How can we get back to the US?
This has been the question we’ve repeatedly asked since we first moved back from the States in 2006 after living in Raleigh, North Carolina for two years.
We tried one option – invest in property.
Thanks to the Global Financial Crisis and some stupid real estate decisions on our behalf that one failed miserably. You can read more about that disastrous episode in our life in detail here.
We resorted to the next option, me returning to teaching in Raleigh on a J-1 visa and Craig a J-2 visa. I lasted two years. It didn’t set my soul on fire. I returned home setting my teaching license on fire instead and threw everything I had into our travel blog.
And we still continued to ask the question, how can we move back to the US?
USA visa options
It didn’t seem we had any US visa options left that would work for us.
- Invest a million dollars into a business over there that employs 20 Americans – not quite at that stage yet.
- Win a Green Card in the Diversity Visa Lottery – we’ve been trying for over 10 years. Bit slow on the mojo there.
- Business Visa – not quite what we were after, but slot it into Plan C, whenever we future out A and B. With this visa you can get up to 10 years, BUT…that’s not what we wanted. We wanted permission to live and work in the country with no limits on how many months of the year we could stay.
- H3 Visa- this would mean we’d have to return to a job and be employed by an American company that would sponsor us, claiming that no other American could do our job. No thanks.
- Tourist Visa – Plan E. 6 months permission to travel. Must leave the continent before returning for another other six months. Sounded really exhausting and not practical.
- Visa Waiver – the least attractive option with 90 days permission to travel the country at a time.
Was our dream dead?
We almost gave up, but with the strong calling we had to return to the US, I had an inkling the Universe would shuffle things around to get us there.
I really felt my life had no other option but to live in the US. It’s the fiercest calling I’ve had and I know it’s the right choice for my life path.
There must be another visa option for us?
A couple of years ago, we read a blog post by Gala Darling mentioning how she got a visa to live in the US as a New Zealander. I reached out to her to ask her how. She told me she got an O-1 non immigrant visa and gave me the details of her immigration lawyer.
The wheels started turning.
We chatted to her immigration lawyer to get a clearer picture of whether we satisfied the o-1 visa requirements.
Perhaps, I didn’t feel confident enough in my extraordinary ability at this stage and the success of our blog to carry us, or perhaps I did not feel confident in the lawyer, or perhaps he in us.
Whatever it was, we didn’t pursue it, adding it to the do it later bucket. We had a lot going on with the blog and had just started traveling around Australia, so it was not a current priority.
When our Australian road trip finished and we settled on the Gold Coast, the stirring began again.
How can we move back to the US?
One day, Craig was scrolling through Instagram and saw an update from Natalie Sisson, The Suitcase Entrepreneur, saying how she had just been granted her non-immigrant visa to the US.
This time we felt confident. And this is when the wheels really started turning and our vision for our America Unplugged Road Trip across all 50 states began.
We emailed James and then had an initial Skype chat and liked him straight away. James is a Southerner and after living in Raleigh for four years, it’s a warmth we can connect with easily. It’s true what they say about Southern charm!
James is also an expert in O-1 visa applications and clearly explained the process and the investment – in time, energy and finances – and had much confidence and excitement for our case.
He was upfront with us in regards to the possibility of us getting approved as our business had grown a lot since we last thought about the O-1 visa.
Basically, the 0-1 visa requires that you have extraordinary ability in your particular field, much like actors and actresses have to prove their expertise in entertainment.
For us, we had to prove extraordinary ability in the art of travel blogging – details on all that down below!
When you have a strong calling for something like this that we have, don’t take a no as a definite end, but a delay helping you to get ready to shine your best.
Should you get an immigration lawyer for US non-immigrant O-1 visas?
We had two options.
- Put the O-1 visa application together ourselves, not having a clue about the visa class and process and probably getting it all wrong. This was a huge risk we weren’t prepared to take.
- Invest in James to do the job he’s a specialist at and bring it over the line.
After taking a read of the qualifications for this visa listed below, what would you do?
O-1 Visa Qualifications:
To qualify for an O-1 visa, you have to either win an award like the Nobel Prize or present evidence of at least three of the following:
- Documentation of the alien’s receipt of nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence in the field of endeavor.
- Documentation of the alien’s membership in associations in the field for which classification is sought, which require outstanding achievements of their members, as judged by recognized national or international experts in their disciplines or fields.
- Published material in professional or major trade publications or major media about the alien, relating to the alien’s work in the field for which classification is sought, which shall include the title, date, and author of such published material, and any necessary translation; [i.e. published material about you/what you do]
- Evidence of the alien’s participation on a panel, or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or in an allied field of specialization to that for which classification is sought.
- Evidence of the alien’s original scientific, scholarly, or business-related contributions of major significance in the field; [i.e. letters from journalists and other experts in the field attesting to your contributions and why they are significant]
- Evidence of the alien’s authorship of scholarly articles in the field, in professional journals, or other major media; [i.e. published material by you]
- Evidence that the alien has been employed in a critical or essential capacity for organizations and establishments that have a distinguished reputation.
- Evidence that the alien has either commanded a high salary or will command a high salary or other remuneration for services, evidenced by contracts or other reliable evidence. [i.e. contracts with companies / governmental entities showing that you have commanded high remuneration for your services]
Guess what we did? We hired James.
James also mentioned that the spouse of an O-1 visa holder (spouses and children get O-3 visas) do not get work authorization.
His initial plan was that we could bring one of us over as an O-1 and the other as an O-2 (a visa for support staff). But, a closer reading of the regulations revealed that O-2’s are only available for O-1’s in arts and athletics.
So, unfortunately, that option was off the table. For both of us to work (run our business while we’re in the US) we both needed to qualify for the O-1 visa.
After going through the complete process now, and having a three-year visa stamped in our passports, I am so glad we invested in James.
As we sat in the US consulate office in Sydney the other week waiting for our interview and final visa approval with our 500-page application document each (not a typo), Craig and I said to each other,
“Imagine if we tried to do this ourselves. There’s just no way we would have got it right.”
Just reading James’ cover letter for the petition went over my head with the legalese. I’m sure we would have bombed it.
The O-1 visa
Why the O-1 visa for us?
The O-1 visa could grant us non-immigrant status for a period of up to three years. That means we have permission to live and run our business in the country for that long without any visa renewal requirements or having to leave the country.
Now, it might sound confusing as we are moving to the US for three years, which seems like a migration type thing. But, it’s a non-immigrant visa as we don’t have permission to stay there permanently – yet.
For the O-1 visa, immigration can grant you a period of either one, two, or three years. Fortunately, we were granted the full three-year period. Yah. And after the three years, we will be working with James again to ask for an O-1 visa extension.
I do know of another Aussie who has followed the same path, and after six years of O-1 he was able to apply for a green card. Fingers crossed!!!
If you’ve ever wondered how those Aussie actors and actresses can take Hollywood by storm, it’s on an O-1 visa.
This visa is a business non-immigrant visa for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, athletic, or motion pictures. Why thank you. Yes. We are extraordinary!!
When we approached the interview desk at the US consulate in Sydney, the lady asked with a smile on here face,
“Why are you extraordinary?”
It was quite the thrill to hear and answer that! I think I may greet every person I meet like that from now on.
To qualify for an O-1 visa, you must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.
We have extraordinary ability in the art of travel blogging and are moving to the US to blog about travel in the US and partner with specific tourism boards and travel brands.
After consulting with his firm, James decided the best route for us to take was having an agent represent us.
The best way to obtain an O-1 visa in your situation is to go through an agent. The only substantive requirement is that you sign a contract with the agent where the agent confirms that they are your agent for US immigration purposes and that the agent will be assisting you in negotiating and obtaining engagements for you to do work. The agent will sign the US immigration documents – drafted by me – on your behalf. This is the easiest way to make sure that you don’t have to negotiate contracts 3 years out before filing for the O-1 or get the O-1 for a shorter period and extend it several times while you’re in the US.
So, if you get an O-1 visa, it means you are at the top of your field, and you have to prove it, hence the 500-page document and over six month period getting all the documents in order.
It did take us longer, we actually started this process with James way back in December 2015 as we have so many balls to juggle, and so much going on that we move at a turtle’s pace most of the time.
The problem with being extraordinary in travel blogging is that the business requires you travel a lot, which sucks up your time and energy to do other things.
But, we got there eventually, and my philosophy is that it’s always at the right time.
Required documentation for the O-1 visa
Letters of recommendation
We had to source 10 reference letters each from people in our field who knew of our extraordinary ability. This included other extraordinary bloggers in our field and extraordinary people we had worked with!
Thanks guys, you know who you are!!!
Examples of contracts
We provided several examples of contracts we’d had previously with other companies we’d partnered with. We had to prove that we had the ability to generate our own income.
Also, we had to provide contracts for work arranged already in the US. This was a hard one for us. We couldn’t sign off on any contracts with companies in the US as we didn’t have visa approval yet.
Instead, we provided letters of intent from various companies and tourism boards showing that we intended to work together upon visa approval.
Four weeks after we sent in our initial application to US Immigration in the US, they returned with a request for more information – a detailed three-year itinerary of our travels.
Because we were applying for the full three years, they wanted to know:
- Each state and destination we would be visiting
- Specific dates for each destination and length of stay
- Story ideas for each destination
- Who we would be working with at each destination (sponsors/partnerships)
Can you imagine how difficult it is to project a 3-year detailed travel itinerary and partnerships when we plan to visit all 50 states?? Lol.
42 pages and several days later we had our three-year itinerary sent to them. Of course, we had a disclaimer at the bottom of this itinerary stating:
“This itinerary is subject to change. It is difficult to confirm all dates for the next 3 years on a touring schedule as we are still working on booking these tours with our corporate and tourism board partners.”
The positive of this – from researching things to do in all 50 states, we now had an idea of what to write about. There year content plan. I like it!
Examples of our extraordinary ability
This is where the bulk of the application document pages came in.
We provided evidence of where we had been featured online, on TV, radio, and print.
Also, we showed where we had spoken at conferences and blogging events demonstrating our extraordinary ability in leading others within our field. And this also included any travel blogging awards or recognition we had received.
Memberships of Associations
We showed that we were members of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW).
These are paid memberships within these organizations, memberships that require you to demonstrate a level of success with your blog.
Panel and judging panels
We provided evidence of where we had assisted in the judging of other’s work in our field and any relevant panels.
We each had to write a letter on behalf of the other outlining the various roles we each play within the business and on the road, and why we are each a necessary part of our brand.
In a nutshell, these are our roles.
- Chief writer
- Email marketing
- Public speaking
- Brand ambassador
- Products and courses creator
- Video host
- Freelance writer
- Book keeper
- Homeschooling teacher
- Social Media Manager
- Business Manager
- Research and travel planning
- Assistant website designer
- Assistant homeschooling teacher
The O-1 visa process
The basic flow of how it all came together.
- Collect all the required supporting documentation. This took us about six months from people and companies around the world. It was intense.
- File petition form I-129, a petition for non-immigrant worker. It should be filed at least 45 days before the date of employment in the US.
- Once submitted, the approval process is 4-6 weeks. However, they may come back with a request for more information. It took six weeks for us to receive an initial response, which was a request for our three-year itinerary. That took us some time to put together as it was over Christmas. Once we finally resubmitted in January we received word quite quickly after two weeks that it was a YES!!
But, wait there is more.
This is where it gets complicated and I don’t understand why this happens.
- Once approved, you still have to submit another application form online, the DS-160 and apply for an in-person interview at the nearest US consulate to you. We were so lucky to grab an appointment two weeks away. The next available appointment wasn’t until April, months later. Be prepared for delays like this.
- You then attend the interview at the US consulate for your final approval and to get your visa stamped in your passport (hopefully).
- For our interview, James advised us to print off our entire application document – 500 pages each! Just in case they wanted to go through it. This cost us $120 at a local printer shop. They didn’t even look at it, but it was better to be prepared. We didn’t want to come all this way to kill ourselves in the final moments. We paid careful attention to the website, which stated no bags or phones were allowed in the consulate and there were no storage options. So we left them all at home and took the 1-hour train ride to Sydney and arrived with our brick-heavy paperwork in a plastic bag to a line full of people on their phones and carrying bags, and storage facilities present!! I tell ya we deserved that final yes
- They take your passport to give you the visa and then send it back priority post. We got it back the next day.
Honestly, we didn’t really. I was so exhausted by the process, and I felt like it was such a given for us for so long, that it just felt kinda like another normal day.
It was a weird reaction. I’m super glad we’re starting our America Unplugged journey in Hawaii. I think I need that tropical, island aloha vibe to kickstart me.
I think that is where we’ll celebrate.
Costs of the O-1 visa
The visa costs for us two as O-1 applicants, plus various costs to bring our kids:
- Form I-129 ($325 x2)
- Machine Readable Visa Fee ($190 x4)
- Immigration Lawyer fees for James ($4,500 x2 USD)
- Printing off documents ($150+)
- Passport photos x4 ($80)
- Membership Fees for NATJA ($175×2) and SATW ($175×2)
- DS-2019 fees ($1,026)
- Reciprocity fee for Aussies only at US consulate ($420)
TOTAL COST – $16,304 (Australian Dollars)
We were shocked when after our final visa approval at the interview we were asked to go to the payment counter to pay ANOTHER $420.
Haven’t we already paid all the fees through the process?!!
We timidly asked the man what we were now paying for and why. He said it was a reciprocity fee – because the Australian government charges US non-immigrants an issuance fee, the US charges Aussies back. Thanks for that Aussie government!!
Frightened by the cost of the O-1 Visa?
We hear ya!
It’s a BIG investment.
Weigh up the investment carefully. It’s not just money either, it’s time and energy. You really want to have this visa and you do have to prove you’re extraordinary ability so if you doubt you can do that, then don’t do it, you’ll waste your money.
For us, it was about the return on the investment. It’s an investment in ourselves and our business that we believe will reap big benefits in the long-term.
It’s all about perspective.
Yeah, $16,000 is not chump change for us, but when we think about, Australian families won’t think twice about outlaying $15,000 – 20,000+ on a 3-4 week family holiday to the US, so it’s a pretty good price for three years.
This is about opportunity!
It’s the next step in our life and business to move to the US.
Not only have we been attempting to find a way since 2007, way before the blog was born, but we believe we’ve accomplished most of what we want to do blog wise in Australia now.
It’s time for us to take our business to the next level – and we LOVE traveling in the US, it’s such an amazing family travel destination, and our readers are very excited about following our journey.
I don’t like stagnation. I love to grow and evolve. The US is a much bigger pond, which is bloody scary, but thrilling at the same time. And it also places us in the Northern Hemisphere. There is way more opportunity for travel stories there.
Australia is so damn isolated and so bloody big and desolate, there really is a finite number of things you can write about travel in Australia and it’s such an effort and expense to venture outside its borders.
So the investment made sense and after running the figures, and making a few cuts here and there, we could see that the return we’d get would be far bigger.
I feel exactly how I felt when we left to go on our Australian road trip. Fear that comes with risk. Knowing that this could totally be the wrong decision and it will screw us. But, believing that the words my heart speak to me are truth, if I don’t follow it then the consequences will be greater.
So it’s a thrilling risk.
A risk that I know deep inside of me will pay off.
I know I’ll look back in a few years time, possibly when we’re extending our US visa for another three years, and say, boy I am so glad we took that leap and made that risk. It was the best decision I ever made. I sure said that about the Australia leap.
When you take the time to connect the dots of your life looking back, you have more confidence to move forward.
You see the patterns, you can identify with them, and you can make clear and confident decisions that involve a large investment of money, and even more of time!
Follow our “America Unplugged” Road Trip
We depart Australia on March 20, 2017 (just 2 weeks from this publication date).
As mentioned, our first stop is Hawaii, a place I’ve yet to visit. Craig visited way back in 1994 and we are excited to take the kids there.
What happens after that? Plans are being created behind the scenes.
To follow our journey:
- Join our VIP email list by popping your name and email in the form below. You’ll get a personal message from us once per week and so you won’t miss any of our blog posts from the US!
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Bring. It. On.