Visa Options for TV and Film Actors and Performers

by Carolyn Szaiff Alvarez

We have previously covered special considerations for film and television visas, 10 things to remember about the I visa, and 10 common questions about O visas for the film and television industry. We even dissected some interesting fact patterns for the P-1 and O-1 visas. But let’s rewind, refresh, and simplify, shall we?

1. What are the most common visa options for individuals working in the entertainment industry?

The most common visa options for individuals working in the entertainment industry include O-1B/O-2 visas, I visas, and P-1B/P-2/P-3 visas.  We will get into details on each of these visa types below, but generally O visas are for individuals with extraordinary ability and their essential support personnel, I visas are for documentary or news productions, and P visas are for entertainment groups.

2. What’s the difference between an O-1B and an O-2 visa?

O-1Bs are for individuals of extraordinary ability in their field and are petitioned for by a US entity on behalf of individuals who display proven extraordinary ability in their field. Most applications for film and television projects will be under the category of O-1B: an artist of extraordinary ability in the arts. To be granted valid O-1B status, foreign nationals must show that they have “a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement.” For example: the Executive Producer, the Lead Actor, or the Director of a production, among others.

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.

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 US, 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. For example: Story Producers, Camera Operators, Assistant Directors, Actors, Location Producers, and others.

3. What’s the difference between a P-1B, P-2, and P-3 visa?

P-1Bs are reserved for individuals coming to the United States temporarily to perform as a member of an entertainment group that has been recognized internationally as outstanding in the discipline for a sustained and substantial period of time. This international recognition requires that the group have a “high level of achievement in a field evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered.” Importantly, the reputation of the group (not the individual members or the production itself) is essential. For example: imagine that a London West End-production of Mary Poppins wanted to transfer to Broadway, and the highly-acclaimed original cast wanted to come to the US to perform a run of the show here.

Next, P-2s are for individuals coming temporarily to perform as an artist or entertainer, individually or as part of a group, who will perform under a government-recognized reciprocal exchange program between an organization in the United States and an organization in another country. The foreign nationals must possess skills comparable to those of the US artists taking part in the program outside the US. For example: the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM) and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) have a government-recognized reciprocal exchange program. This means that members of the CFM can come to the US to work for the AFM on a P-2 visa.

Finally, P-3s come temporarily to perform, teach, or coach as artists or entertainers, individually or as part of a group, under a program that is “culturally unique.” The foreign nationals must be coming to the US to participate in a cultural event or events which will further the understanding or development of the art form, but the program may be of a commercial or noncommercial nature. For example: a Hungarian dancer coming to the US to perform in a Hungarian folk dancing show.

4. Who qualifies for an I visa?

The I visa is a temporary visa for individuals coming to the US to work on a documentary or factual program that will be broadcast primarily outside the US. This visa allows representatives of foreign press, radio, film, or other foreign information media to enter the US in connection with the news gathering process, as well as informational or educational documentary films or a television series. If the applicant is working on commercial, entertainment, or advertising productions, they will not qualify for "I" classification visas. Stories that involve reenactments or staged events, scripted, or dramatized events such as reality television and quiz shows, are not primarily informational and, as such, cannot be the basis of an I visa application. Examples include: Producers, Presenters, Directors, Camera Assistants, or others coming to work on a show about American wildlife, to be aired on TV in France.

5. What about visas for location scouting, research, and attending award shows?

In certain instances, participants in a film or television production may enter the US on a visitor (B) visa or a visa waiver (ESTA), instead of a work visa. Most individuals need to apply for a B visa at a US Embassy in their home country, but citizens of certain countries may travel to the US without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. Those seeking admission to the US under the program must apply for a security clearance under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) and pay a fee.

Foreign nationals may use the B visa or visa waiver to do research for a film or television project, attend award shows, negotiate a contract for production, participate in business meetings in connection with ongoing employment abroad, or scout locations for a future shoot.  For trips of this kind, it is useful to bring along supplementary material evidencing the purpose of the trip, such as invitations to check out particular shoot locations. Any actual productive work on a film or TV production beyond these capacities would more than likely require a US work visa.  

6. There are too many options! How do I know which one to pick?

See an experienced immigration attorney! The immigration process is complex, especially with so many options for individuals in the entertainment industry. Which visa is best for a particular person depends on several factors including their employment history and experience, what type of project they are hoping to work on in the US, how long they need to be in the US, and who is sponsoring them for the visa. Notwithstanding the idiosyncrasies of the visa process, we see more and more international TV and film productions choosing to shoot in the US. We welcome these shoots in the US, especially if it means we get to see our favorite performers! Feel free to use our office, cast and crew of Doctor Who!