Dear Sophie: How do we qualify for each of the O-1A criteria?

Here’s another edition of “Dear Sophie,” the advice column that answers immigration-related questions about working at technology companies.

“Your questions are vital to the spread of knowledge that allows people all over the world to rise above borders and pursue their dreams,” says Sophie Alcorn, a Silicon Valley immigration attorney. “Whether you’re in people ops, a founder or seeking a job in Silicon Valley, I would love to answer your questions in my next column.”

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Dear Sophie,

Our startup will be sponsoring my co-founders and me for O-1A visas.

How do we qualify for each of the O-1A criteria?

— Extraordinary Entrepreneur

Dear Extraordinary,

What an exciting journey for you and your co-founders — the O-1A is a great option to enable you to grow your startup and take control of your geographical destiny.

Earlier this year, immigration officials clarified and expanded the types of evidence that meet the requirements for the O-1A extraordinary ability visa, making it more accessible for individuals to qualify. As always, I recommend that you consult with an immigration attorney who can help you and your co-founders devise an immigration strategy and backup plans, if needed.

To qualify for an O-1A, an individual must either have received a major international award, such as a Nobel Prize, or meet at least three of the following eight criteria. Strong cases typically meet four or more of these criteria, backed by extensive letters of recommendation as well as other documentary evidence:

Taking the prize

Nationally or internationally recognized awards

You must demonstrate that you’ve received nationally or internationally recognized awards — typically two or more — for excellence in your field.

In January 2022, the Biden administration announced new efforts to attract and retain STEM talent in the United States. That prompted immigration officials to expand the achievements that qualify as nationally or internationally recognized awards for the O-1A.

Here are a few examples of what can now qualify as an award for excellence:

  • Receiving a Ph.D. scholarship or doctoral dissertation award.
  • Securing venture capital funding.
  • Winning a national or international startup pitch competition or hackathon.
  • Professional association awards.
  • Awards for presenting at internationally or nationally recognized conferences.

Exclusive membership

Invitation to join a group or association that demands outstanding achievements

This criterion requires you to show you’ve been invited to join a group or association that demands outstanding achievements of its members and is judged by recognized experts. This cannot be a membership that is only based on the payment of a fee or subscription to join, or one based on the level of education or the years of experience in a field or is a requirement for employment, such as union membership.

A composite image of immigration law attorney Sophie Alcorn in front of a background with a TechCrunch logo.

Image Credits: Joanna Buniak / Sophie Alcorn (opens in a new window)

Some examples that will serve to strengthen your O-1A application include:

  • Fellow-level membership in an association or organization in your field, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI).
  • Invitation to join a scientific committee or entrepreneurship club.
  • Acceptance into accelerators or incubators, such as Y Combinator (although probably not YC Startup School), Founders Network or Techstars.
  • Membership in, or a fellowship with, organizations such as Forbes Councils or On Deck.
  • Invitation to be an adviser or mentor to an individual startup or through an accelerator or incubator.

It is important to note that the group, organization or association you join or work with must relate to your field of expertise.