Any foreign national who plans to work in the U.S. needs a visa to enter the country. Factors such as the amount of compensation or length of the employment do not change this requirement. This includes paid and unpaid engagements.
The most common non-immigrant visa classifications for performing artists are the class O and class P. These documents are obtained through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS); however, many organizations can assist in preparing and submitting your application. For example, Canadian and U.S. musicians can apply for a visa through A Reciprocal Exchange Program.
Type O Visa
Type O visas are for an individual of extraordinary ability in the arts, science, education, business or athletics.
- Type O-1 visas are issued for persons of extraordinary ability and international renown (artist)
- Type O-2 visas are issued for personnel accompanying the artist
Type P Visa
Type P visas are for an ensemble that is internationally recognized as a reputable entertainment group.
- Type P-1 visas are issued for groups of extraordinary ability and international renown
- Type P-2 visas are issued for reciprocal exchange programs between an entity in the U.S. and a foreign entity affording similar conditions for artist being exchanged.
- Type P-3 visas are issued for culturally unique performing groups such as local folk musicians
A Consultation Letter is something that the USCIS asks for with your visa application. This letter establishes that the artist or group meets the standard of being internationally renowned (in the case of O-1 and P-1 visas) or culturally unique (in the case of P-3 visas). This letter should come from an appropriate peer group or union. An organization issuing a consultation letter will usually ask you to provide the following:
- A cover letter explaining who the artist(s) are, where they are from, and what qualifies them as culturally unique
- A copy of the USCIS form I-129.
- Copies of any written contracts between the petitioner and the alien beneficiary, including what wages will be earned; or, if there is no written contract, a summary of the terms of the oral agreement under which the alien(s) will be employed.
- A copy of the itinerary, including the names and addresses of the venues.
- Support materials such as reviews, CD covers, programs, etc. which establishes the group or instrumental artist.
- Your fax and telephone number and e-mail address.
Do not send original documents, especially the original USCIS I-129 form. Send copies only.
Additional P2 Visa and IMM-1102 permit Information
In some cases a third party can facilitate a visa. For example, The American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) has been recognized by both USCIS and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) as an authorized petitioner for temporary work permits on behalf of AFM member musicians. Canadian members who wish to work in the U.S. may be eligible for a 'Class P2' non-immigrant work permit, and U.S. members who wish to work in Canada may be eligible for an ‘IMM-1102’ Permit. Initiated by AFM, and in accordance with both USCIS and CIC rules and regulations, both categories are subject to a Reciprocal Exchange Agreement between international entities.
One misunderstanding regarding whether an artist needs a visa relates to the Visa Waiver Program. This is a program that the U.S. has with several other countries. It allows a person to cross the border for things like negotiating contracts, attending meetings, participating in seminars or attending trade shows. It does not include any kind of actual employment. Any artist hired by a U.S. performing or presenting organization to perform in any capacity (paid or unpaid) must acquire a non-immigrant visa.
H-1B visas are not for performing artists. By law, the H-1B nonimmigrant classification is not for artists coming to perform in the U.S., even though at least one USCIS service center still approves H-1B petitions for performers. Do not be tempted to apply for an H-1B visa as a performer.