stories about the O1 visa seem to be pretty rare around here and sometimes there's a lot of confusion about what is possible and what isn't. I just had my O1-B approved (I'm a photographer) and wanted to share a few things in case this can help others. If anyone has any questions please message me, though I'm not on here regularly. But happy to help if I can!
First, every single one of these O1 visas is different. Even if you are a photographer too it doesn't mean you'll get approved even if you do all the things I did. So keep that in mind when looking for information online. This is the main reason there's so little and such confusing info out there.
Second, you NEED a lawyer. There's just no way around it. Other visas may be possible to get without a lawyer. This one is not. It's a petition based visa and that petition letter is not something you can write yourself. If you try you will fail. USCIS does not like it. A lawyer will be between $7-10k, including visa fees, and depending whether or not you do premium processing. If you can't afford that you probably won't be able to apply for this visa anyway, or at least that seems to be USCIS' idea of what a "successful" artist or creative person can and can't afford.
Third, you will need an employer or numerous job offers to qualify. This visa is valid for however long your projects/jobs will last, up to a maximum of 3 years. Without any signed job offers you will not qualify. You cannot self petition for the O1 visa. You also need a sponsor. This doesn't have to be someone who employs you, but it does have to be someone in your field of expertise. So it can't be your mate from college.
I have read from a lot of people on this forum saying that for this visa you need a job and thus your employer should pay for the lawyer and therefore you shouldn't have to worry about anything. A lot of the jobs that qualify for an O1 visa are self employed however, and will not have an employer who will pay for anything. In this case you will apply for an agent-based petition. This is what I did.
An agent based petition means you have a sponsor who petitions for you to come to the United States to work. The agent can be any company who is in your field of expertise. They will have one or several job offers for you which is why they need you to come to the US to work. In my case I wanted freelance status so I had to have numerous job offers. My sponsor/agent does not employ me. They only petition for me. (Confused yet? I know.)
If you only have one employer/job offer you can still work for other people but every job has to go through your one original employer.
Also what is important to keep in mind is that I can only work jobs that are in my field of expertise (in my case, photography related). I can't just drive an Uber if I need cash.
I spoke to about 4 different lawyers in the beginning. Some I found online, some were recommendations. You will need a lawyer that specialises in O1 visas. A friend of mine is an immigration lawyer but said he has no idea at all about the O1 visa and I will need an expert. 3 out of those 4 lawyers did not make a good impression on me. Trust your instinct here and ask a lot of questions. The initial consultation should be free. After all you are paying the lawyer $7-8k regardless of whether your visa gets approved. So they'll try and tell you all the good things. Ask what their success rate is. Ask if they have had another client with the same job as you have. The reasons I went with my lawyer were that she came recommended by a friend, she specialises in O1-B visas, she hasn't had a single O1 visa denied in the last 6 years and most importantly, she asked me for a list of information before I even spoke to her. These were the qualifications I needed for this visa. She reviewed what I sent her before our call and when we spoke she knew exactly who I am, what I do, and could tell me from an informed background if I qualify or not. She was the only one who did this. Everyone else was just talking about how it "shouldn't be a problem" which doesn't help if no one knows the facts.
Make sure you find a good lawyer who knows what they're doing and makes you feel like they know your case and speak confidently about whether or not you qualify.
When I started the whole process I wanted to get this visa as soon as possible. I went with premium processing ($1410 in November 2018). But what takes the longest time is preparing your petition and it's up to you how fast that goes. All in it took me 4 months from starting the process to approval, and that was very fast.
I qualified for 5 of the 8 criteria for the O1-B. Getting those documents and proof together was not an issue. What required the most work was getting letters of recommendation written by experts in your field. Then I needed enough job offers for the next 3 years. There were times where I was frustrated with how long things were taking but my lawyer made sure that we handed in the strongest application possible. And I'm glad she did, however long it took, as it meant there were no delays with RFE's or even denials.
I applied (with premium processing) on March 11th, got my USCIS approval on March 18th. I had my consular interview on March 26th and got my passport and visa back 4 days later. And now I'm in the US for the next 3 years.
It's hard work. But it's possible.