How I got my O1-B Artist Visa as a Cinematographer in the USA

There’s hardly anything as insufficiently documented and mysterious in the 21st century as the successful acquisition of a work visa in the U.S., particularly the O1 visa. I estimate that around 90% of creatives get their work permit through marriage.  In contrast, I can count my friends with an O1 visa on two hands. This is not an issue of lacking talent, drive or lack in smarts, but a daunting process that is expensive, scary and has a terrifyingly high barrier of entry.

I had a very stressful time filled with anxiety leading up to O1. I had built a life here as a student, I found a second home – and everything, absolutely everything, depended on my visa status. The rug could be pulled out under my feet at any given moment, and I had little to no control over it. After six years of study, endless practice and sleepless nights, I took the plunge with an O1 Visa. To make things a bit less scary for future generations, I will describe how I got my O1. Keep in mind that everyone’s tale of the visa process is a different one; I will tell mine to give much-needed insight – there’s very, very few people sharing their stories about this online.

You won’t have an easier time acquiring the skills required for the O1-Visa – it’s incredibly hard -, but reading this should make things a bit more clear and graspable for you.

Disclaimer: I am obviously not a lawyer, so take my advice for what it is: A report of my experience.
I highly, highly recommend you hire a lawyer for your own visa application – don’t shortchange yourself on your future.

How Everything Began

My story with visas in the United States begins in 2008. I was a young guy right out of Austrian High School, ready to embark on a Holocaust Memorial Service as well as the adventure of adulthood and a life abroad. I kept a detailed blog of this year abroad, if you want to learn more about the service and how to become part of it.
In either case, I did this service on a Q1 Visa. Believe it or not, there are visa from A through Z in the U.S., each for a different purpose.

My Q1 was a “Cultural Exchange Visa” and allowed me to volunteer at the Museum of Tolerance.

In LA, I fell in love – with a girl initially, and a bit later, with film. The only emotionally bearable option for naive me at 19 was to figure out a way to stay with her in LA, and conveniently enough it was the perfect place to learn filmmaking. I was fortunate enough that my parents both believed in my dreams and were able to financially support me, so I applied for a F1 Visa and started to study film at Santa Monica College. Tuition there is around $12,000 a year as a foreign student, and on top of that come around $1,200-$2000/month LA living expenses. I documented the F1 Student experience at SMC in great detail, which you are welcome to dig through.

I was not allowed to work while at SMC, which limited my skill development to mostly student films, and forced me to be exclusively supported by my parents. This is an option that not many can afford, as it requires significant financial privilege. At SMC, I was given the Cinematographer role rather randomly since I had a 6-year self-taught background in digital visual arts before I came to the U.S., and people at community college liked my aesthetic enough to entrust me with their projects. I managed to shoot around 15 student projects as a cinematographer within the two years of being at Community College, and these skills would come in handy. I knew that I wanted to do the one year of OPT (Optional Practical Training) after finishing SMC.
Essentially, the OPT is a 1-year work permit within the field of study you engaged in. Right before graduation, I sat in on a lecture by Wolfsdorf Immigration Law, a close-by law firm. I learned that my OPT was not limited to employment by a single company but allowed one to freelance. I snatched some more advice from the friendly lawyers and went off on my own.

I freelanced, mostly as a Cinematographer. People hired me left and right, some even wrote articles about my work, and I got to work with bigger and bigger clients. I worked around 16 hours a day, 7 days a week with some days off. I came to realize the opportunity to get a visa based on my Cinematography skills, and went to meet with a few immigration lawyers. I met with three – one was extremely shady, the second straight-up ridiculed me for trying. My last stop on the immigration lawyer tour was Wolfsdorf, the company that had informed me about the freelance possibilities within an OPT back at SMC.

A lot of people had told me to get married and just get the whole visa thing over with. A lot of artists get married. Many of them are plenty talented and industrious, but an outdated system makes marriage a far more bearable deal for them than going through the work visa ordeal.

The First Time the O1 Visa was on My Radar

I refused the marriage option on grounds of not wanting to put my girlfriend at the time through this process – “converting” girlfriend to wife prematurely, only for getting papers, can put enormous stress on the relationship and loved one.
At this point I had spent nearly three years studying the whole visa list, concluding that an O1 visa was going to be my best option. This is imperative by the way:
Always see your case as a unique one with unique needs and benefits, and read these visa lists with utmost attention to find the best match. Most important, get a consultation from an immigration lawyer so you don’t chase after a visa that is incompatible with you.
In my case, I was chasing after this magical O1-Visa, and had collected all sorts of requirements and evidence for the visa after extensive research online. There were moments of great hope, and plenty of moments where my hopes felt crushed. Towards the end of my OPT, I met with Joseph Shepherd from Wolfsdorf. I brought a thick folder with all my Cinematography accomplishments to him and slid it over the table. “That’s pretty good. But it’s not solid. It would be risky.”
I had worked my ass off, pretty much 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for nearly a year straight. But it wasn’t good enough. If I would convert Joseph’s judgement and comments into a likelihod, I’d say I had a 65% chance of getting the visa approved. That was too low of a chance.

I couldn’t stake my future on mere luck.
“Look, Toby, you had applied to a few schools as a plan B. Why don’t you go back to school, and if you really, really hate it, then you can still decide to apply”.
Did this man just tell me that he didn’t want my money? I was ready to put $5,000 on the table unless told otherwise. Or was he protecting his quota from a potentially unsuccessful case? Even if both were the case, it gave me a lot of trust in Joseph as a gatekeeper. If Joseph thought I could or couldn’t make it, then USCIS would probably make the same judgement call.

My personal theory is that it’s far worse to have a “previously rejected” note in your passport than to not apply in the first place – the question “Have you ever been rejected for a visa?” appears on every immigration form. It’s too risky to play with immigration fire if you’re in it for the long haul.

Back to University – UC Berkeley

I postponed my work visa plans and took “Plan C” – I went to UC Berkeley. I had applied as a joke – wanted to frame the rejection letter – and now I found myself on an ugly campus in Northern California, far away from any film industry. I was surrounded by incredibly smart people who cared deep about politics, philosophy and film. I’m glad I wasn’t good enough for the O1 when I first considered applying for it. If I had gotten the visa, I would have never experienced the two best years of my life (documented in this other blog) so far. I could make my mom’s academic dream come true by getting a bachelor’s degree. And I could develop my mind much deeper than I could have ever while in a working environment.

During my second year at Berkeley, I did CPT (Curricular Pratical Training) – similar to OPT, but you can gain paid work experience in your field of study next to taking classes full time. CPT allowed me to add valuable credits as a Cinematographer that improved my O1-Visa evidence.

Returning to LA, Working like an OPT Madman and Finally Applying for the O1

As soon as my studies ended, I embarked on my second OPT. You can experience an OPT for each completed degree – in my case, it was an Associate’s degree and a Bachelor’s degree. On this new OPT, I freelanced a ton as a Cinematographer. I got hired on bigger and bigger projects, with celebrity star power in front or behind the camera on some of them. I built connections that would ask me to work on their future projects, I got paid decently on most projects and I collected more journalistic clout. Some high-profile publications wrote about me and my work. There was critical acclaim from major US entertainment publications – the sort of journalistic coverage I could have only dreamed of in 2012. These became extremely valuable pieces of evidence for my visa application in 2015.

At the Q&A for "Hangman", a feature film I shot as a Cinematographer, at SXSW2015. These sort of accomplishments were instrumental for the O1 qualification.
At the Q&A for “Hangman”, a feature film I shot as a Cinematographer, at SXSW. These sort of accomplishments were instrumental for the O1 qualification.

The 9 Requirements to Qualify for an O1 Visa

In order to qualify for an O1 visa, the applicant has to fulfill a sort of “superstar status” or fulfill 3 out of 8 requirements that place the individual in an overall “extraordinary ability” classification. A good immigration lawyer will ask you to fulfill 4 or 5 out of 8. This increases you chance of showing that your abilities are, when looked at in combination, indeed extraordinary. These 9 requirements for the O1 Visa are:

0. You received a major, internationally recognized award, similar to a Nobel Prize, Academy Award or Grammy.

Or, in case you’re a mortal, qualify for at least 3 out of these 8:

  1. You received a lesser nationally or internationally recognized prize or award for excellence in the field of endeavor.
  2. You’re a member of associations which require outstanding achievements of their members as judged by recognized national or international experts.
  3. There is published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about you which relates to your work in the field.
  4. You participated on a panel or individually as a judge of the work of others in the same or in an allied field of specialization.
  5. You made original scientific, scholarly or business-related contributions of major significance?
  6. You authored scholarly articles in professional journals or other major media?
  7. You have been employed in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation. [i.e. worked as a cinematographer with a famous actor]
  8. You have or will command a high [above industry average] salary or other remuneration for your services.

On top of those qualifications to establish extraordinary ability, you also need to prove that you have significant, specific work lined up – up to 3 years into the future, which will determine the length of your O1 visa. You also need an agent-petitioner who will represent you in the visa application for your subsequent film work.

Timeline and Cost of the O1 Visa Application

During my second OPT, I met with a few immigration lawyers, just to gain some perspective. None of them could compete with the competence I had seen at Wolfsdorf, so I showed up there again. Luckily, the lawyer who had earned my trust in 2012, Joseph Shepherd, was still with the firm. With lawyers, it’s like with car mechanics: Don’t get one who lowballs themselves and does crappy work, and don’t get someone who charges you a premium for unnecessary services – you need to get someone you trust. I would highly advise everyone who wants to apply for the O1 visa to hire a competent, trustworthy, specialized immigration lawyer who understands your industry and has plenty of prior experience in getting visa for people in your industry.

Joseph looked at my material again, the thick folder I brought with all my new trophies. He gave me a critical look: “This looks good now, but there’s a few more things I need to know in detail.” After some more emails and further evidence, they accepted to represent my case.

300+ pages thick: That's an O1 Visa Application for Cinematography.
300+ pages thick: That’s an O1 Visa Application for Cinematography.

All in all, my O1 visa application cost about $7,000 with fees, lawyer’s costs and so on. It was 300+ pages thick.

If you think you’re in for a treat once you hire a lawyer and spend the money, that’s not the case. An immigration lawyer will provide you with guidance and diligence as well as structure, but you’re the one that needs to collect 90% of the evidence. While an immigration lawyer does sometimes draft reference letters and research your work for additional evidence, it’s still you who has to ask your powerful friends for references, get publicity or search for newspaper articles about your work that you didn’t even know existed.

Having already prepared a great deal before I started officially working with Joseph at Wolfsdorf, it took me 4 months to get all my materials together and organized. The areas of potential delay that you will overlook and your lawyer might fail to mention to you:

  • Recommendations from unions / trade organizations. These have to do with whatever position you’re applying for (IATSE/ICG in my case). They are relatively quick in processing, which can take anywhere from 3-10 business days. For this application to work, the lawyer needs to send them a summary of your application, so this usually happens towards the end of your process, shortly before you submit the application to USCIS.
  • Reference Letters. You should get reference letters from people who know you and your work well and have gravitas within the industry. Famous, accomplished people. These will have busy schedules and it might take a week or two to get their reference letter’s signature.
  • Deal Memos. You need all work lined up for the duration of your visa, which can be up to 3 years. You need big, long-term projects in order to support your application. Getting them is part of your career; asking production companies to write deal memos well ahead of time takes some finesse and negotiating. Plan in multiple months to get everything straightened out in that department.

The Climax of Paranoia: Waiting for a Response from USCIS

All your paperwork is in check, now it’s ready to go. If you are running short on time, you will have to choose the expedited version of the visa application, which increases the government fee  and guarantees you a 14-day turnaround for your application and possible appeals in case they request further information.  It was worth that peace of mind for me to elect the expedited process. Expedited, so I was told, is handled by a different department, but doesn’t increase your chance of getting the visa – it’s a pretty plain playing field that values merit and the ability to show it off above all.

The following two weeks were nearly as nerve-wrecking as the past seven years – this was my moment of jumping out the airplane after all preparation, with my Immigration lawyer as an experienced tandem jumper. After you jump, there’s no way to check your parachute for holes. Now you just have to hope it deploys and lands you in the safe zone of non-immigrant alien workers. Relax and treat yourself in that time – you’ve worked harder than most people ever have to, and now you can just make the best out of the time waiting for final judgement.

Two weeks later, USCIS approved my request and I’m now the immensely proud holder of an O1 Artist Visa. I know another handful of people that got this visa as well, and I know some people that got their application rejected. My recommendation: Seek a lawyer that has a near-100% success rate and use them as a gatekeeper, to get a realistic assessment of whether you get the visa or not, and stay humble and realistic with your chances.

The Last Step: Foreign Consulate Interview

After you went straight through hell and back, the process isn’t over – there is one last caveat: You have to brave an interview in an American Consulate on foreign soil. You can go to the neighbor countries Canada or Mexico; I chose to combine a visit back home in Austria with this last hurdle. The interview in Vienna was smooth, and I got some coaching the night before the interview from my lawyer. Be friendly, confident and emanate that you’re a competent, extraordinarily skilled professional: That is what you’re getting your visa for, so have no false humility and show it.

Feel free to share this article with your ambitious foreign friends – because if there was one thing I would have needed most in my journey, then it would have been the kind of information I tried compressing into this article. It’s so incredibly lonely, depressing and stressful to try and build a future as a foreign artist in the U.S.
Getting the O1 Visa was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

The O1 Visa will certainly stay very competitive, but I hope you now know a bit more about what it takes, apart from extraordinary ability.
My recommendation is: Work your butt off in your home country, become incredibly good at what you do, and then apply for that U.S. artist visa. That way you have a “home base”, less stress, no ticking clock on your previous visa, and you can pursue your dreams along the way. Get yourself a trustworthy, competent lawyer – it makes all the difference.

Best of luck on your journey.

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