United States Visa Options for Actors (B, H2, O, and P Visas)

I. B-1 / B-2 Visitors

Neither the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) nor Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations (“Immigration Regulations”) define the work “entertainer”. However, Note 8.1(b) to §14.05 of Volume 9 of the Foreign Affairs Manual (“FAM”), the manual used by the Department of State (“DOS”), defines the term “member of the entertainment profession” as including performing artists such as stage and movie actors, musicians, singers and dancers, and also other personnel such as technicians, electricians, make-up specialists, film crew members coming to the United States to produce films, etc.

Generally, a member of the entertainment profession cannot work in the United States in the B-1 / B-2 visa status, regardless of the amount or source of compensation or whether the services will involve public appearance. However, it is certainly possible for an entertainer to enter using B status under the following limited circumstances.

*B-1 Visitors for Business

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (“USCIS”) offers several specific exceptions to the general rule prohibiting work. Under §214.2(b) of the USCIS Operations Instructions (“OI”), certain individuals intending to work in the entertainment industry may be admitted to the United States as B-1 nonimmigrants if they receive no salary or other remuneration from a United States source (other than an expense allowance or other reimbursement for expenses incidental to the temporary stay):

Exception 1

An alien entertainer otherwise classifiable as an H-1 nonimmigrant:

a. coming to participate in a cultural program sponsored by his or her government;

b. who will be performing before a non-paying audience; and

c. all expenses, including per diem, will be paid by his or her government; or

Exception 2

An alien entertainer, even though not of H-1 calibre, who is a resident or national of Canada or Mexico and is coming to the border area of the United States to participate in a long established religious festival or ceremony, or in a long established bi-national civic celebration.

DOS also lists several limited exceptions to the general rule at 9 FAM §14.05:

N8.1-1. Participants in Cultural Programs or International Competitions

A professional entertainer may be classified B-1 if the entertainer:

a. is coming to the United States to participate only in a cultural program sponsored by the sending country; will be performing before a nonpaying audience; and all expenses, including per diem, will be paid by the member’s government; or

b. is coming to the United States to participate in a competition for which there is no remuneration other than a prize (monetary or otherwise) and expenses.

*B-2 Visitors for Pleasure

Although professional entertainers cannot enter the United States as B-2 visitors for pleasure, Note 10.6 to 9 FAM §41.31 states that amateur entertainers and athletes may enter to perform in a social or charitable context or to compete in a talent show, contest, or athletic event without compensation except for incidental expenses.

II. H-2B Temporary Workers

Although actors are precluded from the H-1B visa category, they may certainly apply for H-2B visa status. Alien entertainers who are not considered to have “extraordinary” ability or international recognition as “outstanding” are must use the H-2B category, rather than the O visa and P visa categories, which are set aside for top-level entertainers.

Although the H-2B visa category does not require a showing of prominence, it is a difficult category to work with since an alien seeking classification as an H-2B visa worker normally requires an approved labor certification evidencing the following:

1. Unemployed, qualified US workers are not available for the position in the region of the alien’s proposed employment; and

2. The proposed employment of the alien will not adversely affect the wages or working conditions of US workers similarly employed.

Special labor certification procedures apply when seeking H-2B visa status for entertainers. These complex procedures are addressed in General Administrative Letter No. 5-84 published by the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) in the Federal Register, Volume 49 No. 123 on June 25, 1984. Please contact our firm to discuss the details of this specific visa category.

III. O-1 Aliens of Extraordinary Ability

Actors may apply for O-1 visa status, although the standard for performers in television and film are different than that applicable to other artists. The “extraordinary” standard is defined differently depending upon the alien’s field of endeavor.

For artists and entertainers (other than those in the motion picture or television field), the term “extraordinary ability” means only distinction. Distinction is a high level of achievement in the arts evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that normally encountered to the extent that a person described as prominent is renowned, leading or well-known in the field of arts. Live stage performers would qualify for O1 visa status under this standard.

For artists and entertainers entering in connection with motion picture or television productions, the separate standard of “extraordinary achievement” applies. This term means a very high level of accomplishment in the motion picture or television industry evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered to the extent that the person is recognized as outstanding, leading, or well-known in the motion picture or television industry.

There is no specific limitation on the period of stay for O visa nonimmigrants as the initial period of stay can be for the time necessary to complete the event or activity or group of events or activities for which the nonimmigrant is admitted, up to three years. Extensions of stay, to complete the event for which he or she was originally admitted, may be authorized in increments of up to one year.

The O-1 visa category is a commonly used category for actors and actresses working in the film and television industry. However, it is less commonly used by live theatre performers from the United Kingdom and Canada, despite the fact that such performers are subject to the lower “artist” standard. This is because United Kingdom and Canadian nationals will find it easier to apply for P-2 status through Actors Equity.

The O1 visa category is discussed in our O1 visa article.

IV. P-1 Entertainment Groups

P-1 visa status is available only to entertainers who perform as members of an entertainment group (or are an integral part of the performance). An entertainment group consists of two or more persons who function as a unit. Individual entertainers are not eligible for P1 visa status and must seek admission under the O-1 visa category.

To qualify for P-1 visa, it must be established that the group has been internationally recognized as outstanding in the discipline for a sustained and substantial period of time. It is also possible to obtain a waiver of the international recognition requirement for an entertainment group, which has been recognized nationally for a sustained and substantial period of time, where “special circumstances” exist, such as where an entertainment group finds it difficult to demonstrate recognition in more than one country due to such factors as limited access to news media or consequences of geography.

P visa entertainment groups may be admitted for the period of time necessary to complete the performance or event, not to exceed one year. For entertainment groups, extensions may be granted for up to one year at a time to continue or complete the activity for which they were initially admitted. Please contact our firm for more information about this specific visa category.

V. P-2 Reciprocal Exchange Programs

The P-2 visa category covers artists and entertainers, including individuals or groups, who seek to be admitted through a reciprocal exchange program between a foreign-based and US-based organization (including a management organization) which are engaged in the temporary exchange of artists and entertainers. The exchange of artists or entertainers must be similar in terms of calibre of artists or entertainers, terms and conditions of employment (such as length of employment), and number of artists or entertainers involved in the exchange.

Unfortunately, only a few P2 visa programs have been established. Actors Equity runs two P-2 visa programs with its United Kingdom and Canadian counterparts. However, Actors Equity has jurisdiction only over performers in live format presentations such as theatre productions.

VI. P-3 Culturally Unique Performers

Aliens who perform as artists or entertainers under culturally unique programs may be admitted under the new P-3 visa classification. The term “culturally unique” is defined as “a style of artistic expression, methodology, or medium which is unique to a particular country, nation, society, class, ethnicity, religion, tribe, or other group of persons.” This includes unique art forms that may be less well known to the public because, by their nature, they do not ordinarily receive the widespread acclaim and recognition as mainstream events. To qualify for P3 visa status, artists or entertainers must be coming to the United States primarily for cultural events to further the understanding or development of the culturally unique art form.

Ortega-Medina & Associates has over ten years experience dealing with US entertainment industry-specific visa matters, with particular focus on motion picture and television professionals. We have experienced success in many cases that were considered hopeless by other law firms. If we decide to take on a case, it is because we feel it stands a strong chance of succeeding. If your visa petition is denied, for any reason other than a determination that you are inadmissible for reasons of criminality or fraud, we will troubleshoot the denial at no additional cost to you and/or attempt to reprocess your case in an alternative visa category. Please contact us so that we can help you determine whether you are an appropriate candidate for any of the above-described visa categories.