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US R1 Visa for Religious Workers

US R1 Visa for Religious Workers

For any ministers and non-ministers in religious vocations and occupations looking to temporarily come to the United States for the purpose of undertaking religious work, they will need to apply for an R1 visa.

The following essential guide to the US R1 visa looks at what the R1 visa is for and the eligibility requirements. We also look at how to apply for an R1 visa to what to do if your R1 visa application is refused.


What is the R1 visa?

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, separate immigration classifications are provided for religious workers depending on whether they are seeking to work in the United States on either a temporary or permanent basis. The R1 visa is the nonimmigrant visa classification to enable overseas ministers, and foreign non-ministers in religious vocations and occupations, to temporarily come to the US to perform religious work.

R1 nonimmigrant classification can also be used by foreign citizens already in the United States to change status from a different nonimmigrant category in order to work as a minister of religion, or in a religious occupation or vocation, on a temporary basis.


R1 visa requirements

As a foreign religious worker cannot self-petition for R1 visa classification, a qualifying US employer must file a petition using Form I-129, seeking to classify the prospective visa applicant as an R1 nonimmigrant. As a petition-based visa, to be eligible for R1 visa classification, the following general requirements must be met:

  • the petitioner must be either a bona fide non-profit religious organisation, or a bona fide non-profit organisation that is affiliated with the religious denomination in the US
  • the religious worker must have been a member of the same religious denomination as that of the petitioner for 2 years immediately before a petition is filed on their behalf
  • the religious worker must be intending to undertake in the US either a salaried or non-salaried position or, in certain cases, an uncompensated position that forms part of an established program for uncompensated, temporary missionary work.

In addition to these general R1 visa requirements, the following specific petitioner and religious worker (or beneficiary) requirements must also be met.


Petitioner requirements

When petitioning for R1 nonimmigrant classification, the employer must first attest to the fact that it is either a bona fide non-profit religious organisation or a bona fide organisation that is closely associated with the religious denomination in question. These are essentially organisations which are in the US and exempt from taxation. However, in addition to attesting that it is a qualifying R1 visa employer, the petitioner must also attest to:

  • the number of members of its’ organisation
  • the number of employees who will be working at the same location as the religious worker in question, together with a summary of those employees’ responsibilities
  • the number of workers holding special immigrant religious worker status or R1 nonimmigrant status currently employed or employed over the past 5 years
  • the number of religious worker petitions and applications filed over the past 5 years
  • the title of the position offered to the prospective religious worker
  • a detailed description of that worker’s proposed daily duties
  • the salaried or non-salaried compensation or self-support for the position
  • a statement that the religious worker will be working at least 20 hours each week
  • the specific location(s) of the religious worker’s employment
  • the religious worker will not be engaged in secular employment
  • the religious worker is qualified to perform the required duties of the position on offer
  • the worker has been a member of the religious denomination for at least 2 years.


Religious worker requirements

To qualify for temporary nonimmigrant R1 visa classification, the prospective worker must not only be a member of a religious denomination with a bona fide non-profit organisation in the US for at least 2 years immediately prior to filing their petition, but they must also be able to meet all of the following requirements:

  • be coming to the US to work in a position of at least 20 hours per week
  • be coming solely as a minister of religion, or to perform a religious vocation or occupation
  • will not work in the US in any capacity other than as a religious worker
  • be coming to or staying in the US at the petitioner’s request to work for the petitioner
  • is engaged in and, in accordance with the denomination’s standards, is qualified as a minister, or for a religious occupation/vocation, whether or not in a professional capacity
  • intends to depart the US upon expiration or termination of their R1 nonimmigrant status.


How to apply for an R1 visa

When applying for an R1 visa, this involves a two-stage process: a petition to be filed by the qualifying US employer on the religious worker’s behalf, followed by an R1 visa application.

To apply for an R1 visa, a petition must first be filed on behalf of the religious worker. As such, before applying for a visa, a qualifying employer must file Form I-129 with USCIS, including the various attestations and evidencing each of the eligibility requirements.

However, before a final decision is made on an R1 nonimmigrant petition, USCIS will undertake a pre-approval compliance review on all petitioners for religious workers, in some cases including an on-site inspection. The purpose of a site inspection will be to verify the evidence submitted in support of the R1 petition, such as the petitioner’s qualifications as a religious organisation and the location(s) where the prospective visa applicant will work. As such, a pre-approval inspection by USCIS can include:

  • a tour of the organisation’s facilities, including places of worship, if applicable
  • a tour of the organisation’s headquarters or satellite locations, if appropriate
  • an interview with the organisation’s officials
  • a review of the organisation’s records relating to immigration compliance
  • any other interviews or review of records that USCIS considers pertinent.


Provided the R1 visa petition is approved, the religious worker can go on to apply for a visa with their local US Embassy or Consulate in their country of residence. They will need to complete an online nonimmigrant visa application using Form DS-160, uploading a photo as part of their application, paying the relevant fee and scheduling an interview.

When attending the in-person interview, the applicant will be required to produce a number of documents. However, unless additional documentation is needed, or extra administrative processing is otherwise required, the consular officer will usually be able to determine on the day whether the applicant will be eligible for an R1 visa. If a visa is granted, this will generally take a few more days to be issued within the successful visa-holder’s passport.


R1 visa supporting documents

When filing a petition on behalf of an R1 visa applicant, the petitioning employer will need to submit detailed documentation that it meets the requirements as a qualifying employer and that the prospective religious worker also meets the requirements for R1 classification.

This documentation should therefore include:

  • a valid determination letter from the IRS showing that the organisation is tax-exempt
  • verifiable evidence showing how the employer intends to compensate the religious worker or how they will be self-supporting as part of an established missionary program
  • evidence regarding the prospective position on offer to the religious worker
  • evidence to show that the religious worker is suitably qualified for the role
  • proof of the religious worker’s denominational membership for the last 2 years.

This list is not exhaustive, and you may need to provide further documentation in light of your specific circumstances. It is best to seek expert advice to ensure you are making a comprehensive submission for your R1 visa application.

The R1 visa applicant will also be required to provide a number of documents when they attend their scheduled in-person interview at a local US Embassy or Consulate, including a valid passport, proof of their scheduled interview, proof of payment of the application fee, the application confirmation page and Form I-797 (notice of action) as proof of the approved petition. The applicant should also attend with evidence of their qualifications for the religious post on offer, together with proof of their ties to their country of residence.


How much does the R1 visa cost?

There is a non-refundable R1 visa application fee of $190. The applicant may also be liable to pay a visa issuance fee, once their R1 visa has been approved, if applicable to their nationality. The fee to file the petition is $460, but this will be paid by the employer.


What are the processing times for an R1 visa?

Once a petition has been approved by USCIS, and having attended a visa interview, it will usually take just a few short days to process the visa and return the applicant’s passport. However, the interview wait times will depend on where the religious worker is submitting their application. These can be checked on the website for the Department of State. It can also take several months for a petition to be approved, especially if a site visit is required, although it may be possible for the petitioning employer to pay for premium processing.


Can you extend an R1 visa?

If approved for an R1 visa, a religious worker will normally be admitted to the United States as an R1 nonimmigrant for an initial stay of up to 30 months. During this time, R1 visa-holders cannot work in the US in any other capacity but as a religious worker, and cannot change capacities between a minister or other types of religious worker unless specifically approved through the filing of a new petition and supporting documentation.

However, an employer may request an extension of stay for an R1 nonimmigrant, up to 30 months, for a maximum period of up to 5 years. Importantly, the 5-year limitation does not apply to R1 visa-holders who did not reside continually in the US and whose employment was either seasonal or intermittent, or for an aggregate of 6 months or less per year, or resided abroad but regularly commuted to the US to engage in part-time work.


Does an R1 visa lead to a green card?

The R1 visa is a temporary visa, where a religious worker, even if they have been approved for an extension of stay up to a maximum of 5 years, must still maintain nonimmigrant intent. This means that they, and any family living with them under the same classification, must intend to leave the United States at the end of their stay and return home.

Under R1 classification, the spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 years may qualify for dependent R2 status if their primary purpose in coming to the US is to join or accompany the principal R1 nonimmigrant. An R2 visa extension will typically be granted for the same period of time as the R1 visa held by the dependant’s partner or parent, regardless of the amount of time any spouse or child has spent in the US in R2 status.

It is also possible, despite the rule requiring visa-holders to maintain an intention to depart the US when their nonimmigrant stay expires, for the employer of a religious worker to petition for lawful permanent residency on their behalf at the same time. As a dual-intent visa, this means that an R1 visa can lead to a green card. Alternatively, a religious worker can re-apply for an R1 visa if, having already spent 5 years in the United States under R1 classification, they then reside abroad and are physically present outside the US for a year.


What if your R1 visa application has been refused?

An R1 visa can be refused at either the petition or application stage. If a petition for R1 nonimmigrant classification is denied, the notice of denial will set out the petitioner’s appeal rights, together with the opportunity to file a motion to reopen or reconsider.

In circumstances, where the R1 visa application itself is refused, including where the applicant is considered ineligible for one of various different reasons, it may be possible to apply for a waiver of ineligibility. In either scenario, however, advice from an immigration expert specialising in R1 visas should be secured as soon as possible.


R1 visa FAQs

What is US R-1 visa?

A US R-1 visa is a religious worker visa for overseas nationals looking to come to the United States to work at least 20 hours weekly as a minister of religion, or to perform a religious vocation or occupation.

How long does it take to get a US R-1 visa?

Obtaining an R-1 visa as a religious worker is a two-stage process that can take several months, where a qualifying employer must first file a petition on the worker’s behalf, followed by a visa application upon approval of the petition.

What are the requirements for an R visa?

To qualify for an R visa, the religious worker must have been a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide non-profit organisation in the US for at least 2 years immediately preceding the filing of the petition.

Can you apply for R-1 visa while in the US?

R-1 nonimmigrant classification can be sought by foreign citizens already in the United States to change status from a different nonimmigrant category in order to temporarily perform services as a minister of religion, or in a religious occupation or vocation.

This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law (AILA) and trusted adviser to large corporates through to SMEs, providing strategic immigration and global mobility advice to support employers with both US and UK operations to meet their workforce needs through corporate immigration.

Nita successfully acts for corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, actors, and athletes from across the globe, providing expert guidance on all aspects of US visa and nationality applications, and talent mobility to the USA.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

Nita Nicole Upadhye is the Founder & Principal Attorney at NNU Immigration. A recognized leader in the field of US immigration law, Nita successfully acts for individuals and companies from across the globe, providing expert guidance on all aspects of US visa and nationality applications.

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