Taking Your Act on the Road: US Visas for Artists and Entertainers

by Susan McFadden: 10 June 2015

US immigration law is clear: Although professional artists and entertainers may enter the United States on the Visa Waiver Program/ESTA to attend meetings and auditions, they may not perform there—not even if they do so for free. So, the question is: What visa is needed and how much trouble is it to get?

The primary employment-authorised visas for entertainers are the ‘O’ and ‘P’ visas. (All non-immigrant US visas are designated by letters of the alphabet.) The ‘O-1’ visa classification is designed for persons with either (1) extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics or (2) extraordinary achievement in film or television. The standard for an O-1 is high, and not everyone will qualify. For detailed information about the O-1 and to evaluate your accomplishments against the O-1 requirements, check the website articles How to Prove You’re an Alien of Extraordinary Ability and Lights! Camera! Visa! Aliens of Extraordinary Achievement in Film and Television.

The applicant for an O-1 must be sponsored by an employer or agent, and the visa is granted for a specific event, such as a tour, lecture series or project. The sponsor must file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and it must be approved before the applicant may apply for his or her O-1 visa.
If your career doesn’t quite measure up to the O-1 standards, don’t despair—there are other options. For example, if the project on which you would be working in the US includes a high-profile non US citizen in an important role (lead actor, director, producer or the like), you may be eligible for an O-2 supporting visa on the back of the star’s O-1.
Alternatively, the P-1 visa is available to artists and members of entertainment groups. The P-1 applicant must perform with, or as an integral and essential part of an entertainment group that has been recognized internationally as being outstanding for a sustained period of time. The individual must have had a long and substantial relationship with the group (ordinarily for at least one year) and provide functions integral to the performance of the group. There are also P visas for artists and entertainers in exchange programmes or programmes that are culturally unique. As is the case for O visas, P visas require a USCIS-approved petition before visa application.

Although it can be tempting to forego the formalities and accept work in the US on a Visa Waiver Program entry, unauthorised employment in the US can hurt your chances of getting employment-related visas in the future. Don’t risk your career: Get professional advice and, if necessary, get a visa.

Susan McFadden is the principal of Gudeon & McFadden, a London-based US law firm practising exclusively US immigration law. www.usvisalawyers.co.uk

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