Hello, I'm Matsui from IMS Legal Professional Corporation. As we enter October, the weather is finally cooling down, and we can start to feel the autumn atmosphere. With the drastic temperature changes, let's make sure to take care of our health.

Today, I'd like to explore the visa requirements for those wishing to conduct filming in the United States. Filming encompasses a wide range of purposes, including movies, TV shows, commercials, magazines, corporate introductions, and various other projects. Lately, we've received numerous inquiries on this topic.

Changes in the Rules for I Visas

About five years ago, it seemed that the I visa--commonly known as the media visa for journalists--was widely used. However, in August 2018, the rules were revised, making the requirements for the I visa more stringent and turning it into a visa that is not easily obtainable.

HIFA Visa Waiver Program Suspension

Regarding filming in the highly popular location of Hawaii, before the pandemic, the Hawaii International Film Association (HIFA) Visa Waiver Pilot Program allowed nationals of countries eligible for this program, including Japan, to travel to Hawaii for filming without a visa. This program, which started in 1998, benefited many TV shows and commercials broadcast in Japan that were filmed in Hawaii. The program had the following conditions:

  1. The filming crew must be from a country eligible for the HIFA Visa Waiver Program.
  2. The produced work must be broadcast, distributed, or sold outside the United States.
  3. Filming locations are limited to the state of Hawaii.
  4. At least one local Hawaiian union member must be employed as a filming technician, driver, actor, model, etc.

This program not only provided an opportunity for the tourist destination of Hawaii to showcase its charm through visuals but also contributed to local employment. Unfortunately, in March 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) suddenly halted this pilot program. HIFA is currently collecting petitions to resume this program, so if you're interested, please check here for more information.

Can Filming be done with an I Visa?

The I visa, also known as the journalist visa, is for individuals in the media industry. Previously, even writing articles for free papers for Japanese communities in cities like New York, LA, and San Francisco was sufficient to obtain an I visa. However, since the strict definition of "Journalistic Information" in August 2018, the difficulty of obtaining an I visa has significantly increased. The I visa is designed for temporary collection of journalistic information within the U.S. and reporting it outside the U.S. Currently, "Journalistic Information" is defined as something related to journalism, such as news coverage or reporting on recent actual events. If there's an educational element, it might be recognized as journalistic information. However, content with more entertainment value, such as dramas, advertisements, or marketing-related material, and personal anecdotes are not included. In summary, if the filming has a journalistic nature, obtaining an I visa and proceeding with filming should not pose any issues. Those who might be eligible for the visa include journalists, producers, reporters, editors, filming crews, etc., who are engaged in reporting, radio, publishing, etc.

If an I Visa doesn't apply…

For filming, such as in movies, O (Extraordinary Ability) visas or P (Athletes, Artists, Entertainers) visas might be applicable. These visas can also be obtained for support staff (managers, stylists, etc.). Additionally, for other types of filming, an H-2B visa (Short-Term Work Visa) might be appropriate. However, obtaining approval from the U.S. immigration authorities is required for all these visas, making the visa application process quite time-consuming and labor-intensive.

For short-duration filming, many might consider using ESTA or a B-1 visa for short-term business use. However, in the United States, the emphasis is not on the duration of the visa but rather on the nature of the activities in the U.S. Many individuals have faced entry denials due to reasons such as not having the appropriate visa for their filming equipment. While obtaining a filming visa is currently challenging, it is recommended to fully understand the visa system and plan your filming schedule accordingly.

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