Having the Legal Right to be a Model in the United States


Professional modeling agencies protect their corporate clients by assuring that the models they represent are legally able to work in the US.  US citizens and aliens admitted for permanent residence (“green card” holders) have that right, but others must have a visa or work permit from the State Department.  There are lots of ways of getting that: win the green card lottery, marry an American, come to the US on a cultural exchange, get a modification to a student visa (after the first year) and many more. 


Even though all of those are intended for other purposes, they can be used for modeling as well as whatever their original intent was.  But for someone who wants to come to the US specifically to be a model, there is provision in the law for that:  an H-1B3 visa. Here is the State Department description of what it takes to qualify for one:

H-1B3 Fashion Model
The H-1B3 category applies to a fashion model who is nationally or internationally recognized for achievements, to be employed in a position requiring someone of distinguished merit and ability.

Petition Document Requirements
The petition (Form I-129) should be filed by the U.S. employer with:

    • A certified labor condition application from the Department of Labor;
    • Copies of evidence establishing that the alien is nationally or internationally recognized in the field of fashion modeling. The evidence must include at least two of the following types of documentation which show that the person:
      • Has achieved national or international recognition in his or her field as evidenced by major newspaper, trade journals, magazines or other published material;
      • Has performed and will perform services as fashion model for employers with a distinguished reputation;
      • Has received recognition for significant achievements from organizations, critics, fashion houses, modeling agencies or other recognized experts in the field; and
      • Commands a high salary or other substantial remuneration for services, as shown by contracts or other reliable evidence.
    • Copies of evidence establishing that the services to be performed require a fashion model of distinguished merit and ability and either:
      • Involve an event or production which has a distinguished reputation; or
      • The services are as participant for an organization or establishment that has a distinguished reputation or record of employing persons of distinguished merit and ability.


To show “recognition” in the field of modeling you need to show several (from 12 to 20 or so) significant fashion tearsheets.  Frequently models will work in Europe or Asia to get fashion jobs which will qualify them for a visa.

You need to have a sponsoring fashion agency in the US which, in effect, holds your visa.  For this purpose the fashion agency is considered the “employer” even though that is not generally true for other purposes under US law.

You need to pay a filing fee (in addition to legal costs) which, with special processing, can be in the thousands of dollars.

The H-1B (of which the H-1B3 is a part) is widely used by corporations to bring in experts to assist in the US economy. In FY2001, 2002 and 2003 there was a cap of 195,000 H-1B Visas allowed. In part in reaction to Homeland Security concerns, that number was cut to about a third of that in FY2004 and beyond. The effect was that all of the 2004 H-1B visas had been given out by February, 2004, and the 2005 H1B visas were all gone in the first few days of October 2004.


Only 65,000 H1B visas were authorized for fiscal year 2010 (beginning October 1st, 2009).  As of September 18, 2009, approximately 46,000 H-1B cap-subject petitions had been filed. USCIS will continue to accept both cap-subject petitions and advanced degree petitions until a sufficient number of H-1B petitions have been received to reach the statutory limits, taking into account the fact that some of these petitions may be denied, revoked, or withdrawn. Status of the number submitted for FY 2010 can be found at the US CIS page.


The US Citizenship and Immigration Services has announced that they will now allow some students in the US on F-1 visas to change them to H1B under some circumstances. Whether this will apply to models is uncertain. If it does, it may open up a new way for models to enter and work in the US.


Those who follow US politics know that immigration issues have been very volatile in the last few years, with several legislative attempts to change the number of work visas allowed, and to whom. None of these has passed, however.

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