R-1 Nonimmigrant Religious Workers
An R-1 is an alien who is coming to the United States temporarily to be employed as a minister or in another religious vocation or occupation at least part time (average of at least 20 hours per week) by:
- A non-profit religious organization in the United States;
- A religious organization that is authorized by a group tax exemption holder to use its group tax exemption; or
- A non-profit religious organization that is affiliated with a religious denomination in the United States.
This visa program is intended for religious workers whose lives are dedicated to religious practices and functions, as distinguished from secular members of the religion.
To qualify, the alien must have been a member of a 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.
Religious occupations are defined as occupations whose duties must:
- Primarily relate to a traditional religious function;
- Be recognized as a religious occupation within the denomination; and
- Be primarily related to, and clearly involve, inculcating or carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination.
Religious occupations do not include primarily administrative or support positions such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, or fund-raisers or similar positions solely involved in soliciting donations. Limited administrative duties that are only incidental to religious functions are permissible.
Religious study or training for religious work does not constitute a religious occupation, but a religious worker may pursue study or training incidental to R-1 status.
Ministers are defined as individuals who are duly authorized by the religious denomination to which they belong, and who are fully trained according to the denomination’s standards to conduct religious worship and other duties usually performed by the clergy. The regulations do not define a uniform type of training for religious denominations. When signing the petition, the petitioner must attest that the beneficiary is qualified to perform the proposed duties of the religious occupation to be performed in the United States.
The definition of denominational membership is premised on a shared faith and worship practices, and not on formal affiliation. Denominational membership means membership during at least the two-year period immediately preceding the filing date of the petition, 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).
The term “religious denomination” applies to a religious group or community of believers governed or administered under a common type of ecclesiastical government. A religious group or community of believers may demonstrate that they are a religious denomination by showing one or more of the following:
- A recognized common creed or statement of faith shared among the denomination’s members;
- A common form of worship;
- A common formal code of doctrine and discipline;
- Common religious services and ceremonies;
- Common established places of religious worship or religious congregations; or
- Comparable evidence of a bona fide religious denomination.
USCIS acknowledges that some denominations lack an ecclesiastical government or central governing body. The religious entity may seek to satisfy the religious denomination requirement by submitting a description of its own internal governing or organizational structure.
A prospective or existing U.S. employer must file Form I-129, Petition for Nonimmigrant Worker, on behalf of aliens seeking to enter the United States as a nonimmigrant minister, or a religious worker in a religious vocation or occupation. An R-1 visa cannot be issued at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad without prior USCIS approval of Form I-129. This process allows USCIS to review the petition to determine whether the petitioning organization and the beneficiary have met their respective eligibility requirements for this nonimmigrant classification. Upon approval of the petition, the consular post then determines whether the alien is eligible to receive the R-1 nonimmigrant visa. As with all individuals who appear at ports of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) determines whether the beneficiary may be admitted to the United States. Visa exempt workers 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.
Along with Form I-129, the petitioner must include evidence of eligibility for the classification sought. Both the petitioning organization and the religious worker must satisfy certain requirements, which are discussed below.
If a petitioner believes that one of these requirements substantially burdens the organization’s exercise of religion, it may seek an exemption under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). A written request for the exemption should accompany the initial filing, and it must explain how the provision:
- 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 petitioner must support the request with relevant documentation. USCIS will decide exemption requests on a case-by-case basis, and notes that the petitioner bears the burden of showing that it qualifies for a RFRA exemption.
Please remember to provide a duplicate copy of the Form I-129 and all supporting documents. Failure to submit a duplicate copy to USCIS may result in a delay in the issuance of a nonimmigrant visa abroad from the U.S. Department of State.
This chart outlines the evidence that must be submitted to establish eligibility to file Form I-129 for an R-1 nonimmigrant.
If the petitioner is claiming tax exemption as:
Then provide evidence of:
A bona fide non-profit religious organization and has its own individual Internal Revenue Service (IRS) 501(c)(3) letter.
A currently valid determination letter* from the IRS showing that the organization is tax-exempt.
A bona fide non-profit religious organization that is recognized as tax-exempt under a group tax exemption.
Note: Where the petitioning entity falls within the umbrella of a parent organization, the parent organization may generally designate the petitioning entity to use its tax-exempt status. The petitioning entity, in turn, may generally place the minister in an entity in its jurisdiction.
(a) A currently valid determination letter* from the IRS establishing that the group is tax-exempt (8 CFR §214.2(r)(9)(iii) and
(b) group ruling that the group is tax exempt.
A bona fide organization that is affiliated with the religious denomination and was granted tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3), or subsequent amendment or equivalent sections of prior enactments of the Internal Revenue Code, as something other than a religious organization.
Note: Petitioning organizations that are not classified as “religious organizations” by the Internal Revenue Service may establish that they are affiliated with a religious denomination by completing the Religious Denomination Certification in the revised Form I-129. The determination letter must be valid and cover the petitioning organization at the time of filing of the Form I-129 R-1 petition.
(a) A currently valid determination letter* from the IRS establishing that the organization is tax-exempt;
(b) documentation establishing the religious nature and purpose of the organization;
(c) organizational literature describing the religious purpose and nature of the activities of the organization; and
(d) A religious denomination certification stating that the petitioning organization is affiliated with the religious denomination.**
*A valid determination letter includes those issued before the effective date of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and also those which may be issued under future Internal Revenue Code revisions.
**The religious denomination certification should be signed by an organization other than the petitioning organization, and attest that the petitioning organization is part of the same religious denomination as the attesting organization.
The authorized representative of the attesting religious denomination should sign the Religious Denomination Certification. USCIS will issue a Request for Evidence (RFE) if the petitioner or someone other than the authorized representative of the attesting religious denomination signs the certification.
In addition to the above, the petitioning organization must also provide:
- Proof of salaried or non-salaried compensation
Religious workers generally must be compensated. Compensation may include either salaried or non-salaried compensation. The religious organization must show how the religious worker (nonimmigrant or immigrant) will be supported in the United States. USCIS may consider evidence of self-support only for certain nonimmigrant missionaries. For temporary, nonimmigrant religious workers entering in the R-1 category, if self-support is claimed, the petitioner must submit verifiable evidence that they are participating in an established program for temporary, uncompensated missionary work within the petitioning organization. The program must be part of a broader, international program of missionary work sponsored by the denomination. For more information about self-support, see 8 CFR 214.2(11)(ii).
Please note that in all cases, 8 CFR 214.2(r)(13) requires religious workers to be compensated by the religious organization that petitioned for that worker.
- Verifiable evidence
Evidence showing how the organization will compensate the religious worker, including specific monetary or in-kind compensation, may include:
- Past evidence of compensation for similar positions;
- Budgets showing money set aside for salaries, leases, etc.;
- Evidence that room and board will be provided to the religious worker.
- IRS documentation
If available, you must provide IRS documents such as the religious worker’s Form W-2 or certified tax returns. If the documents are not available, explain why not and provide comparable, verifiable documentation.
- If the religious worker will be self-supporting
- Documents that show the religious worker will hold a position that is part of an established program for temporary, uncompensated missionary work, which is part of a broader international program of missionary work sponsored by the denomination
- Evidence showing that the organization has an established program for temporary, uncompensated missionary work in which:
- Compensated or uncompensated foreign workers previously held R-1 status;
- Missionary workers are traditionally uncompensated;
- The organization provides formal training for missionaries; and
- Participation in such missionary work is an established element of religious development in that denomination.
- Evidence showing that the organization’s religious denomination maintains missionary programs both in the United States and abroad
- Evidence of the religious worker’s acceptance into the missionary program
- Evidence of the duties and responsibilities associated with this traditionally uncompensated missionary work
- Copies of the religious worker’s bank records or budgets documenting the sources of self-support. These may include, but is not limited to, personal or family savings, room and board with host families in the United States, donations from the denomination’s churches, or other verifiable evidence.
You must also provide evidence that the beneficiary is eligible to be an R-1 nonimmigrant. You must include:
- Proof of membership (for all cases)
Provide evidence that the religious worker is a member of a religious denomination having a bona fide non-profit religious organization in the United States for at least two years immediately before the filing of Form I-129.
- Proof of previous R-1 employment (for extension of stay as an R-1)
If the religious worker received salaried compensation, provide IRS documents that show they received a salary. This may include, but is not limited to, Form W-2 or certified copies of filed income tax returns reflecting such work and compensation for the previous R-1 employment.
If the religious worker received non-salaried compensation:
- If IRS documents are available, provide IRS documentation of the non-salaried compensation; or
- If IRS documents are not available, explain why and provide 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 they lived, or other evidence.
If the religious worker will be working as a minister, you will need to provide:
- A copy of the religious worker’s certificate of ordination or similar documents;
- Documents showing acceptance of the religious worker’s qualification as a minister in the religious denomination, as well as evidence that they completed any course of prescribed theological education at an accredited theological institution normally required or recognized by that religious denomination. Include transcripts, curriculum, and documentation that establishes that the theological institution is accredited by the denomination;
- If the denomination does not require a prescribed theological education, 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; and
- Evidence of the religious worker’s completion of the denomination’s requirements for ordination.
If the religious worker received no salary but supported themselves and any dependents, provide verifiable documents to show how support was maintained. Such documents may include, but are not limited to, audited financial statements, financial institution records, brokerage account statements or trust documents signed by an attorney.
Under the regulations at 8 CFR 214.2(r)(16), USCIS may conduct a pre-approval inspection in any case. If USCIS decides to conduct a pre-approval inspection, satisfactory completion of the inspection will be a condition for approval of any petition.
A physical address where constituents generally congregate to worship must be provided in order for USCIS to conduct a pre-approval site inspection, even if that address is not the same as the mailing address. During a site inspection, USCIS must verify that the place of worship/congregation actually exists.
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. USCIS closely monitors the site visit program to ensure that it does not cause substantial delays in the adjudication process.
Period of Stay
USCIS may grant R-1 status for an initial period of admission for up to 30 months. Subsequent extensions may be granted for up to an additional 30 months. The religious worker’s total period of stay in the United States in R-1 classification cannot exceed five years (60 months). USCIS counts only time spent physically in the United States in valid R-1 status toward the maximum period of stay. See PM-602-0057, Procedures for Calculating the Maximum Period of Stay for R-1 Nonimmigrants (PDF, 70 KB) for details.
If the alien obtains an I-94 Admission and Departure Record from CBP with an initial period of admission beyond the regulatory maximum of 30 months, the error should be corrected by bringing it to the attention of the port of entry that issued the I-94 or the Deferred Inspection Office of CBP. Neither the petitioning prospective employer nor the alien will be penalized for the error. However, such an error may affect the alien’s future immigration benefits if he or she exceeds the statutory maximum of five years. Do not use Form I-102, Application for Replacement/Initial Nonimmigrant Arrival-Departure Document, to request that USCIS correct a CBP error on Form I-94. USCIS cannot correct the form I-94. Please visit www.cbp.gov for information on correcting Form I-94 issued by CBP.
If an R-1 nonimmigrant’s I-94 lists an initial period of admission longer than 30 months, however, such nonimmigrants may request an extension of status prior to the end of that 30-month period of admission.
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. These time limitations do not apply to 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. The limitations also do not apply to religious workers who reside abroad and commute to the United States to work part time.
Nonimmigrant religious workers must maintain the intent to depart the United States when their nonimmigrant stay expires. At the same time, USCIS may not deny a nonimmigrant petition, application for initial admission, change of status, or extension of stay in R classification solely on the basis of a filed or an approved permanent labor certification application or a filed or approved immigrant visa petition.
Family of R-1 Visa Holders
Members of religious denominations seeking temporary admission to the United States for brief periods may be eligible to be admitted as B-1 business visitors if their activities are allowed under the B-1 nonimmigrant visitor category. (See 8 CFR 214.2(b)(1)). Additionally, missionaries who do not otherwise qualify for R-1 nonimmigrant religious worker classification may be allowed to enter the United States as B-1 business visitors. The Department of State governs the issuance of visas. For more information about the B-1 visa category and permitted B-1 activities, please refer to the Foreign Affairs Manual at 9 FAM 41.31 N9.1-4.
Notification of Termination of Employment
The petitioner must notify USCIS within 14 days of any change in the nonimmigrant religious worker’s employment. The petitioner must also notify USCIS when the employment is terminated. In order for the religious worker to change employers, the new petitioner must file a new Form I-129, attestation and supporting evidence.
Petitioners must also notify USCIS of any R-1 employment terminations. Please contact USCIS at one of the following addresses:
Mailing: 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
Change of Location of Employment
Changes in location of employment may constitute material changes to the terms and conditions of employment as specified in the original approved R-1 petition. If there is a material change in the terms or conditions of employment (or the beneficiary’s eligibility), the petitioner may be required to file an amended petition and receive an approval prior to the beneficiary’s move to a location of employment other than that listed on the original approved R-1 petition.
Ministers, as opposed to other religious workers, may move from ministry to ministry within a denomination without a new petition, so long as the parent organization is the petitioner. If it is anticipated that the minister will be moved between different locations within the same denomination, the parent organization should file as the petitioner rather than the individual organization and list each ministry where the minister will be working on the I-129. In such cases, USCIS requires 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.
An amended petition can be filed, with fee, by checking box f under item 2 in Part 2 of Form I-129.
For information about petitioning for lawful permanent residency for a religious worker, see the Employment-Based Immigration: Fourth Preference EB-4 page.