R-1 visas are non-immigrant visas that permit religious workers (ministers and foreign nationals working in religious vocations or occupations) to be temporarily employed by a non-profit, tax-exempt religious organization. A religious denomination is defined generally as an organization having a formal code of doctrine and discipline, religious services and ceremonies, some form of ecclesiastical government, a recognized creed and form of worship, religious congregations, and established places of worship. There is no annual cap on the number of R-1 visas issued to religious workers. To qualify for an R-1 visa, the foreign national must have been a member of a religious denomination for at least two years immediately prior to the filing of the petition for an R-1 visa and must also have a job offer to work for an affiliate of that same religious organization in the U.S. The criteria for qualifying for an R-1 visa are essentially the same as the qualifying criteria for religious workers who apply for an EB-4 “special immigrant” visa.

A minister is defined as a person authorized by a recognized religious denomination to conduct religious activities. This definition not only covers ministers, priests and rabbis, but also Buddhist monks, commissioned offers of the Salvation Army, practitioners of Christian Science and ordained deacons. The applicant will need to provide formal recognition from the religious organization in question, such as a license, certificate of ordination or other qualification to conduct religious worship.

A worker in a religious vocation is a person called to religious life, as evidenced by the demonstration of a lifelong commitment, such as taking vows. Examples of workers in a religious vocation include nuns, monks and religious brothers and sisters.

A worker in a religious occupation is a person habitually engaged in an activity that relates to a traditional religious function. Examples of workers in religious occupations include liturgical workers, religious instructors or cantors, catechists, workers in religious hospitals, missionaries, religious translators or religious broadcasters. The definition of a worker in a religious occupation does not encompass janitors, maintenance workers, clerks, fund raisers, solicitors of donations or similar occupations. As such, the activity of a worker in a religious occupation must relate to a traditional religious function, i.e., the activity must embody the tenets of the religion and have religious significance, relating primarily, if not exclusively, to matters of the spirit as they apply to the religion.

In applying for an R-1 visa, the religious organization petitioning to sponsor the worker and the religious worker must provide certain supporting documents. The sponsoring religious organization will need to provide proof of its non-profit status and a letter supporting the visa petition. The organization will also need to provide proof of its ability to compensate the worker, such as financial records, an IRS Form 990, recent bank statements and payroll records. The organization may also need to provide religious literature, photos or other evidence that it is a functioning religious organization. Finally, if there is any question about the worker’s denominational membership, the organization will need to provide evidence regarding its and the worker’s shared religious beliefs and forms of worship. The religious worker must provide evidence of his or her membership in the religious denomination and proof of qualification for the offered position through letters of reference, a certification of ordination or similar documents.   

The initial period of admission for an R-1 visa holder is up to 30 months. Subsequent extensions may be granted for up to an additional 30 months, but the religious worker’s total period of stay in the U.S. in R-1 classification cannot exceed 5 years (60 months). A religious worker’s spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may be eligible for an R-2 visa to accompany the religious worker for the duration of the R-1 visa. R-2 dependents, however, are not authorized to work in the U.S.

Finally, an R-1 visa holder may obtain a green card and adjust to become a lawful permanent resident. A religious worker applying for a green card must, as a prerequisite, have two years of qualifying employment as a religious worker. As such, the R-1 visa provides a convenient way for religious workers to become legal permanent residents by obtaining an R-1 visa, working for two years, and then starting the green card application process.