Types of USA work visa
As a non-US national, you can only work in the USA if you have the required permission. In most cases, this means having employment authorization through a US work visa or through a relative’s US visa, or having a valid Green Card.
To make an application for an employment visa, you first need to select the most appropriate visa category for your circumstances. You then file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and attend a visa interview at the Consular Post where you filed your petition.
In this guide, we explain the main USA work visa options available to non-US workers and the eligibility requirements you will need to prove when making your application.
What are the different types of US worker visa?
While the Visa Waiver Program may be the first consideration for short term visits to the US, individuals travelling under the VWP are prohibited from undertaking gainful employment while in the US. A work visa must be secured to be able to be employed in the US.
There is a broad range of work visa classifications to consider, including temporary work visas, permanent work visas and dependant visas which permit employment.
Temporary work visas
If you are looking to work in the US on a short-term basis and require temporary permission, you would be looking at applying for a nonimmigrant work visa.
In most cases, employment visas allow you to work for a particular employer or organisation to carry out only permissible duties, and eligibility will be dependent on having a specific offer of employment in the US.
For nonimmigrant visas, the applicant will need to show intention to depart the US on completion of their job or approved work assignment or before visa expiry. You will be asked to evidence in your application that you hold ‘sufficient ties’ to your country of residence to prove this intention to leave the US.
It may be possible to apply to renew your visa while in-country, provided you continue to meet the eligibility requirement under the specific visa category.
Some of the more common, temporary worker visa types include:
L-1 visa – Intra-Company Transfer visa
The Intra-Company Transfer visa is for employees of an international company being temporarily transferred to a parent, branch, affiliate, or subsidiary of the same company in the US.
To be eligible for an L-1 visa you must work in a managerial or executive capacity, or have specialised knowledge or skills. You must also have been employed with the international company continuously for 1 year within the 3 years preceding the American work visa application.
A petition must be filed by your employer and approved by USCIS before applying for the visa at a US Embassy or Consulate.
H-1B visa – Speciality Occupation visa
The speciality occupation visa allows you to work in the US to perform skilled services for a qualifying US employer.
To be eligible you will need a bachelor’s or higher degree, or equivalent, in the specialty occupation for which authorisation is being sought.
Your prospective employer must file a labor condition application with the Department of Labor setting out the terms and conditions of your contract of employment, as well as an employment-based petition on your behalf with USCIS.
A cap applies to the number of H-1B visa that can be allocated, and the route is highly oversubscribed. Meeting the eligibility criteria does not guarantee a visa, and your application will be subject to the H-1B lottery.
O-1 visas – Persons with extraordinary ability
The O-1 visa is aimed at individuals who can evidence extraordinary ability in their area of expertise, which must fall under either sciences, arts, education, business or athletics, or where they can demonstrate a record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry.
The eligibility threshold is extremely high and the evidentiary requirements to support your application are extensive, requiring letters of endorsements from leading authority figures in your field.
I-visa – members of the media
The I-visa allows representatives of the foreign media to travel on temporary assignment to the US. This includes members of the press, radio or film, such as reporters, film crews or editors.
To be eligible for an I-visa the qualifying activity must be “informational” in content and associated with journalism or disseminating information and news.
E-2 visa – Treaty Investor visa
Under an E-2 visa, nationals of E-2 Treaty countries can come to the US to work for a qualifying enterprise as either an executive, supervisor, or essentially skilled employee or as an owner or investor.
The eligibility requirements on E-2 visa applicants are extensive, and include the requirement up-front investment to have been made in the business and for the business itself to apply for E-2 company registration.
E-1 visa – Treaty Trader visa
The E-1 Treaty Trader visa is open to nationals of Treaty countries looking to enter the US to further trade between the UK and the US. This can be as a company employee or owner.
As with the E-2 visa, the E-1 visa criteria are demanding, with rules specifying the nature of trade that must be carried out to qualify under this route.
Permanent worker visas
Each year, around 140,000 immigrant visas are made available across five categories to non-US residents with skills deemed desirable to the US economy.
With an immigrant visa, you will have a permanent right to enter, live and work in the US.
An immigrant visa will need to be secured you intend to apply for permanent permission to work in the US.
Employment-based immigrant visas include:
- First preference EB-1 – for those possessing extraordinary ability in science, art, education, business, athletics, academia and multinational executives and managers
- Second preference EB-2 – for members of the professions with advanced degrees or for those with exceptional ability in the arts, sciences, or business
- Third preference EB-3 – for professionals, skilled workers, and other workers satisfying prescribed job classifications
- Fourth preference EB-4 – for “special immigrants” such as religious workers, employees of U.S. foreign service posts, retired employees of international organizations, alien minors who are wards of courts in the United States, and other classes of aliens
- Fifth preference EB-5 – business investors who invest $1 million, or $500,000 in a targeted employment area, in a new commercial enterprise that employs at least 10 full-time U.S. workers
For EB-2 and EB-3, the employer will generally need to apply for Labor Certification to permit them to sponsor you.
Spouse work authorization
Spouses of certain work visa holders can also be granted work authorization. These include the H-4 visa for spouses of H-1B visa holders, the L-2 visa for L-1 visa holders and the E-2 dependent visa.
In addition to evidencing your eligibility under the relevant immigration category, you will also have to prove that you are admissible under US immigration rules. So irrespective of your skills and expertise, you will not be permitted to enter the US if you are deemed inadmissible. This may be by reason of health, criminal activity, national security, lack of labor certification, fraud and misrepresentation or prior removals among other categories. Exceptions do however apply and it may be possible to apply for a waiver of inadmissibility to overcome the grounds for entry refusal. Take advice on your circumstances to understand your options.
You will in most cases require a specific offer of employment. Exceptions may apply for spouses of visa holders. H-4 visa holders for example, ie spouses of H-1Bs, are permitted to apply for work authorization once their H-1B spouse is eligible for US permanent residence.
How much does a US work visa cost?
The costs associated with a work visa will vary depending on the type of visa you are applying for.
All nonimmigrant visa applications carry the MRV (Machine Readable Visa) fee which is to be paid when scheduling your visa interview.
Other charges may also apply depending on your nationality. The Visa Reciprocity Fee for example applies only to certain visa classifications for foreign nationals where US citizens are required to pay a fee for the equivalent visa class.
Employment visas such as the H visas and L visas also carry specific additional fees, largely payable by the employer and students and exchange visitors will have to pay the SEVIS fee.
How long does it take to get a US work visa?
US visa application processing and interview availability have been severely impacted by the pandemic. Applicants are recommended to take advice on processing leadtimes at the time of making their application.
As well as COVID-related delays the processing time for a US visa application will be determined by the type of visa you are applying for. While the temporary nonimmigrant visas might take weeks or months, the immigrant visas can take years to get approved.
Visa processing times will be determined by a number of factors, including:
- The type of visa you are applying for – petition-based employment visas will take longer to process than visitor visas.
- The consular post where you are filing your petition – different petitioning processes apply at different consulate posts, and the caseload of the adjudicating officer will also dictate processing times.
- The quality of your application – errors or omissions can result in delays, if not refusal.
- Your personal circumstances – for example, your travel history and if you have a criminal record. If you are applying for a waiver of inadmissibility, you should expect your application to take around 6 – 8 months.
USCIS are reluctant to commit to processing leadtimes since each application is adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. As such, you are advised to work as much in advance of your intended travel plans as possible.
If your visa is granted during your interview, it would usually take 5-7 working days for the visa to updated and sent back to you by courier.
Do I need to be sponsored to work in the US?
Certain categories of US worker visa will require you to be sponsored by a qualifying employer, such as the H-1B and L-1 visas.
As a sponsor, the employer is confirming your status as a lawful worker undertaking the employment duties you have been hired to perform.
An employing sponsor will have to make a separate petition to the US immigration authorities to be granted Labor Certification approval to hire non-US workers, and pay additional costs in respect of the organisational and employee applications.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.