What Is the R-1 Visa: Nonimmigrant Visa for Religious Workers?

In a Nutshell

The R visa category allows for foreigners to visit the United States as nonimmigrant religious workers. People who are not U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents may travel on an R visa if they wish to conduct religious work or ceremonies in the United States. This article explains the R-1 visa, which is the main type of R visa. The article also explains who qualifies to apply for the R-1 visa and how to apply for it.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated June 28, 2022

What Is the R-1 visa?

R work visas are temporary work visas for foreign nationals who plan to work for nonprofit religious organizations with tax-exempt status in the United States. Under U.S. immigration law, there are no annual limits on the number of people who can receive R visas. If you receive an R visa, you can work legally in the United States for your R visa sponsor. However, you must file a new visa application if you want to change jobs.

Generally, religious nonprofit organizations will have to wait a long time when applying for their first R visa on behalf of an employee. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) requires a site visit to the organization before issuing a visa to them for the first time. However, after that, religious worker visas for that organization can be issued quickly. The initial period of stay can last up to 30 months. You can apply to extend this stay to a maximum of five years. If you spend time outside of the United States, that time will not count toward your maximum. You will just need to prove your absence. 

As a nonimmigrant worker, you can travel in and out of the United States freely while you still have R status. Furthermore, your spouse and dependents, which includes unmarried children under 21, can get R-2 visas to accompany you. However, they are not eligible to work in the United States with their visas. 

Who Qualifies for the R-1 Visa?

The U.S. government defines a religious denomination as a group of people governed by a central administrative body. Members of the denomination need to agree on at least one of these eligibility criteria: 

  • Recognized statement of faith or shared beliefs 

  • Common system of worship 

  • Common doctrine and code of discipline 

  • Established places of worship and congregation 

  • A common set of ceremonies and services 

To qualify as a religious worker, you need to have been a member of a religious denomination for at least two years. You must have a job offer to work for an affiliate of that same religion. 

You must come as a clergy member, such as a minister of religion, ordained deacon, or rabbi. Or, you can qualify as someone in a “religious occupation or vocation.” Having a “religious vocation” means you perform traditional religious functions but are not considered an official clergy member. For example, you may be a liturgical worker, spiritual instructor, missionary, or religious broadcaster. You need to work at least 20 hours per week in this occupation or vocation. 

These criteria are similar to those of religious workers applying for green cards. However, there is one crucial difference. R-1 visa holders do not need to have been previously employed by their religious organization in the United States or abroad. Instead, they only need to have been a member for two years. 

Who Doesn’t Qualify?

The R visa is for religious workers who have religious duties. These duties must correspond to the organization’s spiritual activities. You do not meet the eligibility requirements if you only have nonreligious responsibilities, such as a janitor or fundraiser. If you are a volunteer, you also do not qualify. You must do paid work either part time or full time for the R visa. 

How to Apply for an R-1 Visa

There are three main steps to successfully getting R-1 status. 

First, your employer must file Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. Your employer will need to pay $460 and also provide proof they are a bona fide, tax-exempt nonprofit. They will need to prove they have group tax exemption with a letter from the IRS. If this is your employer’s first time applying for an R visa, USCIS will need to conduct an on-site visit. USCIS will want to ensure the organization genuinely connects to the religious denomination. Once satisfied, USCIS will approve your employer’s application through Form I-797, Notice of Action. 

Now, you must file Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application. You will have to answer questions about your background and purpose for visiting the United States. This form will cost $190. However, fees may vary depending on your home country. Consult your local U.S. embassy or consulate’s website for more information.

Finally, if you are between the ages of 14 and 79, you will need to interview at a U.S. consulate or U.S. embassy in your home country. A consular officer will again ask you about your intentions to visit the United States. 

How Long Does It Take To Process an R-1 Visa?

The processing time for an R-1 visa depends on multiple factors. If USCIS has already inspected your employer’s worksite or your employer qualifies for premium processing, the process will be faster. Premium processing is expedited processing of the application at a fee. The visa application process can take 8 or 9 months if your employer doesn't qualify for premium processing.