Work visas in the USA

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Updated 2021-08-04 07:18

If you're moving to the United States for work, study, or to accompany a family member or spouse, it's important to be aware of the different types of working visas available and to begin the application process well in advance of your travel date.

Visitors for less than 90 days can find visitor visa information here and those interested in the procedures for a Permanent Residence Card (Green Card) can find that information here.

Good to know:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs web page offers estimated wait times for appointments at your nearest embassy or consulate.

Categories of visas

All visa categories are separated into two main types: nonimmigrant and immigrant visas. The type of visa you should apply for is determined by the purpose of your travel to the US.

Nonimmigrant visa categories are for those who have a permanent residence outside of the US but will reside in the US temporarily. These are issued to individuals for business, work (skilled and non-skilled), students, those in transit to other countries, journalists, and spouses of permanent residents. In order to be approved, you'll need to demonstrate that you intend to return to your home country and that you have the financial means to support yourself while in the US.

Immigrant visas are issued to those wanting to live permanently in the US. These visas are primarily granted to those with immediate family or who have certain other familial relationships with people who are current permanent residents. Others are granted through employment sponsorships or for religious workers.

Types of work visas the US

Immigrant work visas mean that the person/persons coming to the US have the permission to work and intend to become permanent residents in the US. There are several types of Green Cards granted for employment reasons. Generally, they include the following visas:

EB-1: Priority Workers

These types of visas are further subdivided into three categories:

  • EB-1A visas are reserved for persons of extraordinary ability.
  • EB-1B visas are meant for outstanding professors and researchers.
  • And EB-1C visas are granted to multinational executives and managers.

In most cases, a US employer will first need to extend a permanent offer of employment and file a petition. However, with the EB-1A visa, self-sponsorship is also an option.

Note that there is an annual quota for EB-1 visas, currently standing at 40,000. Additionally, per-country limits may also apply.

EB-2: Advanced Degree or Exceptional Ability

EB-2 category visas are granted to those with advanced degrees or foreign nationals with exceptional abilities in the fields of arts, science, or business. Typically, these types of visas require approved individual labor certification from the Department of Labor. With that, some foreign nationals may qualify for National Interest Waiver. These waivers are granted to persons of exceptional ability who will be of great benefit to the nation.

EB-3: Professionals, Skilled and Unskilled Workers

These visas are offered to different categories of workers. This includes skilled workers with at least two years of experience/training; professionals with college degrees and workers for unskilled labor that is not temporary/seasonal. Typically, the set of requirements for EB-3 visas is not as strict as with other EB-type visas — however, there is a longer backlog.

Note that all EB-3 visas and most EB-2 visas do require employment sponsorship and the approval of PERM labor (the Permanent Labor Certification Program).

The purpose of the permanent labor certification program is to verify that there are no sufficient workers already in the US who are capable of filling the position. The program also needs to verify if the employment of said foreign worker will not adversely affect the US economy.

Non-immigrant visas grant temporary authorization for work and are not directly related to obtaining permanent residency. Foreign nationals who come to the US on a non-immigrant visa are restricted in their activity to the purpose for which they were allowed entry. Once their authorized stay expires, they will need to depart from the United States.

There are several types of non-immigrant work-related visas.

E-1/E-2 Visas: Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor

E-1 visas let foreign nationals of specific countries enter the US for the purpose of international trade. E2 visas apply to individuals who come from countries that maintain a trade treaty with the US and are visiting the country for investment purposes. Note that if you plan to apply for an E2 visa, your investment needs to be substantial and has to be made in a real operating enterprise that has a strong impact on the US economy.

H-1B Visa: Professional Workers in a Specialty Occupation

H-1B visas are the most in-demand work visas in the US. In order to obtain an H-1B visa, the applicant must have an offer of employment from a US employer and they must be in possession of the necessary qualifications. In most cases, this presupposes a bachelor's degree (or higher) and working experience in your field.

On the employer's side, they will need to sponsor your work visa by filing an I-129 Petition with USCIS as well as submitting a labor condition application.

H-1B visas are tied to a specific employer — this means that H-1B visa holders are generally not allowed to switch employers. The visa can generally be extended for up to six years.

Note that a limited number of H-1B visas are issued each year and the application process can be rather complex. This is why a lot of US companies looking to hire from abroad often use immigration law firms to guide them through the proceedings.

L-1 Visa: Temporary Intra/Intra Company Transferee

The L-1 work visa is meant for company employees transferred from a foreign branch to the US. They may be transferred to an already established US branch or sent to the country with the purpose of establishing a branch. Note that in order to apply for an L-1 visa, the employee must have been employed by the foreign company for at least one year within the past three years. L-1 visas are initially granted for a period of three years and can be extended for up to seven years.

O-1 Visa: Aliens of Extraordinary Ability

O-1 visas are used to recruit foreign nationals with extraordinary abilities in sciences, education, business, or athletics. O-1 visa holders can initially stay in the US for a period of up to three years.

There are other types of US work visas issued to people from specific countries and in specific fields of work.

  • P visas are meant for athletes, entertainers and artists.
  • R visas are issued to temporary religious workers who want to practice their beliefs in the United States.
  • TN/TD visas are for citizens of Canada and Mexico who work for NAFTA.
  • E3 visas are issued to Australian nationals who come to the US to work in specialized fields.
  • I visas are issued to journalists who come to the US to take part in media activities.

Important: Some visa regulations are currently subject to regular changes and revisions. Additionally, visa approval for certain countries is experiencing delays and holds. If you're unsure whether you will be affected, it is advisable to consult at the consular or embassy in your country.

Visa documents and application process

The visa application process and documentation varies for each type of visa and also depends on the location where you submit the application. You should first visit a U.S. embassy or consulate in your resident country for the exact steps required for your visa type.

Generally speaking, the process consists of providing needed documents and applications, paying a fee, and attending an interview. All applicants are required to provide a passport valid at least six months beyond the period of stay, a photo (make sure to use U.S. standards), and proof that the associated visa fees have been paid. During your interview appointment, digital fingerprints and a photo will be taken. Occasionally a medical examination or additional documents may be required. After these requirements are met, you will be advised whether or not your visa has been approved and the next steps for collecting your visa/passport.

Important:

You must depart the United States on or before the date indicated on your admission stamp or I-94 form unless your request to extend your stay is approved by USCIS. If not, you risk deportation and difficulty reapplying for a visa in the future.

Student visas to the US

Anyone wishing to study in the U.S. must have a student visa. The type of school and course of study will determine whether you need an F-1 or M-1 visa. F-1 type visas are for students of academic programs like university and primary, secondary, and language schools. M-1 type visas are for all other vocational and non-academic institutions.

Before you can submit the application for an M or F category visa, you must show proof that you've been accepted to an approved school. You will be enrolled in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) which requires a fee. The school will provide a Form I-20 which you will present at your visa interview. Spouses and children of international students may accompany them by submitting their own Form I-20. For more information, see "Study in the USA".

Other visa US types

There are roughly 185 types of visas issued by the United States. For more information about these, read our article titled All types of visas offered by the US. You should also contact the US embassy or consulate in your country of residence or speak with an immigration attorney to get more information on your specific case.

Useful links:

List of U.S. embassies and consulates abroad
Directory of U.S. Visa categories
Student Visa information

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.