The R-1 non-immigrant visa temporarily allows certain religious workers to enter the United States to perform services for a bona-fide religious organization based in the United States.
In order to qualify for an R-1 visa, a qualifying US organization must agree to sponsor the religious worker by submitting a petition on his or her behalf. Qualifying organizations are bona-fide religious denominations, or affiliated religious organizations, that have been granted tax exemption by the Internal Revenue Service. A bona-fide denomination is often (although not always) characterized by: an ecclesiastical governance; an established creed and doctrine; and common forms and places of worship, services, and ceremonies.
Additionally, the visa applicant must be a minister of religion or otherwise classified as a religious worker. US immigration regulations define a minister of religion as someone “authorized by a religious denomination, and fully trained according to the denomination’s standards, to conduct religious worship and to perform other duties usually performed by authorized members of the clergy of that denomination.” This does not include lay preachers or others without formal authorization to perform such services.
In addition to ministers, applicants seeking to perform a religious vocation or occupation in the United States may also be eligible for an R-1 visa. A religious vocation requires a formal lifetime commitment to a religious way of life that can be differentiated from the ordinary way of life of a lay person within that denomination. Examples include nuns and monks who have taken vows, undergone ceremonial rites of passage, or otherwise outwardly committed to a certain way of life. A religious occupation, on the other hand, is one that primarily relates to a recognized religious function and involves teaching or carrying out the religious beliefs of the denomination. Essentially, the occupation must have religious significance, and as such, does not include administrative or fundraising work.
Additionally, the visa applicant must have been a member of the applicable denomination for at least two years immediately preceding the application and is now seeking to enter the US in order to work at least 20 hours per week for the sponsoring organization.
R visas are granted for an initial three year period and can be extended for an additional two years. If the visa holder would like to reapply at the conclusion of the five years, he or she may only do so after being physically present outside of the United States for one year.
Alternatively, after two years in valid R-1 status, a visa-holder may apply (if eligible) for an employment based green card in the fourth preference category (EB-4).
R-2 Visas for Spouses and Children
A spouse or child (under 21) of an R-1 non-immigrant who is accompanying or following-to-join the principal applicant may apply for an R-2 visa, however, work authorization is not granted to those in R-2 status.
Procedure for Obtaining an R Visa
A US employer or sponsor must first file a petition with US Citizenship and Immigration Services on behalf of the beneficiary (intending non-immigrant). The petition must contain evidence of the beneficiary’s eligibility for the visa, including evidence of the bona-fide status of the sponsoring denomination. Once the petition has been approved, the applicant, and any applicable dependant applicants, may then apply for their visas at a US Consulate abroad.
Religious Activity on a B Visa
In limited circumstances, a member of a religious denomination may be issued a B-1 visa instead of an R-1 visa. In this case, the applicant may not receive a salary from a US source. In order to qualify for a B visa the applicant must be seeking to engage in an evangelical tour, temporarily exchanging pulpits with a US counterpart, performing “missionary work” that would not normally be classified as ordinary labour for hire, or certain volunteer service programs.