The R-1 visa program is designed to make it easier for religious workers to work in the United States. It’s a non-immigrant visa that allows you to work in the United States temporarily for various religious organizations in different religious occupations.

Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about the R-1 visa program and how it works.

How Does the R-1 Visa Work?

The R-1 visa allows foreign nationals to visit the United States and engage in employment for a religious organization. The employer must meet certain strict requirements to qualify as an R-1 visa sponsor.

That religious organization must be one of the following entities to qualify under the R-1 visa program:

  • A registered non-profit religious organization based in the United States (with a 501(c)(3) Internal Revenue Service letter)
  • A religious organization connected to any religious denomination within the United States
  • A religious organization with a U.S. tax exemption
  • If your employer meets any of these qualifications, then you may be able to apply to work in the United States under an R-1 visa.

If you successfully receive an R-1 visa, then you are permitted to live and work in the United States for the duration of your visa. You can open a bank account, enroll in part-time or full-time study, travel in and out of the United States, and engage in employment with a religious organization.

The R-1 visa is also flexible regarding other work opportunities. You can leave the country to engage in employment in other countries, for example, while traveling back to the United States to engage in employment with your religious organization. All of this is allowed under your R-1 visa.

Another unique thing about the R-1 visa is that there’s no limit to the number of R-1 visas available to be issued annually. As long as you fulfill the R-1 visa application requirements, you should have no trouble receiving your R-1 visa.

R-1 Visa Requirements

We mention organizational requirements for the R-1 visa above, including the fact that your organization must be a religious organization or non-profit in the United States. However, the applicant must also meet specific requirements to qualify for an R-1 visa, including all of the following:

  • You must have been a member of the religious organization for the past two years
  • Your religion must have a non-profit organization in the United States (you cannot work for a “for-profit” religion on an R-1 visa)
  • You must find a job in the non-profit religious organization or an organization affiliated with the religion
  • You must be a minister or someone working directly within the religious organization
  • You must work at least part-time hours for the religious organization (a minimum of 20 hours per week)
  • You cannot work in other positions for the religious organization in a non-religious capacity

If you and your chosen organization fulfill all the criteria above, then you can proceed with the R-1 visa application process.

How Do U.S. Immigration Authorities Define a Religion?

Defining a religion can be tricky. Here’s how United States immigration services generally defines a religion:

  • A group that worships in a similar way
  • A group with shared faith amongst members
  • A group that performs similar rituals, services, and ceremonies
  • A group with a shared code of discipline, conduct, and doctrine
  • An organization that is religious in nature
  • An organization with a shared place of worship

The organization also needs to meet the qualifications listed above, including a non-profit organization affiliated with a religion or a religious organization with a group tax exemption.

How to Apply for an R-1 Visa

Applying for the R-1 is straightforward. Your religious employer will file a petition. Then, you will complete a standard non-immigrant application form.

Step 1) File the Petition

Your employer will file a petition to bring you to the United States on an R-1 visa. That petition is labeled as Form I-129, Petition for Non-Immigrant Worker. This is the standard petition for most U.S. employers and organizations seeking to bring someone to America. It costs $460 to file the petition, and that fee must be paid by the employer or organization.

The form asks for basic information about the applicant and the applicant’s background. The organization may also be required to submit additional information as part of the petition for the R-1 visa, including all of the following information:

  • Organizations that are considered religious (as per IRS 501(c)(3) must submit a letter to the IRS proving their tax-exempt status
  • Organizations that are group tax exempt must submit a letter to the IRS proving their status
  • Organizations with a religious affiliation that are not defined as a religious organization must submit the following documents:
    • Letter from the IRS proving the organization is tax exempt
    • Document proving a religious affiliation within the organization
    • Proof that the organization has a religious purpose, including a description of the organization’s activities and how those activities qualify as religious
    • A document from another religious organization indicating that the petitioning organization has a religious affiliation
  • Proof of compensation to religious workers in terms of a salary or some type of compensation
    • Documents showing compensation for previous religious workers in similar positions
    • Documents proving that they plan to provide accommodation to the worker
    • Budgetary documents from the organization showing salary expenses among employees
  • Tax returns for the applicant in the United States or comparable tax returns for a religious worker who previously occupied a similar position, if possible
  • Proof that the employee can support themselves financially while in the United States (required if the religious organization is not paying the R-1 applicant)
  • Evidence that the applicant is affiliated with the religion and has been affiliated with the religion for the past two years

After including all of these documents (if necessary), the organization can submit the petition to USCIS, at which point the petition will be approved or denied. If the petition is approved, then USCIS will send form I-797, Notice of Action to the religious organization, allowing the R-1 visa applicant to proceed with the application.

Step 2) Fill Out Form DS-160

Form DS-160 is a non-immigrant application form standard across multiple visa categories. Fill out the DS-160 form for your R-1 visa. You can find the form at the website of your local U.S. embassy or consulate.

Step 3) Pay the R-1 Visa Fees

The standard R-1 visa fee is $190. You need to pay this fee to continue with the application and book your in-person visa interview.

Step 4) Schedule your Interview

Schedule your interview with a U.S. embassy or consulate in your country of residence. Depending on the workload at your local embassy, it may take several weeks for an interview time to become available, so be sure to schedule your R-1 visa interview well in advance of your anticipated arrival date in the United States.

Step 5) Prepare your Documents

You will need to submit documents or bring documents to your interview. Standard documents for an R-1 visa and other standard non-immigrant work visas can include all of the following:

  • Valid passport that expires more than 6 months beyond your anticipated date of departure from the United States
  • A photograph that meets U.S. visa photo requirements
  • Form DS-160 confirmation page
  • Receipts proving you paid all fees
  • Visa interview appointment letter
  • Form I-797 proving the petition from your religious organization was approved by USCIS
  • Documents proving your eligibility for an R-1 visa, including proof of your affiliation with a religious for at least two years and other supporting documents
  • A letter from your U.S. religious organization employer stating the duties of your job, your compensation (if any), and other terms of employment
  • Proof of financial support for the duration of your stay in the United States (or proof that you are receiving financial compensation from the employer)

Step 6) Attend the Visa Interview

Arrive at the U.S. embassy or consulate, giving you plenty of time to make it through security and any possible lineups. Embassies can be a busy place! Your fingerprints may be taken prior to your R-1 visa interview. During the interview, answer the questions truthfully. The interviewer is simply trying to verify the information on your application. The interviewer will want to confirm details of your work term in the United States, including details about the religious organization.

How Long Does It Take to Process the R-1 Visa?

The R-1 visa will typically be processed in a similar length of time to any other non-immigrant work visa. Some religious organizations, however, report the petition process taking as long as 6 months – so be sure your organization starts applying for the visa in advance of your arrival to the United States.

Premium processing is also available for the R-1 visa at a price of $1,225. This can reduce processing times for the visa to as little as 2 to 3 weeks.

Without premium processing, you can expect an R-1 visa application to take approximately 2 to 3 months from start to finish.

How Long Does My R-1 Visa Last?

By default, a typical R-1 visa will be valid for 30 months, or 2.5 years. You are permitted to work for your religious organization at any point within those 30 months, coming and leaving from the United States as you wish.

If you wish to extend your via, then you can apply for an extension. If approved, the extension will grant you 30 additional months (another 2.5 years) in the United States.

The maximum period for the R-1 visa is 60 months. You are permitted to get a single extension, and then you must return home to repeat the visa process if you wish to return.

Can I Change My Status Or Get a Green Card with an R-1 Visa?

The R-1 visa is not designed for immigration to the United States. Instead, the R-1 visa is a non-immigrant visa that permits you to work in the United States temporarily.

However, there are ways you can change your immigration status or apply for a green card on an R-1 visa. You can get married or receive sponsorship from an employer or family member, for example. Or, you can apply for a special type of permanent residency visa called the EB-4 visa, which allows certain religious workers to establish permanent residence in the United States.

The R-1 visa, however, is not a dual intent visa. During the visa interview, you must tell the interviewer that you plan to return home upon conclusion of your visa. You must do the same when crossing the border into the United States. You will not be permitted entry if you tell U.S. immigration authorities that you intend to remain in the United States past your visa expiration date.

Can My Dependents Join Me in the United States on an R-1 Visa?

The R-1 visa has a special visa for dependents of religious workers called the R-2 visa. Like other dependency visas, this visa is designed for two types of dependents:

  • Your spouse
  • Your unmarried children under age 21

If your family meets either of these two requirements, then you may be eligible to apply for an R-2 visa. Typically, you apply for an R-2 visa at the same time as you apply for an R-1 visa. However, your dependents can also file an R-2 visa after your R-1 visa is approved.

You will require the usual paperwork – including a birth certificate and marriage certificate – to prove your connection to the R-1 visa holder.