Filming with an I-Visa

i visaThere has been a lively debate in several forums about I visas and whether they are transferable to new, unrelated projects. It is really hard to find a definitive answer on the internet, and the US embassy isn’t the most approachable institution either. It is very common for recruiters to specify a “valid I visa” when advertising, so we wanted to see if we could pin it down.

So we’ve done some independent research, and we found a friendly US immigration specialist attorney who was prepared to set out the basics.

This is what I understood:

1. An I visa is issued to a bona fide member of the foreign media for the purposes of covering “informational or educational” stories in the US. The US authorities have tightened up the meaning of “informational or educational” considerably in the last ten years or so, and while it does include covering sports, news events and documentaries, it specifically excludes reality programmes, factual entertainment or formatted documentaries. The crucial factor seems to be that these are heavily produced and are not covering events which would be happening anyway and the enterprise is not “journalistic”. It definitely excludes LE and scripted programmes, and it also explicitly excludes programme wholly or mainly funded by US producers, broadcasters or distributors.

2. An I visa is issued after an interview with an immigration officer at the Embassy, where the application must be supported with documents such as a treatment, the applicant’s CV and credentials, and a contract with the employer. In theory the I visa is only valid for entry to the US if the holder is working on the same programme, or at least the same employer.

3. So what happens when you start a new project? Best practice is that the I visa holder lets the embassy know that you are working on something new and for a different employer. You will probably need to supply documentation outlining the new project, but – assuming that the new project complies with the narrow definitions of “informational and educational” – the I visa will be valid. This is best practice.

I got the impression that this step isn’t always carried out, and this is where it all becomes quite speculative. No lawyer will recommend not sticking to the absolute letter of the law, but I got the impression that as long as the new project is compliant that no-one is likely to get too upset. Obviously the best way to check that it is compliant is to contact the embassy…

Where is really dangerous is where the project is not compliant and where the embassy would turn down an application for a new I visa. If you’re picked up in the US working on such a project you would be working illegally and you run the risk of being deported and probably never working in or even visiting the US again.

IMG_4485It is worth remembering that the risk is borne entirely by the freelancer in this scenario. If you’re caught working illegally the employer will suffer no inconvenience beyond having to find someone else. You will almost certainly suffer lifelong and career-damaging effects.

Now I’m not a lawyer, and I may have got some details wrong. This is not intended to be a guide to follow: it’s meant to make you ask questions so that you’re not placed in a really difficult position.

FURTHER HELP
This website is a good source for Immigration help:
http://www.immihelp.com/visas/mediavisa/
For entertainment programmes you will need an O-Visa
http://faq.visapro.com/o2-visa-faq.asp

Here are some real experiences from freelancers
As a producer who has held an i-VISA I can suggest that the rules, though previously more ambiguous over the definitions, are now pretty clear in that the purpose of an i-VISA is for public interest/broadcast/not for profit journalism work and as such should not be applied for in relation to any kind of entertainment programming, including factual, reality scripted for profit etc.
The point of an i-VISA is to separate commercial interest from that of public (press) interest. Apply a little common sense with regard to your application and your project and you are unlikely to fall foul.
What Richard explains is absolutely true however, and those trying to ‘transfer’ the i-Visa to a new project run a serious risk of being barred entry.
It’s the U.S. Security is a big issue there. They love rules and the low grade officials love to use their power. Follow the rules and you’re fine, if in doubt expect them to be unforgiving. Best of all, don’t think you can talk your way through. I once had my maximum $5000 in cash (at the time) counted out to the dollar before allowing me entry.


I applied for an I-visa for a programme I was making- not realising that they had tightened the restrictions. After my IV at the embassy, it was deemed the programme not suitable for an I-visa and was denied. Fast forward to me going on holiday to the
US and applying for my ESTA and ticking all boxes as “no”- ESTA approved, went on my merry way. Day before holiday I checked ESTA- TRAVEL TO US DENIED. To cut a long story short, I was accused go fraudulent activity by not claiming that I had previously been denied a visa to the US (I thought it was the wrong visa and application cancelled- wrong) I couldn’t travel, lost my holiday and all cost. I fought with the embassy and eventually reapplied and had it approved, but for the rest of my life if I want to travel to the US I will have to go through a huge rigmarole. It’s no joke- they DO NOT take it lightly and they DO NOT forget. And don’t get me started on companies telling you you’ll be ok if you travel on an ESTA. If they check your phone and find even a semblance of doubt you’ll be deported and banned for 10 years as standard. It’s not worth it.

Great discussion, and pretty spot on. The thing to remember with an iVisa is that it’s a foreign media visa, which means you can’t get paid by a US company. Your iVisa is also attached to the company who petitioned, you can change the owner, but the onus is on the individual to do so. Production Companies generally don’t know the rules, or they don’t care as the onus is not on them if things go wrong.
But my advice, speak to a Lawyer and don’t even consider filming here without the right visa. I know people who are banned from the country for doing so, and it really has harmed their careers.

I had an ivisa revoked (after I’d already completed the job and was back home) for being unsuitably issued for the type of programme I was working on. It was ‘cancelled without prejudice’ which, when I investigated the term, essentially meant I should have no issues obtaining a new visa (working or tourist) in the future. Fast forward a few months and transiting through LA to another country on my honeymoon I get pulled into immigration, treated appallingly and am now ‘no longer welcome’ in the US. I spoke to a specialist immigration attorney who said I should be able to travel to the US in the future but only after applying for a new visa (working or Esta) which would inevitably be denied, thus giving me the opportunity to have an interview at the embassy and argue my case. Think I’ll just stay home!

It’s a minefield. We applied for Ivisas for a corporate project. We were filming a conference and commissioned by an American company. One of our crew got approved and the other one rejected. Of course they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you so the poor producer has to now declare that he was refused a visa if he goes to the USA.

I just got banned by them because the lady at the embassy knew the show I was working on and considered it not appropriate for an I visa. What do I get for this? Try no I visa and security questions that now make it prohibitive to apply again!

Thank you so much for taking the time to post this. I have lived in the US for many years and have noticed a real increase in UK TV job postings that state, ‘must have a current I Visa’. I was working on a shoot with the INS and had a long chat to one of the officers about I-Visas – your info is spot on. I think people’s confusion comes from the fact that I Visas are generally issued in one year increments and so the holder assumes they’re fine to use the visa on any production within that time period. Don’t risk it! Contact the US Embassy and be totally honest about the new project. I know of one director who was put on the next plane home when he was questioned about the project at US immigration – INS officers know the difference between documentaries and entertainment and they don’t look favourably on people who misuse the visa!

I don’t think you can stress how strongly America takes immigration compared to the UK. There is no 3 strikes system or anything like that, infringe the system once and you’ll be denied entry for business or pleasure.

… your info is spot on, I get interrogated on an O visa and I’m fully legal, it’s really not worth taking the risk with an I visa as not being able to travel to America is a big deal, US immigration have very long memories and are very much a law to themselves. This info should be very strongly pointed at prod companies, there are so many jobs asking for valid I visas when it’s illegal

It drives me insane when production companies post ad’s saying “MUST have valid I-visa for this project”, when 90% of the time, it is the WRONG visa to be applying for. you can seriously jeopardize someones career and freedom of movement by being lazy and not conducting adequate research for your production.
I often wonder if somebody with a different visa, like an O or an E3 would even be considered by hiring management because they didn’t match the requirements listed in the advert? you might be turning away highly qualified candidates because of your own ignorance.
Visas to the united states ~should not~ be treated like a part of someones camera kit. if you are taking crew to the united states, please take the time to seek legal council before you make a decision that could impact somebody’s life.

I was stopped at US border control in Chicago and it was made extremely clear to me that even though I had a current I-Visa it did not cover my new project as it had been issued for a previous project. Please understand that as freelancers we carry all the risk when production companies ask for you to apply with a ‘current I-Visa’. Unless it is for the same project that you are now returning to, there is no such thing and you are risking your future career by potentially jeopardising your ability to work in the US for the foreseeable future. Now I will not work in the US unless the production company gets the correct visa properly sorted for me. No visa, I don’t do the job – simple.

It’s great to see this topic get some traction. For years, having a few years left on an I-Visa has been seen as commodity or even a qualification by production companies, and as many have pointed out – it’s the freelancer that runs the risk in every instance.
My I-Visa (which was valid for 5 years) expired last year, but in that time I worked about 5 or 6 times on it. It’s shocking to read some of the stories here and I’m thankful that I wasn’t deported or banned as a result, I certainly wasn’t aware it was so stringent. And PM’s have always told me ‘it’ll be fine’ to travel on my original visa.
… 
I know that acquiring the correct visa can be a real issue, and potentially costly and time-consuming – but given some of the evidence here, it’d be great if the admins could agree on an official stance on the topic going forward.

I’ve done a short job before where we all applied for (and were accepted for) O visas. But even on arrival, I was singled out by immigration for a lot of questioning. Even now when I travel on an ESTA for holidays, I sometimes get asked about my O visa from 7/8 years ago and for assurance that I’m not going over to work. If your programme doesn’t meet I visa requirements, it’s just not worth risking it.

 
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