Work Visa USA: What are the options for British nationals?
If you’re a UK national looking to enter the USA for work or business purposes on a temporary basis, there are a number of ‘nonimmigrant’ visa options potentially open to you.
While pandemic travel restrictions are affecting plans, it is worth bearing in mind that US visa applications can take time to compile and submit, so even where you have a leadtime of months, it can help to start thinking early about the route that best suits your requirements and what you will need to do and show when making your application.
We take a brief look at some of the US work visas and entry routes for British citizens planning to work in the USA:
Visa Waiver Program
The UK is one of the 38 countries party to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP). This allows entry for UK nationals to the US for up to 90 days without the requirement to apply for a US visa.
There are strict limitations on the type of business activity you can carry out under the VWP, and you are not permitted to be employed during this period.
Note that citizens or nationals of the UK (and the 37 other VWP countries) are currently eligible to travel to the United States under the VWP, unless you are also a national of Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Sudan.
Individuals must apply for and be granted travel authorization (ESTA) in advance of their trip.
Under the VWP, individuals are not permitted to change immigration status while in the United States. You also won’t be able to apply to extend your stay.
B1 or B1/2 visa holders are permitted to carry out business-related activity whilst in the US. This could include meeting with prospective customers, taking business orders and attending board of directors meetings.
If you are otherwise eligible for travel under the Visa Waiver Program, a B should only be considered if you must remain longer than the 90 day limitation on ESTA.
The B visa permits entry often for up to 6 months, and it may be possible to apply to extend the visa or for a change of status while in the US. The application process requires you to complete an online form (DS-160) and to attend an interview at your local US consulate. You’ll need to evidence at your interview that you have the intention to leave the US, showing for example your family ties, home and employment are based in your country of residence. You will also need to provide details of your plans and itinerary for the trip, and evidence proof of funds for the duration of the stay.
Depending on your plans while in the US, if you are considering combining your trip between business and personal activity eg tourism, medical treatment, you should apply for the combined B1/2 visa to ensure you do not breach the terms of your visa permission.
If your application for a B visa is denied, you will not be able to travel to the US under the Visa Waiver Program anytime soon, therefore you should seek legal advice as to whether a visa is required.
The H-1B visa allows non-US nationals including British citizens to be employed in the US, where they have a job offer from a qualifying US employer and where they meet the additional eligibility criteria and application requirements.
H-1Bs are granted for up to six years to professionals in a ‘specialty occupation’ with a job offer from a qualifying US employer. This could include a UK business with offices in the US.
Specialty occupations are occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent number of years of experience (12 years) as a minimum qualification.
H-1Bs are granted to start from 1 October, with the application window opening six months prior (ie the preceding April) for a limited period.
There are strict caps on the number of H-1B visas granted annually: 65,000 for each fiscal year, and 20,000 additional visas for foreign nationals holding advanced degrees from U.S. educational institutions. This is a highly competitive visa category, with the number of applications far exceeding the visas available. As a result, there are no guarantees of success with an H-1B application, and it may be advisable to consider alternative immigration options, or to make a new application during the next window.
It is possible to make multiple H-1B applications in respect of different roles and different employers, for example in the case of part-time positions, but it is not permitted for multiple applications to be made for the same applicant for the same role with the same employer.
A number of fees apply with the H-1B visa, in addition to the filing fee, falling largely to the employer so it will be important to fully understand the cost implications of this visa route.
The L visa enables intra-company transfers, allowing UK employers for example to deploy employees to US subsidiaries or branches on a temporary basis.
To qualify for the L visa, the applicant must have been working for their current employer for a minimum of 12 months at the time of application, and be coming to the US in an executive, managerial or specialized knowledge capacity to be employed by a US parent, subsidiary or affiliate company.
There are two types of L visa, depending on the skills, experience and role of the individual applicant:
- L-1A – intra company transfers of managers or executives for an initial period of up to 2 years. Renewals can be applied for in increments of two years, up to a maximum of seven years.
- L-1B – intra company transfers for individuals with ‘specialized knowledge’of the product or service being sold by the US employer. Initially granted for a period of up to 2 years, renewals can be applied for in increments of two years, up to a maximum of five
For new US companies, the L-1 individual can be granted a visa for up to 12 months.
For UK companies who regularly transfer employees to the US, there is the option to apply for the Blanket L visa, which permits the employer to issue L visa without first filing a petition with USCIS, expediting the process. This applies only to companies with three global offices, one of which is a US office which has been operating for at least one year. The US office must demonstrate revenues of $25 million or 1000 US employee or 10 individual L-1s filed within the last year.
It may also be possible as an L-1A visa holder to apply for US permanent residency in the first preference green card category.
A further US work visa option is the E visa. Aimed at entrepreneurs and those wanting to set up business in the US, there are two types of E visa – the E-1 visa and the E-2 visa.
The qualifying criteria require that investor applicants must own at least 50% of the shares in the US company.
The United Kingdom is a treaty country, therefore UK nationals satisfy the requirement that applicants must hold the nationality of a Treaty Country.
E-1 Treaty Trader visa: where more than 50% of a UK company’s existing international trade is with the US, its principal investors, executives, or key employees may be able to apply for an E-1 visa
Under the E-1 visa, you will be permitted to work lawfully in the US but only for the petitioning company ie your sponsor. You can travel freely in and out of the US and you can apply to extend you visa with unlimited two-year extensions, provided you maintain your E-1 eligibility.
You can also bring dependents with you to the US.
E-2 Investor Trader visa: for nationals of Treaty Countries (such as the UK) to either invest in an existing or start up a business in the US. The applicant’s investment must meet be deemed ‘substantial’, which will be assessed in the context of the particular type of business and/or investment at hand.
E-2 visa holders can also make unlimited applications to extend their visa where they continue to meet the eligibility criteria, and can also bring their dependents.
The O-1 visa category is for individuals who have reached the pinnacle of their professional field. This could include for example scientists, athletes, performing artists, artists as well as business people. The bar is set incredibly high to be eligible, and the application must be robust and compelling in evidencing that you have met the required exceptional status in your area.
Importantly, the O visa also requires the applicant to have a sponsor.
The O-1 visa can be granted for up to three years and can be extended provided there is a clear showing of ongoing activities in the United States.
Need advice on a US work visa? NNU Immigration can help!
These are just some of the possible visa options for UK nationals looking to enter the US on business.
Given the range of visas and various eligibility requirements, the choice of visa will depend on your situation and the type of activity you intend to carry out. It is important to note that even if pre-conditions have been met, you must go above and beyond providing basic evidence in order to gain visa approval as the standards are extremely high in today’s restrictive climate. Taking advice from an experienced US immigration attorney will help ensure you make the correct selection.
Also bear in mind that visa fees and US immigration policies do change, sometimes with little notice.
London-based NNU Immigration are specialists in US immigration, helping UK and other non-US nationals to make successful visa applications to USCIS.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.
Last updated: 22 May 2020