Applying for a Work Visa in the US: Artists & Musicians

By Sharon Brenner
Aug 30, 2016 · 6 min read

Applying for a U.S. work visa can take many forms, however for artists, there are a few specialized routes through which individuals can apply. This article will review the basic eligibility requirements, but as much of this basic information can be found online, this article will also focus on general tips and recommendations.

Still from Aaron Koblin’s “Flight Patterns.”

Overview of the Options


The O-1B visa classification is designated for individuals who have reached a level of “extraordinary ability” in their field. This does not mean you have to be the Elton John of illustration or the Madonna of the art world, but it does mean that you need to be an established professional in your field with evidence to prove it. Extraordinary ability is defined as “distinction”, meaning someone who has reached a high level of achievement that can be demonstrated through skills and international or national recognition that is substantially above what is typically encountered by the average professional in the field. This distinction is further defined as being considered “prominent, renowned, leading, or well-known”.

In addition to these basic eligibility standards, applicants need to demonstrate that they meet at least three of six evidentiary criteria. These criteria can be found online and generally reflect ways that one can evidence his/her extraordinary abilities.


Your colleague with whom you’ve been working for the last few years just announced to you that she’s moving to the U.S. Hooray for her, but where does that leave you? You’ve been assisting her on a major art project, but now what? Or perhaps you play backup for a leading solo musician, or are the right-hand man to a film director who needs to finish shooting his film in the U.S.

Enter the O-2 visa. The O-2 visa is for individuals who can show that they are currently essential to a principal O-1B visa holder’s work based on the O-2’s critical skills and substantial experience having worked directly with the principal O-1B visa holder. O-2 visa holders can only work with the O-1B on his/her projects or performances while in the U.S., and O-2s are approved only for the period of time of the principal O-1B visa holder’s status.

P-1B and P-1S

Performance groups, bands, troupes and the like; the P-1B classification is for individuals seeking to enter the U.S. to perform as a member of an entertainment group. The group must be internationally recognized as outstanding in their field for a sustained and substantial period of time. This means that 1) national recognition alone (except under very limited circumstances) does not reach the level of international achievement, and 2) a group formed recently will not meet the basic eligibility criteria. At least 75% of the members of the group must have a substantial and sustained relationship with the group for at least one year at the time of applying for the visa.

Essential support personnel who are a critical part of the group’s performances and who perform support services that cannot be performed by a U.S. worker are eligible for the P-1S visa classification. Support personnel can include, but are not limited to, front office personnel, camera operators, lighting technicians and stage personnel. Again, it is imperative to show how and why these support personnel are essential to the group’s ability to perform, and why hiring a U.S. worker to perform these services is not possible or highly impracticable.

P-3 and Q

The P-3 visa is for individuals seeking to enter the U.S., either individually or as a group, “for the purpose of developing, interpreting, representing, coaching, or teaching a unique or traditional ethnic, folk, cultural, musical, theatrical, or artistic performance or presentation [for events that will] further the understanding or development of your art form.”

Somewhat similarly, the Q visa classification is for individuals seeking to enter the U.S. to participate in an international cultural exchange program where the purpose of the practical training and employment is to share the history, culture, and traditions of your home country with the U.S.

Although these are different categories with different requirements, the basic idea is similar regarding the need to show how your art form is culturally significant.

B-1/B-2 Visa and ESTA/Visa Waiver Program

Artists are not allowed to perform their artistic practice in the U.S. under a visitor’s visa. For artists, performing one’s work is considered both paid and unpaid performance of your craft. Only under very limited circumstances may artists enter the U.S. to perform or use recording studios. Violation of these limitations can lead to serious bars to reentering the U.S. in the future.

Some Insider Tips

In addition to supporting documentation, a variety of additional forms and items must be submitted. However, outside of the core requirements, there are some tips that can be helpful for anyone looking to apply for these visa classifications. Some of the most important things that can make the difference between a strong and weak petition have almost nothing to do with one’s professional background.

1. Time

Budgeting time is extremely important. Although the government offers both regular and expedited processing options, these visa classification are sufficiently complex such that it takes dedicated time to prepare a petition. There is also the issue of adjudication time. Government processing times and the probable necessity to visit the U.S. Embassy for an interview to get the visa stamp can add up. If you have a deadline to be in the U.S., starting the process with ample time to prepare will not only allow you to generate a strong petition, but it will also significantly reduce stress or possibly missing your deadline.

2. Being Organized

Being organized and presenting a clear petition that tells the story of your professional accomplishments is priceless. A disorganized, cobbled-together petition might not only inadvertently miss some of the requirements, but it will also not present well. If one goes on the assumption that the adjudicating officer may know nothing about you or your art form, presenting a clean, organized petition can make all the difference. It will make the process of assembly easier, and it will make the adjudicator’s job easier. Imagine that you are a government officer with limited time each day to process hundreds of visa petitions. A disorganized petition will not only be frustrating, but the officer will likely be challenged to try to figure out if you meet the eligibility requirements. Organized petitions present strongly and clearly, and imply professionalism, so staying organized can be one of your most powerful tools in applying for a visa.

3. Avoiding the “…but my friend said”

Who has not WebMD’d something when you’re feeling sick, only to be convinced within a minute that you have ten fatal diseases based merely on the fact that you have a light cough? The internet and hearsay through friends can be helpful to a point. Everything should be taken with a grain of salt. Every case is different, even when it sounds the same. Advice online or narratives from friends who have gone through the process can be useful and comforting, but experiential advice is not the law. Only information issued by USCIS and found in the immigration regulations and memorandum are the law, so while advice from friends (real and virtual) can be helpful, it’s always good to remember that every case is unique.

With proper organization and assessment, these visa categories can be a great way to experience working in the U.S. as an artist, which can be an incredible experience full of new opportunity.

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We are a carefully curated network of women with active roles in the music industry:

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