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R-1 vs. B-1 – Nonimmigrant Options for those in Religious Roles

Posted by Emilie (Ronald) Gough | Jun 07, 2023 | 0 Comments

Religious workers or leaders coming to the United States in a temporary, nonimmigrant basis may choose to apply for R-1 or enter as a B-1 Visitor for Business. The best option for each individual case will depend on a variety of factors including the length of time to be spent in the United States and the duties to be done in the United States. You should consult an immigration attorney to determine which option is best for your circumstances.

A brief description of each option is below. 

R-1 Religious Workers 

The R-1 Religious Worker visa is an option for non-citizens coming to the United States to temporarily work in a part time (at least 20 hours per week) role as a minister or in a religious vocation (i.e., nuns, monks, and religious brothers and sisters) or a religious occupation.  A religious occupation is defined as one where:

  1. The duties must primarily relate to a traditional religious function and be recognized as a religious occupation within the denomination;
  2. The duties must be primarily related to, and must clearly involve, instilling or carrying out the religious creed and beliefs of the denomination;
  3. The duties do not include positions which are primarily administrative or support such as janitors, maintenance workers, clerical employees, fund raisers, persons solely involved in the solicitation of donations, or similar positions, although limited administrative duties that are only incidental to religious functions are permissible; and
  4. Religious study or training for religious work does not constitute a religious occupation, but a religious worker may pursue study or training incident to status.

The R-1 employer must be a non-profit religious organization in the United States, a religious organization authorized by a group tax exemption holder to use the group tax exemption, or a non-profit organization affiliated with a religious denomination in the United States.  R-1 beneficiaries must proof that they have been a member of a religious denomination with a bona fide non-profit organization in the United States for at least two years immediately prior to the R-1 petition being filed

R-1 Religious Workers must receive either salaried or non-salaried compensation (including, but not limited to, room, board, medical care, or transportation). Non-salaried compensation to be provided must be verifiable through documentation.  

R-1 Religious workers may stay in the United States for up to five (5) years, with an initial approval period of 30 months and a renewal of 30 months. Any time spent outside of the United States following the R-1 approval can be recaptured and added on to the extension. 

B-1 Visitor for Business 

For shorter trips where the R-1 is not applicable, using a B-1 visa may also be an option. The Foreign Affairs Manual allows for certain religious leaders and members of religious denominations/groups to be issued B-1 visas in certain circumstances. 9 FAM 402.2-5(C)(1). Those circumstances include:

  1. Religious leaders entering the United States to engage in a religious tour who do not plan to take an appointment with any one place of worship and who will be supported by offerings contributed at each religious meeting.
  2. Religious leaders temporarily exchanging pulpits with United States counterparts who will continue to be reimbursed by the foreign religious entity and will draw no salary from the religious entity in the United States.
  3. Members, ordained or not, of religious groups enter the united States temporarily for the sole purpose of performing missionary work on behalf of a denomination.
    1. The missionary work may include:  religious instruction, participation in religious ceremonies, aid to the elderly or needy, proselytizing, etc.  
    2. The missionary work may not include: selling of articles, solicitation or acceptance of donations, or ordinary administrative work. It should not be a substitute for ordinary labor for hire.
    3. Members temporarily providing missionary work cannot receive a salary or remuneration from the United States. 

In all of the B-1 situations described above, the foreign national is unable to draw a salary from the United States. It is permissible for them to receive a reimbursement or stipend for expenses incurred incidental to their stay in the United States.

The length of stay for a B-1 Visitor for Business will vary. Generally, those entering for missionary work can be admitted for one-year at a time. Those entering for a shorter term may only be admitted for the length of time they need to complete the activity. 

Contact the Law Offices of James D. Eiss today to learn more about your options for entering the United States as religious worker. 

About the Author

Emilie (Ronald) Gough

Emilie E. Ronald is an Associate Attorney. She first joined the Law Offices of James D. Eiss in 2018 as a Law Clerk during her second year of law school. She was admitted as an attorney in the state of New York in January 2020. Emilie primarily focuses on TNs, L-1s, E-1s, E-2s, O-1s, and R-1s. Sh...


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