All religious worker visas allow people to come to the United and perform good works associated with various faith-based groups. However, unlike the R-1 and the Special Immigrant Religious Worker, the Missionary visa doesn’t require you to be an ordained minister, someone in a lifelong vocation, or someone working in a professional capacity. Rather, the requirements of the Missionary visa are based on the the kind of work you will do.
You cannot get a Missionary visa if you are already in the United States unlawfully. But, if you are here lawfully and want to change statuses, you can become a missionary as long as you fulfill the requirements.
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Who is a Missionary?
The United States Department of State defines a missionary as someone who is:
- entering the United States temporarily;
- a member of a religious denomination, whether they are ordained or not; and
- performing missionary work on behalf of a denomination, as long as the work does not involve asking for or accepting donations. This includes selling anything as an exchange for a donation. Additionally the minister must not receive a salary or payment from someone in the United States other than their allowance or reimbursement for expenses related to their temporary stay.
What is Missionary Work?
To come to the United States as a missionary, the U.S. Department of State defines “missionary work” as work that may include:
- Religious instruction;
- Aid to the elderly or needy; or
- Converting people to the church’s religion
Missionary work does not include ordinary administrative work. The church cannot hire missionaries as replacement labor for typical work.
A missionary can also work within a voluntary service program. A voluntary service program is an organized project conducted by a recognized nonprofit or religious charitable organization (1) to assist the poor or the needy or (2) to further a religious or charitable cause. However, the program may not involve requesting, accepting, or selling anything for donations.
Reference: United States Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual, 9 FAM 402.2-5(C)(1) (U) Ministers of Religion and Missionaries
Advantages of the Missionary Visa
The Missionary visa offers more flexibility than other nonimmigrant visas because it includes a wider range of qualifying work. Acceptable forms of missionary work include, but are not limited to:
- working in a food pantry;
- tutoring children in a faith-based school;
- working in an adult day center with low-income clients; or
- chaplaincy work.
The distinction between missionaries and other types of workers is that their work must specifically relate to what we often think of as the good works of the church. This means that your missionary work could not be as an accountant for a parish, or as a parish secretary, because those tasks aren’t directly fulfilling the organization’s religious mission.
However, as long as your work qualifies as good works of the church, it can be in any setting connected to your sponsoring church or denomination. For example, faith-based schools, hospitals, and many religious charities use the Missionary visa to bring employees to the United States.
The other big advantage of the Missionary visa is that you can extend a Missionary status indefinitely. Immigration usually grants missionary status for one year increments, so you have to stay on top of your status expiration dates to make sure that you renew it in time.
Disadvantages of the Missionary Visa
It Will Never Become a Green Card
The missionary visa or status will never convert into lawful permanent residency or a green card. You can have a missionary status for years, but it will not be enough to get an immigrant visa.
You cannot earn a full salary as a missionary, but you can receive something called full care and maintenance, and/or a stipend. Immigration wants to make sure you have food, a place to sleep and enough to live on. However, missionary work is not designed to be a career move to make extra money.
As a missionary, you are tied to a sponsoring church or denomination. If you want to leave your sponsor for a new one, you also must change your Missionary status with Immigration.
Remember These Rules Before You Apply
These rules can be just as confusing as any aspect of immigration, which is why it is so important that you find competent legal representation.
If You Are Already Lawfully in the United States:
First, you pay the fees and fill out an immigration form (I-539), which can be completed online. You will also submit a very detailed letter from your sponsoring denomination that explains what work you will do and how you will be paid. Additionally, Immigration now requires that people applying for missionary status have a biometrics appointment at which immigration will take your digital fingerprint and scan a photo of your face. If you have questions about this, read our Biometrics Appointment blog post.
You can check the status of your application online at USCIS.gov’s processing times page. While you wait, Immigration may ask for more information, so consistently check your mail in case you receive any requests. Once you have an approval, make sure that you check the approval dates! You must apply to renew a missionary status before your current missionary status expires.
If You are Outside the United States:
Make sure you apply for the correct visa. If you apply for your missionary visa from abroad, apply for a B-1 tourist visa. There is a B1 and a B2, but make sure you apply for the B1.
You will need to follow a set of instructions specific to the U.S. consulate in your home country. You can find a complete list of U.S. consulates and their contact information at usembassy.gov. Among other tasks, you will need to complete a form for the United States Department of State called a DS160. You will also need to schedule an appointment at the consulatefor an interview and to have your fingerprints taken.
If your B-1 visa is approved, you will enter the United States with a tourist visa. The letter from your sponsoring denomination will grant you access for up to one year. Customs and Border Protection will stamp you passport. Usually, you will be given permission to be inside of the United States for one year.
Once you enter the United States, you will need to go on the internet and print out an I-94 card. You can find this at: U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. Pay very close attention to the date your status expires according to your I-94 card. You must apply to extend your missionary status before your most recent I-94 card expires.
Letter from Your Sponsor
Whether you apply from outside or within the United States, your denomination needs to send a detailed letter about how they will sponsor you. The letter should be signed and presented on the denomination’s letterhead. Your denomination must tell Immigration exactly what kind of work you will do and what financial arrangements are in place so that you do not have to look for compensation in addition to your missionary work. They should specify how much money you will receive as a stipend, or how much they will give you for full care and maintenance. The letter should also state where you will live and where you will work.
Seek the Help of a Good Lawyer
We Can't Stress This Enough
These pages are intended to help you understand what you are looking for – not to help you complete any of these applications alone. Immigration law is detailed and complicated, and we urge you to rely on a well-trained lawyer for help. A lawyer can help you prepare for every step along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
Missionary Visa FAQ
The biggest mistake people tend to make when they apply for a Missionary visa is not choosing work that is traditionally associated with the good works of the church. For example, if Catholic Charities’ Adult Daycare Center needed someone to help with book keeping, that would not qualify as missionary work because accounting is not one of the good works associated with the church.
However, if Catholic Charities Adult Daycare needed someone to help care for older adults by feeding them, bathing them, and arranging activities for them, that would qualify as missionary work because those duties are good works traditionally associated with the church.
Either you or the religious denomination can pay the expenses. Discuss these details with your petitioner so you know you are on the same page.
Yes, your religious denomination can write to Immigration and withdraw sponsorship.
Your I-94 card displays your status in the United States. You used to get these when you entered the country, but now you must go online and print them yourself.
Go to the Department of Homeland Security’s website to find the I-94 card application. To complete it, you will need information from your passport.
When you have to depend on your lawyer to help you navigate and understand your options, it is especially important to find someone trustworthy and competent.
Some immigration applications require you to go to a biometrics appointment. Also known as an ASC (Application Support Center) appointment, the main purpose is for Immigration to take your picture and fingerprints for their records.
If you are at risk for being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) you need to prepare yourself now. Making arrangements ahead of time will save you and your family a lot of stress if you ever become detained.