CALL US: +44 (0)20 8004 3492

US Visas Guide for Applicants

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

Table of Contents

US Visas Guide for Applicants

The following guide provides a summary of US visas, both immigrant and nonimmigrant, to help you decide which visa might be right for you based on your reason for travel. We explain what each visa is for and for whom. We also look at visa-free travel and who qualifies.


What are the different categories of US visas?

US visas can be divided into two broad categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant. An immigrant visa is for those looking to emigrate to the US and obtain permanent residence, while a nonimmigrant visa is for those looking to travel to the US temporarily for work, study, business trips or tourism. In many cases, US visas can also be sought by family members of existing visa-holders to either accompany or join them in the United States.

Each of the US visas has a different purpose, with different criteria and procedures, many requiring sponsorship by a US citizen, lawful permanent resident or prospective US employer. In these cases, this means that you must have an approved petition from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before filing a visa application with your nearest US Embassy or Consulate using online Form DS-160, and scheduling and attending an in-person interview.

Expert advice should always be secured prior to identifying a suitable visa and submitting an online application and, where applicable, a petition. Below we set out some of the most common types of US visas to help you consider the options available.


What are the most common nonimmigrant US visas?

B-1 visa: a nonimmigrant visitor visa to temporarily travel to the US to engage in unpaid business activities of either a commercial or professional nature, for example, attending meetings or conferences, with an initial maximum stay of up to 6 months.

B-2 visa: a nonimmigrant visitor visa to temporarily travel to the US for the purposes of tourism — including going on holiday, visiting friends and family, undergoing medical treatment, undertaking a short course of recreational study, participating in musical, sports or similar events or contests as an unpaid amateur, and participating in social events hosted by fraternal, social or service organisations — with an initial maximum stay of 6 months.

B-1/B-2 visa: a combined nonimmigrant visitor visa to temporarily travel to the US for both business purposes and tourism, with an initial maximum stay of 6 months.

E visas: nonimmigrant work visas for treaty traders and treaty investors, including the E-1 visa for treaty traders temporarily coming to the US to engage in substantial trade, principally between the United States and the treaty country, and the E-2 visa for treaty investors temporarily coming to develop and direct the operations of a US enterprise in which they’ve invested, or are in the process of investing, a substantial amount of capital.

F visa or M visa: nonimmigrant student visas, where the course of study and type of school will determine the category of visa. An F visa is for students attending university or college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory or another academic institution, including to do a language training programme. An M visa is for those attending a vocational or other recognised nonacademic institution, other than for language training.

H visas: nonimmigrant work visas for employees temporarily coming to the US to undertake work in various different capacities, including the H-1B visa for people to work in a specialty occupation, the H-2A visa for temporary or seasonal agricultural workers or the H-2B visa for temporary or seasonal non-agricultural workers, and the H-3 visa for trainees or special education visitors, other than graduate medical or academic training.

J visa: a nonimmigrant exchange visitor visa, for example, for au pairs, professors or research scholars, interns, camp counsellors and teachers, or various other individuals approved to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States.

L visas: a nonimmigrant intracompany transferee visa, for existing employees to temporarily work at a US branch, parent, affiliate or subsidiary of their overseas employer in a managerial or executive capacity, or in a position requiring specialised knowledge.

O visas: a nonimmigrant visa for individuals with either extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, athletics or arts, or extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and television industry, to temporarily work in the US within their field of expertise, including those providing these individuals with essential services in support.

P visas: nonimmigrant work visas for internationally recognised athletes or athletic teams, or artists and entertainers, who are coming temporarily to the US to participate in competitions or perform at events. This includes the P-1 visa for athletes, teams of athletes or entertainment groups, and the P-2 and P-3 visas for artists and entertainers, both individually or as a group, performing under either a reciprocal exchange or culturally unique programme, including those providing essential support services.

Q-1 visa: a nonimmigrant work visa for individuals to temporarily travel to the US for practical training and employment, in this way sharing their history, culture and traditions through participation in an international cultural exchange programme.


What are the most common family-sponsored immigrant US visas?

The most common family-sponsored immigrant US visas include:

K visas: these visas are to enable the fiancée or spouse of a US citizen to live with them in the United States while awaiting approval of an immigrant petition to adjust their status to permanent residency. This includes the K-1 visa for the fiancé(e) of a US citizen to travel to live with their new spouse, having got married within 90 days of their arrival in the US, and the K-3 visa, to shorten the physical separation between overseas and US spouses pending the grant of permanent resident status. Strictly, K visas are nonimmigrant visas, but treated under the category of immigrant visas because they’re for immigration-related purposes.

IR1/CR1 visas: immigrant visas for the spouse of a US citizen to obtain permanent residency, where the IR1 visa is for overseas nationals that have been married to a US citizen for 2 years or more, while a CR1 visa is for those who have been married for less than 2 years. ‘IR’ stands for immediate relative and ‘CR’ stands for conditional resident, where the visa-holder will need to apply to remove their conditional status within 90 days before the 2-year anniversary of their entry into the US on their immigrant visa.

IR2/CR2/IR5/F1/F3/F4 visas & F2A/F2B visas: immigrant visas for certain family members of US citizens, or lawful permanent residents (LPR), where family-based immigrant visas can be broken down into Immediate Relative visas, based on close family relationships with a US citizen, such as a spouse, child or parent, and Family Preference visas, for more distant family relationships with a US citizen or LPR. The number of immigrants granted permanent residency in the Family Preference category are limited each fiscal year.


What are the most common employer-sponsored immigrant US visas?

The employment-based immigrant visas are divided into 5 preference categories, where spouses and children may accompany or follow employment-based immigrants:

Employment First Preference (E1) priority workers and persons of extraordinary ability: this category can be divided into 3 sub-groups, including individuals with extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, athletics or arts; outstanding and internationally recognised professors and researchers with at least 3 years experience; and multinational managers or executives employed for at least one of the 3 preceding years by the overseas branch, parent, affiliate or subsidiary of the US employer.

Employment Second Preference (E2) professionals holding advanced degrees and persons of exceptional ability: this category can be divided into 2 sub-groups, including professionals holding an advanced degree or baccalaureate degree and at least 5 years progressive experience; and those with exceptional ability in the sciences, business or arts, with a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered in their field.

Employment Third Preference (E3) skilled workers, professionals and unskilled workers: this category can be divide into 3 sub-groups, including skilled workers whose jobs require a minimum of 2 years training or work experience; professionals whose jobs require at least a US baccalaureate degree or its foreign equivalent degree; and unskilled workers capable of filling positions requiring less than 2 years training or experience.

Employment Fourth Preference (E4) certain special immigrants: there are multiple subgroups within this category, including broadcasters and ministers of religion.

Employment Fifth Preference (E5) immigrant investors: for capital investment by overseas investors in new US commercial enterprises which provide job creation.


Who qualifies for visa-free travel to the United States?

Depending on your nationality, as well as your reason for travel and the proposed length of your trip, you may qualify for visa-free travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, to be eligible for a visa waiver under the VWP, you must:

  • be planning to travel to the US for business or tourist purposes for less than 90 days
  • be a national of one of several eligible countries, including the UK
  • hold a valid e-passport, with an electronic chip containing your biographical data
  • hold either a return or onward ticket if entering the US by air or sea, although you cannot travel by private plane or private ship
  • not be ineligible to receive a visa under US immigration laws.


If you’ve previously been refused admission into or deported from the US, have overstayed on the VWP, have a serious communicable illness, or have been to either Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen on or after 1 March 2011, you will not not qualify for visa-free travel. If you have a criminal record, even if any conviction is considered spent in your country of residence, or have ever been arrested or cautioned, you may not qualify.

You can check to see if your country participates in the VWP, and if you otherwise qualify, at the US department for Homeland Security website. For those eligible for visa-free travel, you’ll need to obtain travel authorization under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) prior to boarding a US bound air or sea carrier at least 72 hours before you depart.

ESTA authorization typically lasts for up to 2 years, although this can expire sooner, for example, where a different passport is used to travel with than the one that was used to apply for ESTA authorization. During the period of validity, travellers are allowed to make an unlimited number of trips to the US, with each stay lasting a maximum of 90 consecutive days, provided they’re not making the US their home through frequent or successive trips

Unless you qualify for visa-free travel under the VWP, you’ll require a suitable visa. You’ll also need to apply for a visa if any application for ESTA authorisation has been denied.


Do US visas and visa-free travel guarantee entry to the United States?

As with ESTA authorization, the grant of a US visa doesn’t automatically guarantee you entry to the United States. On arrival, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials are authorised to deny you entry without needing to provide a reason, for example, if they suspect you pose a threat to the safety of the country or if you’re in violation of the immigration rules. To this end, overseas nationals are often questioned by CPB officials on arrival in the US, and background checks may be undertaken before any decision is made to grant entry.

Equally, having been admitted entry to the United States under either a US visa or the VWP, you cannot undertake any prohibited activities, such as engaging in unlawful employment on a visitor visa, or otherwise violating the rules. The consequences of breaching the conditions of your leave can be extremely serious, including having your stay curtailed and being ordered to leave the country. You may also subsequently be denied re-entry into the US at a later date.


US visas FAQs

How many types of US visa are there?

There are more than 185 different types of US visas, including both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas. Immigrant visas are for those seeking permanent residence, or a green card, whilst nonimmigrant visas are for temporary stays.


What visas are available for the US?

There are both immigrant (permanent) and nonimmigrant (temporary) visas available for the US for various different purposes, including for business purposes and tourism, for study or work-related purposes, and for other specific purposes, such as transiting the country.


Do you need a visa to visit the US?

If you’re a national of one of several participating countries, and meet the other criteria, you may be able to travel visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program, provided you obtain travel permission under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization.


Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law, (The Legal 500, Who's Who Legal and AILA) and an experienced and trusted advisor to large multinational corporates through to SMEs. She provides strategic immigration advice and specialist application support to corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, artists, actors and athletes from across the globe to meet their US-bound talent mobility needs.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals.

Need legal advice?

Book a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration attorneys.

Need legal advice?

Book a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration attorneys.

Share on social

Arrange a fixed-fee telephone consultation with one of our US immigration experts.

For advice on any aspect of US immigration, contact our attorneys.