Are you looking into getting an O-1 visa as someone with extraordinary ability in your field? You may be wondering- how can I qualify for an O-1A visa?


Fiona McEntee, an experienced immigration attorney with over 16 years in the field, has some invaluable insights into navigating the O-1A visa criteria. Fiona also regularly speaks on the O-1 visa including leading panels and teaching other immigration lawyers about this option at our national bar association conferences (AILA).


The O-1A visa is for those with exceptional talents in business, science, education, and athletics, and this is different to the O-1B visa which is for those who work in motion picture/TV, creative fields, and the arts.


Understanding the O-1A Boxes


To qualify for the O-1A visa, you are aiming to check 3 out of a potential 8 boxes. If the boxes don’t fit your occupation, it may be possible to use “comparable evidence” instead.


So, what’s in these boxes and how do we check them? Let’s unpack them below!


Nationally or Internationally Recognized Prizes or Awards

This criterion focuses on your recognition through prestigious awards which now – thanks to updated policies – could potentially include scholastic achievements, in addition to awards from notable institutions and professional associations. The emphasis is on the award’s significance and the selection process, ensuring it reflects national or international excellence.


The USCIS gives some specific examples of awards that might qualify but this list is not exhaustive:

  • Awards from well-known national institutions and well-known professional associations.
  • Certain doctoral dissertation awards and Ph.D. scholarships.
  • Certain awards recognizing presentations at nationally or internationally recognized conferences.


The USCIS says that while many awards received during college may not qualify, “there are some Ph.D. scholarships or dissertation awards, for example, that are nationally or internationally recognized as awards for excellence such that they may satisfy the requirements of this criterion.”


Limitations on who can get an award (those only to persons within a single locality, employer, or school) may not qualify BUT an award open to members of a well-known national institution (including an R1 or R2 doctoral university) or professional organization may be nationally recognized.


Startup founders who have received venture capital, may be able to use receipt of venture capital as receipt of an award.


We also want to note that this criterion – like lots of them – is written in the plural so we will be looking to show receipt of more than one prize or award.


Membership in Associations Requiring Outstanding Achievements

Membership in professional associations can fulfill this criterion if it necessitates outstanding achievements for entry.


Examples that the USCIS gives us are:

  • Membership in certain professional associations.
  • Fellowships with certain organizations or institutions.


Associations may have multiple levels of membership and to check this box, we must show that your level of membership was judged by recognized national or international experts as having attained outstanding achievements in the field.


The government recognizes memberships that signify an individual’s expertise and contributions to their field, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) at the IEEE fellow or the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) because membership is based on recognition of a nominee’s “significant, sustained contributions” to the field of artificial intelligence, and is judged by a panel of current AAAI fellows.


For startup founders, we may be able to use acceptance into prestigious or competitive accelerators to check the membership box.


We once again note that this criterion is written in the plural so ideally, we are looking for more than one association membership.


Published Material About You in Professional or Major Media

To check the published material/press box, your work must have garnered attention in major media or professional publications, highlighting your work’s impact.


The coverage should be substantial and directly related to your contributions, with the government now acknowledging team efforts if your role is clearly documented.


Specific examples are:

  • Professional or major print publications (newspaper articles, popular and academic journal articles, books, textbooks, or similar publications) about you and your work.
  • Professional or major online publications regarding you and your work.
  • Transcript of professional or major audio or video coverage of you and your work.


The USCIS has acknowledged that the piece does not have to be only about you – a piece that covers a broader topic but includes a substantial discussion of you and your work may be used to check this box. However, a piece that includes only brief citation or passing reference to you and your work likely won’t qualify.


Also, not every publication is going to qualify, and we should be selective about the pieces we consider for this. The publication needs to be a professional publication, major trade publication, or major media, and the circulation, readership, or viewership of the publication is important.


Finally, it’s important to be aware that we do not have to check the press box. Some people think press is a prerequisite to getting an O-1 visa but it’s not – it’s just 1 of a potential 8 boxes we can check.


Judging the Work of Others

Participation as a judge in your field, whether in peer reviews, scholarly conferences, or other evaluative roles, demonstrates your recognition as an expert. This criterion values your contribution to maintaining the field’s standards through critical assessment.


Specific examples:

  • Reviewer of abstracts or papers submitted for presentation at scholarly conferences in the field.
  • Peer reviewer for scholarly publications.
  • Member of doctoral dissertation committees.
  • Peer reviewer for government research funding programs.


We must show that you have not only been invited to judge the work of others, but also that you actually participated in the judging of the work of others.


Original Contributions of Major Significance

This one is a favorite of ours especially for those in research, startups, and more. To check this box, we need to show that your contributions are original and have had major significance in your field.



  • Published materials about the significance of your work.
  • Testimonials, letters, and affidavits about your work.
  • Documentation that your work was cited at a level indicative of major significance in the field.
  • Patents or licenses deriving from your work or evidence of commercial use of your work.


Evidence that your work was funded, patented, or published, may show originality, but may not on its own show that the work is of major significance to the field.


Published research that has provoked widespread commentary on your work’s importance from others working in the field, and documentation that it has been highly cited relative to other works in that field, may be used to show the significance of your work.


Evidence that you have developed a patented technology that has attracted significant attention or commercialization may establish the significance your work. If a patent remains pending, USCIS will likely require additional supporting evidence to document the originality of the beneficiary’s contribution.


Expert letters can be a great way to show how your contributions have been both original and have had major significance in the field.


Authorship of Scholarly Articles

Publishing scholarly articles in reputable journals or media showcases your expertise and contribution to the field’s body of knowledge. The focus is on the quality and scholarly nature of the work, with a broader acceptance of various formats and audiences.



  • Publications in professionally-relevant journals.
  • Published conference presentations at nationally or internationally recognized conferences.


To check this box, you must be a listed author of the submitted article(s) but need not be the sole or first author nor does your published work need to have been cited to check this box.


The articles do need to be “scholarly”. In academia, this means an article that reports on original research, experimentation, or philosophical discourse. It is written by a researcher or expert in the field who is often affiliated with a college, university, or research institution and the article is normally peer-reviewed. In general, it should have footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography, and may include graphs, charts, videos, or pictures as illustrations of the concepts expressed in the article.


In non-academic arenas, a scholarly article should be written for learned persons in that field.


In evaluating whether a submitted publication is a professional publication or major media, relevant factors include the intended audience (for professional journals) and the circulation or readership relative to other media in the field (for major media).


Employment in a Critical or Essential Capacity

This is another favorite box of ours. To check this box, we need to show that you’ve had a critical or essential role for distinguished organizations and establishments.



  • Senior faculty or senior research position for a distinguished academic department or program.
  • Senior research position for a distinguished non-academic institution or company.
  • Principal or named investigator for a department, institution, or business that received a merit-based government award, such as an academic research or Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.
  • Member of a key committee within a distinguished organization.
  • Founder or co-founder of, or contributor of intellectual property to, a startup business that has a distinguished reputation.
  • Critical or essential supporting role for a distinguished organization or a distinguished division of an institution or company.


It’s important to note that it’s not the title of your role, but rather your duties and performance in the role that determines whether the role is (or was) critical or essential. Detailed expert letters can be very helpful to document this.


It’s also important to note that you don’t have to have worked as a direct employee for an organization in order to check this box. We can potentially use this if you’ve provided services to a client, worked as a freelancer, or otherwise had a critical or essential impact on that company.


For startups, evidence that the business has received significant funding can be used to show its distinguished reputation.


High Salary or Other Significant Remuneration

We can check this box if you have earned a high salary or have commanded significant remuneration for your services OR if you will in the future (as evidence by documentation like contracts or evidence of the organization’s capacity to provide such compensation.)


For entrepreneurs or startup founders, evidence that the company has received funding can show that the company is in a position to support a high salary offered, if applicable.


We do need to show that your compensation is high compared to others in your field and to do this, we need to pull wage data as a basis for comparison. If you have been working outside the U.S., we would evaluate the wage statistics or comparable evidence for that location as opposed to comparing it to a U.S. salary.

young women sitting at computer in an office

Beyond the Boxes: Comparable Evidence

For those whose occupations may not fit neatly into these boxes, the O-1A visa application process allows for the submission of “comparable evidence”.


To use comparable evidence for a box, we need to show why that box is not readily applicable to your occupation. We are not required to show that all or a majority of the criteria do not readily apply to your occupation. Instead, we must explain why that particular box does not apply and how the submitted evidence is “comparable” to that criterion.



  • If the publication of scholarly articles is not readily applicable your field (because it’s an industry rather than academia) we can try to show that the presentation of your work at a major trade show is of comparable significance to that criterion.
  • If we show that receipt of a high salary is not readily applicable to your position as an entrepreneur, we can provide evidence that your highly valued equity holdings in the startup are of comparable significance to the high salary criterion.


The flexibility of comparable evidence accommodates unique cases, such as startup founders, by considering alternative proofs of extraordinary ability, like equity in lieu of salary.


Final Thoughts


Getting an O-1A visa requires a comprehensive showcase of your extraordinary abilities and achievements but the benefits are tremendous including getting an initial approval for up to 3 years, no yearly cap, and potentially putting yourself in a good position to qualify for an EB-1A green card for which you can fully self-petition.


Beyond check the O-1A boxes, you must have a petitioner (but you can own the petitioning entity) and must also demonstrate that you intend to continue working in your field of expertise.


While the standard for the O-1 is high, it can work really well for lots of people so please don’t be put off by the term “extraordinary”. After all, you may be more extraordinary than you think!


For more personalized guidance, consider reaching out to an experienced immigration attorney.


If you have questions or need assistance with your O-1 visa application, feel free to contact us an O-1 visa attorney at McEntee Law Group. Our team is dedicated to supporting you in navigating your immigration journey.


Like what you’ve read? We invite you to follow along for more! Just click the button below.

join the email list

The post How Can I Qualify for an O-1A Visa? first appeared on McEntee Law Group.