Christian priest standing by the altar


R1 visas apply to foreigners who are seeking to work in the United States on a temporary or full-time basis – as a minister or in another religious position. Generally, the alien needs a religious sponsor in the United States. Obtaining the first R-1 visa can take time because a site visit may be required.

According to the USCIS, R1 applicants must be seeking to work in America for at least 20 hours a week (up to an initial time of 30 months). Extensions may be available for another 30 months for a total of five years. The clock shouldn’t run during the time the alien is not in the United States – provided he/she can verify that they have not been in America.

The term “minister’ has specific requirements. It generally applies to most priests, rabbis, monks on salary, ordained deacons, and others who meet the statutory definition.

The religious applicant must be seeking to work in one of the following:

  • A religious non-profit organization provided that organization has the authority to use its group tax exemption
  • A religious non-profit organization in America
  • A religious non-profit organization which is “affiliated with a religious denomination in America

R-1 visas are designed for religious workers and not for members of the religion who are secular.

The main qualification, according 8 US Code § 110, is that the foreign applicant:

  • Must have been a member of a religious denomination which also have a “bona-fide religious non-profit organization in America
  • Seek to do qualifying work for up to five years

The membership in the religious denomination must be for at least two years

The word or phrase Religious in a dictionary

A few key religious definitions

Religious organizations

Not everyone who works for a religious organization can qualify. The job the applicant is seeking must be a “religious occupation.” Religious jobs, according the USCIS, include positions that:

  • “Relate to a traditional religious function”
  • The denomination would recognize the position as being a religious job
  • Are designed to fulfil the denomination’s beliefs and creed.

Secular positions that do not qualify for an R-1visa if they are to help out a qualifying religious organization include:

  • Janitors
  • Clerical workers
  • Fund-raisers
  • Maintenance staff

Studying for a religious positions also does not qualify as a religious occupation – though applicants who apply for an R-1 visa may be allowed to continue their studies while they work.


Ministers are generally people that the religious organization has properly authorized (through training, standards, of conduct, and membership in the religious organization) to conduct religious services/worship and other standard clergy duties. There’s no specific type of training requirement. The petitioner who seeks approval for a foreign applicant must attest that that the applicant is properly qualified to perform his/her religious occupation in the United States.

Denominational membership

This term isn’t a formal affiliation. It requires “shared faith and worship practice.” It does require at least two-year membership in the denomination for the period immediately prior to the petition filing date – “in the same type of religious denomination as the U.S. religious organization where the beneficiary will work. (See 8 CFR 214.2(r)(3) emphasis added).”

Religious denomination

This immigration term “applies to a religious group or community of believers governed or administered under a common type of ecclesiastical government.” To satisfy the religious denomination category, one or more of the following requirements must be met:

  • “A common form of worship”
  • A common creed or faith statement that is recognized and shared by the members of the denomination
  • Services and ceremonies that are regularly recognized
  • Formal doctrines and disciplines that are recognized
  • Common religious places of worship or congregation that are well-known
  • “Comparable indicia of a bona fide religious denomination”

Some exceptions may apply according to the USCIC for religious denominations that don’t have a central governing body or an ecclesiastical government.

Muslim woman in hijab showing stop sign over american flag background

The R-1 Religious Immigration Process

Religious organizations who wish to help a foreigner seek an R-1 immigration visa for a nonimmigrant minister or for a religious worker must:

  • File Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker on behalf of the alien. I-129 process provides the USCIS a way to analyze the petition and determine whether both the religious organization that files the petition and the alien meet the respective definitions and requirements for approval.

If the petition is approved, then the consular post makes the decision as to whether the alien can receive the R-1 nonimmigration vias. All aliens with R-1 visa approval must still be reviewed by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) before they will be allowed to enter America.

Workers who are visa exempt – “must present the original Form I-797, Notice of Action, at a port of entry as evidence of an approved Form I-129 R petition.”

Religious organizations may be able to file a written request for an exemption to the R-1 requirements if they believe:

  • These requirements substantially burden the organization’s exercise of religion”
  • If they file the request – “under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).”
  • The request must explain how the requirement:
    • Requires participation in an activity prohibited by a sincerely held religious belief; or
    • Prevents participation in conduct motivated by a sincerely held religious belief.
  • The request includes supporting documentation which is relevant.

Petitioners must also provide proof of tax-exempt status and proof of how the minister/religious worker will be compensated or will be self-supporting.

Beneficiary Requirements for Religious Workers

The petition must include the following evidence to support the claim that the alien applicant qualifies for R-1 nonimmigrant status.

  • Proof of membership (for all cases). The alien seeking to work as a religious worker must be a member of the respective religious denomination that has a “a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States.” He/she must also have been a member in that religious denomination for the two years just prior to filing the Form I-129.
  • The petitioner must provide proof of previous R-1 employment – for cases where an initial R-1 nonimmigration visa was approved and the alien is now seeking to extend his/her stay in the United States. Generally, this test is met:
    • Through IRS documents that the worker received a salary – such as a W-2 or certified tax returns copies
    • Non-salaried compensation evidence includes:
      • IRS documentation if available
      • Evidence why IRS documents aren’t available.
      • Also, “comparable, verifiable evidence of all financial support (including stipends, room and board, or other support) with a description of where the religious worker lived, a lease to establish where he or she lived, or other evidence.”

In cases where the religious worker wasn’t paid, then document may include “audited financial statements, financial institution records, brokerage account statements or trust documents signed by an attorney.”

Black Minister Church

Beneficiary requirements for religious workers who will be working as a minister

The evidence needed to support proof that the alien will be working as a minister includes:

  • “A copy of the religious worker’s certificate of ordination or similar documents”
  • Records showing that the person has been accepted by the religious organization as a minister for the religious denomination. This includes evidence showing proof of the necessary religious education at a recognized accredited theological institution – such as transcripts, class schedule and proof of accreditation

In cases where the religious denomination doesn’t require a formal religious education, the petitioner must provide:

  • The religious denomination’s requirements for ordination to minister
  • A list of duties performed by virtue of ordination
  • The denomination’s levels of ordination, if any
  • Evidence of the religious worker’s completion of the denomination’s requirements for ordination

On-Site Inspections

The USCIS has the right to conduct a pre-approval inspection of the religious organization as a prerequisite to any approval. This means the petitioner must provide a physical address for where the congregants worship – so that the USCIC can determine if the place of worship does actually exist.

“In addition, a post-adjudication inspection may be completed on the beneficiary’s work location to verify the beneficiary’s work hours, compensation and duties. A post-adjudication inspection may also be conducted in cases of suspected fraud or where the petitioning entity has undergone substantial changes since its last filing.”

woman make hand stop with five finger

Period of Stay

The initial time that an alien can be authorized to work in the United States based on an R-1 nonimmigration visa is 30 months. The total amount of time an R-1 applicant may be allowed to work in the US on a R-1 nonimmigration is 60 months/5 years. Only the time that the alien is physically present in America counts toward the maximum length of stay.

Applicants who wish to apply for a subsequent R-1 visa (as opposed to an extension of a current R-1 visa) must live outside the United States for one continuous year.

Some exceptions apply. Generally, the time limits don’t apply for religious workers:

  • “Who did not reside continuously in the United States and whose employment in the United States was seasonal, intermittent or for an aggregate of six months or less per year.”
  • Who live abroad and are able to work part time by commuting to America.

Dual Intent

Aliens who seek R-1 nonimmigrant visas must keep their intent to depart the US when their visa expires.

Smiling Family with Preacher

What happens to the family of those people who hold R-1 Visas?

If an R-1 nonimmigrant visa is approved, then R-2 classification may be available for the R-1 alien’s

  • Spouse
  • Children under 21

R-2 dependents do not have the authority to accept a job based on R-2 visa approval.

What must an R-1 nonimmigrant visa holder do if he/she is terminated from their job?

Anyone who obtained an R-1 nonimmigrant visa based on being a religious worker must give the USCIS notice within 14 days if their work status has changed. They must also give the USCIS notice in 14 days if they’ve been fired.

Workers may be able to seek approval to change religious employers if the petitioner (on the alien’s behalf) files a new Form I-129 with supporting documents and an attestation.

Anyone who petitioned for an R-1 visa on behalf of an alien must notify the USCIC if any of their beneficiaries have been terminated. Petitioners should send the notice of termination:

  • By email:
  • By letter:U.S. Department of Homeland Security
    U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
    California Service Center
    Attn: BCU Section Chief
    P.O. Box 30050
    Laguna Niguel, CA 92607-3004
Employment Location Change

What happens if the employment location changes (provided the employment status does not change?)

Petitioners may be required to file an amended petition to obtain approval for the move of religious workers prior to the move. An experienced immigration lawyer can explain when the USCIS may consider a move to be “material,” based on the original approved petition.

Generally, ministers can move from one ministry to another, within their religious denomination – provided that the “parent organization is the petitioner.” If moves within the same religious organization are contemplated, then the parent organization should file the original R-1 petition instead of the religious organization – and identify the various ministries where the minister will be working on Form I-129.

The USCIS, in this scenario, will “require the group tax determination letter issued to the parent organization, along with authorization from the group tax exemption holder that lists each specific ministry that may employ the beneficiary.“

Talk with an experienced R-1 visa lawyer today

If you are a religious organization seeking to have foreigners enter the United States to work for you, know that the Herman Legal Group has the skills and experience to explain and process the R-1 visa requirements. This includes reviewing the requirements and providing the correct documentation. Our immigration lawyers are based in Ohio and work across America. Our attorneys speak different languages and understand different cultures.

For help with an R-1 nonimmigrant visa or an extension, call Herman Legal Group at +1-216-696-6170 or complete our contact form to speak with us.

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