and are therefore essential to the O-1 beneficiary’s work. Any member of the production crew or artistic team can qualify for an O-2 visa in the above ways. This can include (but is not limited to): Story Producers, Television Directors, Directors of Photography, Camera Operators, Actors, Location Producers, and more.

3) What timeline can I expect once I’ve filed my petition with USCIS?

One of the chief frustrations for film and television productions that are tasked with obtaining O visas for their cast and crew is timing. In addition to the time it takes to assemble the O-1 petition, including evidence and relevant paperwork, US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) must have time to carefully review and adjudicate the petition. Because production schedules are rarely able to be set far in advance, and cast and crew are often still being secured close to the dates of filming, USCIS’ regular processing times of three-to-four months are generally far too long to accommodate the scheduling demands of this industry.

Therefore, most film and television companies bringing a production crew to the US opt for premium processing. This service, offered by USCIS, costs an additional filing fee of $1,225 per petition, meaning that a filing for one O-1 beneficiary and eight O-2 beneficiaries will cost an additional $2,450 in premium fees alone. Most find it worth the cost, however, as this service guarantees a response to petitions within fifteen calendar days of filing.

4)  If my petition is approved, how long do I have to wait before I can enter the US to work on the project?

As soon as the O-1 or O-2 petition is approved, applicants will need to schedule an appointment at a US Embassy/Consulate abroad in order to obtain the visa stamp in the passport. Along with submitting a DS-160 and providing the necessary documentation, this process involves a brief interview, at the end of which the Embassy/Consulate will keep the applicants’ passport. Most US Embassies/Consulates will return the passport with the new visa within three to five business days, as long as there are no security delays or other issues with the application. As soon as foreign nationals have their passport with visa in hand, they may travel to the United States and begin working.

Due to potential scheduling delays at various busy US Embassies/Consulates, it is generally a good idea to allow an average of two weeks between visa approval and scheduled arrival in the US, if possible, though there are times when US Embassies/Consulates have a lengthy wait to obtain an appointment and also may have delays in issuing visas.

5) Do I need to include a union consultation with my petition?

All O-1 and O-2 petitions in the film and television industries must include union advisory opinions from the relevant labor organizations governing their professions in the United States. This generally includes an advisory letter from the relevant union, such as the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers of America (AMPTP), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the Producers Guild of America (PGA), and others. These advisory opinions work to assist USCIS in assessing the extraordinary talent or essentiality of the beneficiary by enlisting experts in the field to review the petition materials first and provide just that: advice. While consultation letters are required for the petition, the unions do not have the final say. A letter from the DGA, for instance, stating that the Guild has “no objection” to the issuance of a specific O-2, will help the petition. But a letter objecting to the petition will not necessarily result in a denial, so long as the immigration attorney is able to properly refute the objection.

These unions and management organizations each have specific submission requirements, fees, and timelines, which must be researched ahead of time in order to avoid delaying the case. They can take between three and ten business days to respond to a request for an advisory opinion—an important consideration to keep in mind when trying to stick to a tight production schedule.

6)  What kinds of evidence do I need to include with my petition?

For the film and television industry specifically, one of the best and easiest pieces of evidence is an Internet Movie Database (IMDB) profile, including IMDB’s list of any awards that the beneficiary and their projects have won. Those international artists who do not have IMDB profiles may have publicly listed credits on a similar country- or region-specific website. Generally speaking, credits, awards, and press—both for the individual beneficiaries and the projects they’ve worked on—are perfect ways to display extraordinary ability, as are ratings, ticket sales, and other ways of quantifying the success of an artistic product.

Of course, the most clear-cut evidence that will result in the approval of an O-1 in the film and television industry is the receipt or nomination of a major international award in the field, such as an Oscar, Emmy, Golden Globe, or BAFTA, though these awards or nominations aren’t required, as there are other ways to prove extraordinary ability. O-2 beneficiaries should provide evidence either of their previous work with the O-1 beneficiary, or their essentiality to the continuity of the project.

7)  Who can sponsor my petition?

For the film and television industry, specifically, O visas are generally granted for specific projects, and petitioned for by a US production company. Occasionally, however, a talent agency may petition for an O-1 visa on behalf of one of their clients, providing an itinerary of scheduled or anticipated projects their clients will be participating in over the course of the petition period.

8)  How long will the petition last?

The O-1 petition may only last as long as the event in which the talent is participating.  Nonetheless, while principal photography may last only a few weeks, or a particular actor may only be scheduled for four days of filming, the petitioner may request validity for the petition of up to three years, providing they can document that the talent will be needed for additional work on the project. In the case of a production company petitioning on behalf of an artist working on one specific film project, the visa will only allow the beneficiary to work on that project, but it is wise to allow as much time as possible in case the beneficiary is needed for reshoots, promotion, or subsequent seasons of the same series.

9)  When is an O-1 not required?

Foreign nationals typically do not need an O-1 visa to enter the United States for the purposes of location scouting; research; attending awards shows, trade shows, or conferences; participation in business meetings in the US in connection with ongoing employment in the foreign national’s home country; or negotiating a contract for a production. In these cases, foreign nationals may enter on a visa waiver (ESTA), or a visitor (B) visa, though it is always advisable to consult with an experienced immigration attorney before travel to the US for such reasons.

10)  What about the I visa? 

Many people inquire about the I visa because it seems so much easier. Applicants can apply in person at US Embassy/Consulates abroad, they don’t need to go through the additional step of filing a petition with USCIS in the States, and they can be approved for up to five years. If, however, the applicants are going to be working in the United States on any sort of commercial or entertainment project, they do not qualify for the I visa, which is reserved for journalism and nonfiction documentary work. Additionally, an important distinction between these two visa types is the location of the petitioner/employer. While the petitioner for an O visa must be a US-based company, the individual entering the United States to conduct work on an I visa must be employed by a foreign media organization.

Petitioning for O-1s and O-2s can be a complex process, particularly within the specific time and labor constraints of the film and television industry. Still, the O is often one of the best options for many film/TV projects, and Americans are incredibly supportive of the international entertainment industry. We are always excited to see our favorite foreign productions and actors in the US—one time Doctor Who was filmed outside our office—and are thrilled that many shoots continue to take place here. By working to make the O visa petition process as smooth as possible, we hope we’ll keep seeing our favorite stars, TV shows, and award-winning feature films shooting in the United States.