Visas for Religious Workers

What is an R-1 visa?

If you are coming to the U.S. to be employed either as a minister or in another religious vocation/occupation by a non-profit religious organization, you may qualify for an R-1 visa.  R-1 visa program is intended for ministers or religious workers whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, and it is not appropriate for secular members of the religion.

How can I qualify for an R-1 visa?

To qualify for an R-1 visa, you must have been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the U.S. for at least two years immediately before applying.  You must be coming to the U.S. either as a minister, defined as someone duly authorized by the religious denomination to which you belong, and fully trained according to the denomination’s standards, or to perform work in a religious occupation, defined as having duties primarily relating to a traditional religious function, recognized as a religious occupation within the denomination; and clearly involve carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination.  Administrative duties that are only acceptable if they are incidental, and primarily administrative or support positions such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, or fund-raisers do not qualify.

How do I apply for an R-1 visa?

The religious organization you will be working for in the U.S. must file a Form I-129 petition to the USCIS on your behalf.  The organization must prove that it is either a (1) non-profit religious organization, (2) religious organization that is authorized by a group tax exemption holder to use its group tax exemption, or (3) non-profit religious organization which is affiliated with a religious denomination by submitting a letter from the IRS, group ruling that the group is tax exempt, and documentation about the organization, among others. The employer must also submit an attestation, confirming its status as a bona fide religious organization, the number of members, the number of employees and their duties, about the position offered to you, about your qualification, and its notification responsibility to the USCIS.  Evidence of your eligibility must also be submitted, such as proof of your membership to your religion and proof of the monetary or non-monetary compensation you will receive. For R-1 visa, it is possible that the USCIS may conduct an on-site inspection of the organization prior to approving the petition. This is for the USCIS to verify that the place of worship/congregation actually exists. If all is satisfactory, the USCIS will approve the petition and you will need to apply for an R-1 visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in your home country if you are currently outside of the U.S.  Canadian citizens do not need to apply for a visa at the Consulate, and may apply directly at the border for an R-1 visa status.

How long can I stay in the U.S. under H-1B visa?

You may receive an R-1 visa for up to 30 months with each filing. You can apply for an R-1 visa extension provided that you continue to meet the requirements. However, your total stay under R-1 visa is limited to a maximum of 5 years, or 60 months in total.  Therefore, if you had your first R-1 visa for 30 months, got an extension for another 30 months, you will have to leave the U.S. for at least 1 year before you can apply for an R-1 visa again. Certain exceptions apply if you did not reside continuously in the U.S. and your employment under R-1 visa was seasonal, intermittent or for an aggregate of six months or less per year.  The 5 years limit also do not apply if you reside abroad and commute to the U.S. to work part-time.

What if I want to quit or get terminated from my job?

If your employment is terminated before the expiration date of your R-1 visa status, the organization must notify USCIS within 14 days.  The organization must also notify the USCIS if there is any change in your employment. If you want to work for a different organization in the U.S., you will need to have your new employer file a Form I-129 petition on your behalf with the supporting evidence to get a new R-1 visa.  There is no grace period for R-1 visa, so if you are terminated from your employment or if your visa expired and you do not have another application for a visa pending, you will have to leave the U.S. immediately.

Can I bring my family members?

Your spouse or children under the age of 21 can apply for an R-2 visa as your dependents. Employment is not permitted under R-2 visa, but they may engage in full or part-time study in the U.S. without having to change their status to F-1 student visa. However, if they wish to engage in on-campus employment or take advantage of curricular/optional practical training, they will have to get F-1 visa status first.