R-1 Visa - The Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Religious Visa

What is a R-1 Visa?

The R-1 visa is a temporary work visa for foreign nationals coming to the United States to be employed as religious workers for up to 30 months (2.5 years). After 30 months, R-1 visa holders can submit an R-1 Visa Extension for an additional 30 months for a maximum stay of 5 years. These foreign nationals must work for a qualified religious non-profit organization or church for at least 20 hours per week. In other words, a certain set of requirements need to be met: not all religious workers are eligible for this kind of visa. For example, secular members of a church and lay-persons (such as maintenance workers, fundraisers, clerks, janitors, or those who collect church donations) working for a religious organization are not eligible for a R-1 visa.

Holders of the R-1 visa are allowed to live and work in the U.S. for up to 5 years. They are able to get a driver’s license, open bank accounts, and enroll in part or full-time religious study. They are also permitted to travel outside of the U.S., and the time they spend outside of the country does not count for their total visa time.

What are the Requirements for the R-1 Visa?

If you are a minister, clergy member, or someone working directly in your religious occupation and have been a member of your religion for the past two years, you may be eligible for this type of visa. If you are unsure of your circumstances, schedule a consultation with an immigration lawyer to determine if you qualify. Here are the general requirements all applicants and religious organizations must meet to be eligible for a R-1 visa:

  • Applicant must be a member of a religion for at least two years before the application is submitted.
  • The religion must have a bona fide non-profit organization in the U.S. exempt from taxes under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, including a determination letter from the IRS.
  • Applicant must be an ordinated or certified minister, clergy member, or someone working directly in their religious occupation.
  • Applicant must be petitioned for with Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”). The applicant is not to file for themselves. An employer must request that the applicant comes to the U.S. to work for their religious organization. Applicant can also be petitioned for by multiple qualified employers as long as separate petitions and additional USCIS documentation are submitted.
  • Applicant must be able to prove a form of recognition from their religious organization, such as a certificate, license, or an official qualification document.
  • Applicant must be working at least on a part-time basis for 20 hours a week. 
  • Applicant must not work in other positions unrelated to their religious organization.
  • Applicant intends to leave the U.S. on the expiration of their visa.
  • If the applicant has spent five years in the U.S. from a previous R-1 visa, they must have resided and been physically present outside of the country for the immediate year before if getting a new R-1. Evidence of previous R-1 work must be provided.

What are the Benefits of a R-1 Visa?

  • As long as you maintain your R-1 status, you will be able to bring your immediate, dependent family members with you to the United States. Your children may also attend school.
  • You will be able to live in the U.S. for up to five years.
  • You are not required to maintain foreign residence and prove intent to your home country when applying for an R-1.
  • With a valid visa, you will be able to travel in and outside of the U.S. freely.
  • You will be able to work in the religious organization as a non-professional.
  • You will possess a dual intent visa (R-1), which allows you to pursue both immigrant and non-immigrant visa options if you so choose, including the green card.
  • With USCIS approval, you can obtain your visa from a U.S. consulate abroad.

Required Documentation and Fees for R-1 Visa

  • Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”). There is an application fee of $180.00 and a filing fee of $460.00 which must be paid by the employer. Depending on which country the applicant is coming from, there may be additional fees involved. These fees might include a visa issuance fee or a biometrics service fee. After making payments, these receipts should be kept as proof and attached to the foreign national worker’s document file. The religious employer must be the one to submit this form.
  • Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”). There is a filing fee of $190.00. Depending on which country the applicant is coming from, there may be additional fees involved. All non-immigrant visa applicants must fill out this form.

When mailing in a completed Form I-129, the religious employer may need to include the following supporting documents:

  • A letter of support or recommendation letter
  • A current and valid determination letter from the IRS proving that the religious organization is exempt from taxes
  • Documents that confirm the bona fide religious nature and purpose of the religious organization, such as brochures, flyers, and literature
  • Description of job, as well as duties and responsibilities
  • Proof of compensation
  • Evidence of funding for compensation, such as budgets and past records
  • Self-supported applicants will only be considered for certain foreign national missionaries. You may want to consult an immigration attorney if your circumstances are different.

The foreign national worker submitting Form DS-160 may need to include the following supporting documents:

  • Two identical color photographs showing the worker’s full face against a light background. A headdress, if mandated by religious order, is permitted in the photo.
  • A copy of the worker’s passport with at least one blank page, valid for at least six months after the period of stay in the U.S.
  • Copies of previous passports

What is the Religious R-1 Visa Process?

Obtaining a R-1 visa is a straightforward five-step process. Here is a quick outline of the process:

Step 1. Employer Files Form 1-129
Step 2. Worker Files Form DS-160
Step 3. Schedule Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate
Step 4. Prepare Document File
Step 5. Worker Attends Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Step 1. Form I-129

The religious employer will need to file Form I-129 (“Petition for a Non-Immigrant Worker”) on behalf of the foreign national worker. For Form I-129, the religious employer will also need to pay the fees and include the required documentation. As the employer fills out this petition, they should consult a knowledgeable immigration lawyer to discuss the paperwork and assist with the required documentation. Be sure to make copies of the completed I-129 and do not forget to provide a signature. 

To prevent fraud, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will announce and conduct a site visit after I-129 has been submitted. A USCIS fraud officer will visit the grounds of your religious organization and confirm that the organization exists, meets the requirements, and that all of the information indicated is true. They will likely want to speak to the representatives of the organization, specifically the employer who signed the petition. If all goes well, then the employer will receive approval via Form I-797 (“Notice of Action”).

Step 2. Form DS-160

After I-129 has been approved, the foreign national worker can start their end of the process by filing Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”) at a U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country. They will also need to pay the fees and include the required documents. DS-160 will inquire about the worker’s personal information, background, as well as the intent of their visit to the United States. When this form is submitted, save the confirmation page and code in the worker’s documentation file. 

Step 3. Schedule Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

If the foreign national worker is between the ages of 14 and 79, they should schedule an interview with an official at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as possible to avoid long wait times. The interview is often waived for those younger or older. 

Step 4. Prepare the Document File

A document file must be prepared beforehand and brought to the interview, which contains proof to establish their intent. A document file must include the following:

  • The interview appointment letter
  • Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”) confirmation page
  • Form I-797 (“Notice of Action”) to prove that the petition has been approved
  • A valid passport
  • Receipts of fee payments
  • A photograph that follows the visa photo requirements
  • Proof of the worker’s eligibility for the R-1 as outlined in What are the Requirements for the R-1 Visa?
  • Contract with the U.S. religious employer
  • Proof of the worker’s own financial support or proof of the religious employer’s compensation
  • A form of qualification that proves the worker’s right to work in a religious position

Step 5. Worker Attends Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

During the interview, the worker will be asked about their background, plans, and their intent in visiting the country. It is in their best interest to be as detailed as possible and to assure the officer that they will be employed and compensated in the United States. After completing the interview, USCIS will process the petition.

R-1 Visa Processing Time

After your employer has submitted the petition, USCIS will take anywhere from 6-10 months to respond. This is because USCIS may need to conduct a site visit to confirm the existence of your religious organization. If USCIS has visited your employer’s religious organization and approved of them previously, then you may opt for premium processing for an extra $1,225. 

With premium processing, you will receive a response regarding your R-1 in about 2 weeks. Without premium processing, after your petition has been approved, it may take an additional 2 to 3 months for your R-1 to process for a total of 8-13 months.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What if I, a R-1 visa applicant, have dependents?

A. As long as you qualify, your dependents (your spouse or your children under 21) can accompany you to the United States. After I-129 has been approved, make an appointment through the U.S. consulate in your home country and apply for the R-2 Visa for Family of Religious Workers (R-1 Holders). You will need to provide a valid marriage certificate and/or birth certificate(s) to prove your relationship with your dependents. Note that your dependents can participate in part or full-time religious studies, but they will not be able to work nor apply for employment authorization in the United States. 

Q. Can I get a Green Card with a R-1 visa?

A. Yes, post R-1 visa, you may be eligible to get permanent residence with your R-1 visa. There are many ways to go about this, for example, you can change your status to a dual intent visa such as the H-1B visa, or apply for a EB-4 (“Employment-Based Immigration”) Green Card. There are other circumstances or avenues as well, such as marriage.

Q. How is religion defined by USCIS?

A. As defined in USCIS’s policy manual, a religious denomination is made of a religious group or a community of believers governed by a type of ecclesiastical government. One or more of the following criteria regarding the religious community must also be met:

  • There is a common system of worship.
  • There is a recognized faith or shared beliefs within the group.
  • There are common or established places of worship or meeting.
  • There is evidence of a bona fide religious denomination.
  • There is an established formal code of doctrine and discipline.
  • There is an established set of religious ceremonies and services.

Religious denominations that do not operate with central governing are permitted to submit a description of their organizational structure to satisfy the requirements listed above.

Q. Can I work for a different employer after entering the U.S. with an R-1 visa?

A. Yes, provided that the different employer has petitioned you for a new visa. If the new employer is not related to your religious work, you will need to apply for an alternate type of work visa.

Q. What are some examples of religious occupations eligible for a R-1?

A. The occupation must have a religious significance, such as ministers, priests, ordained deacons, rabbis, salaried Buddhist monks, missionaries, religious instructors, liturgical workers, religious counselors, cantors, catechists, religious translators, or broadcasters. Volunteers do not fall under these categories.

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