There are two types of religious visas: non-immigrant (R-1) and immigrant (EB-4).
R-1 non-immigrant visa for religious workers
This non-immigrant visa is intended for foreign nationals who will be coming to the United States temporarily to be employed as a minister or non-minister in a religious vocation or occupation. The prospective employer has to file an I-129 Petition for Religious Worker.
Both the petitioning organization and the religious worker must satisfy certain requirements:
- The employer must be a non-profit (tax exempt) religious organization in the United States; the employer must submit a currently valid 501(c)(3) determination letter from the IRS, showing that the organization is tax-exempt.
- The beneficiary must have been a member of the religious denomination having a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States for at least two years immediately before the filing of the petition, whether in the United States or abroad (must submit proof of membership and qualifications).
USCIS may conduct a pre-approval inspection at the site of the prospective employer. This inspection is mandatory in the case of an employer’s first petition for a religious worker.
Once the I-129 Petition is approved, the approval is sent to the consular office where the beneficiary intends to obtain he R-1 visa, which determines whether the foreign national is eligible to receive the R-1 nonimmigrant visa.
If the beneficiary is already in the United States in valid non-immigrant status, s/he may file an application to change status to R-1, on form I-539, either concurrently with form I-129 or subsequently. Typically, the beneficiary needs to also request an extension of the current non-immigrant visa on form I-539, in order to maintain his or her valid status at the time of the I-129 approval/changing status.
Extensions: R-1 status may be granted for an initial period of up to 30 months. Subsequent extensions may be granted for up to an additional 30 months but may not exceed 5 years. It is important to note that only time spent physically in the United States in valid R-1 status is counted toward the maximum period of stay. R-1 Visa holders may apply for a green card once they have worked in their religious vocation for 5 years.
Before applying for a new nonimmigrant R-1 visa (a new five-year maximum stay), the individual must have lived outside the United States for at least one year.
R-2 Visas are available for dependents of R-1 Visa holders. These dependents could include a spouse or unmarried children under the age of 21. They are not authorized to work as R-2s.
More detailed information regarding the R-1 religious immigrant visas may be found here.
EB-4 immigrant visa for religious workers
This immigrant visa is intended for foreign nationals who desire to live in the United States permanently to be employed as a minister or non-minister in a religious vocation or occupation. Only EB-4 visas for non-ministers are subject to cap (5,000 per fiscal year).
The prospective employer must file an I-360 Petition for Special Immigrant (Religious Worker).
The beneficiary may file an immigrant visa application (consular process) if living abroad, or, if already in the U.S., an I-485 application to adjust status in the United States, assuming s/he has maintained valid status.
The requirements of EB-4 are summarized below:
- Beneficiary must have been a member of a religious denomination that has a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of the petition
- The beneficiary must seek to enter the United States to work in a full-time (at least 35 hours/wk), compensated (salaried or unsalaried) position as a minister, in one of the following occupations:
- Solely as a minister of that religious denomination (i.e. a priest or rabbi);
- A religious vocation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity (i.e. nun or monk); or
- A religious occupation either in a professional or nonprofessional capacity (i.e. religious teaching or
- The beneficiary must be coming to work for either:
- A bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States; or
- A bona fide organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination in the United States.
- The beneficiary must have been working in one of the positions described above after the age of 14, either abroad or in the United States, continuously for at least 2 years immediately before the filing of a petition with USCIS.
Evidence required form the employer:
- proof of tax-exempt status (IRS 501(c)(3) determination letter)
- proof of salaried or non-salaried compensation
- duties and responsibilities for the intended immigrant’s position
Evidence required from the beneficiary:
- proof of membership in the religious denomination
- evidence of religious worker’s qualifications (education/experience)
- proof of prior religious work (two years of continuous experience/employment either abroad or in the U.S.)
More detailed information regarding the EB-4 religious immigrant visas may be found here.
Please keep in mind that these laws and procedures are complex. Therefore, we encourage you to seek out legal advice for your unique case as fixing mistakes after applications are submitted is more difficult (and expensive) then doing it right the first time.