Visas to Work in the USA
If you’re a non-US national looking to enter the USA for work or business purposes on a temporary basis, there are a number of routes, including nonimmigrant work visas, that you should consider to ensure you have the required permission.
It’s worth bearing in mind that US visa applications 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 evidence when making your application.
In this guide, we take a brief look at some of the main work visas and entry routes for foreign nationals planning to work in the USA.
Do you need a visa to work in the US?
The first question you may be asking is whether you need a visa to work in the US. While your options will depend on your circumstances and your intended work activities while in the US, it is a general rule that any form of work – ie gainful employment – undertaken while physically present in the US, even for a foreign employer and even if any earnings are paid into a foreign bank account, will still be classed as work, will require employment authorisation. Employment authorisation for non-US nationals typically comes in the form of a work visa.
This also includes work carried out on a remote basis while in the US; even though there are a number of temporary work visas available for those looking to work in the United States for a US-based employer, known as nonimmigrant visas, there is currently no remote worker visa category on offer to overseas nationals. Read our guide to the rules and options when considering working remotely from the USA.
Visa Waiver Program
The US Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows entry for nationals of VWP participating countries (such as the UK, France and Germany) to visit the US for up to 90 days. Traveling under the VWP is highly desirable since it is visa-free with no requirement to apply for a US visa. Individuals must, however, apply for and be granted travel authorization (ESTA) in advance of their trip.
Importantly, there are strict limitations on the type of business activity you can carry out under the VWP, and you are not permitted to carry out gainful employment while in the US.
Note also that citizens or nationals of eligible VWP countries will be ineligible to travel visa-free to the US if they hold dual citizenship with Iraq, Iran, Syria, or Sudan or Cuba, or if they have traveled to Cuba since January 12, 2021.
Under the VWP, individuals are not permitted to change immigration status while in the United States. You also won’t generally be able to apply to extend your stay.
B visa for visitors
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.
The B visa is typically used by nationals of countries that are not part of the Visa Waiver Program, or if the traveler is not eligible for, or has been denied, and ESTA for visa-free travel.
If you are otherwise eligible for visa-free travel under the Visa Waiver Program, a B visa would usually only be considered if you need to stay 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.
H-1B visa for skilled workers
The H-1B visa allows non-US nationals including British citizens to be employed in the US, where they have a qualifying job offer from an eligible US employer and where they meet the additional eligibility criteria and application requirements.
Specialty occupations are occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent number of years of experience (12 years) as a minimum qualification.
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 US educational institutions.
The H1B application process comprises set stages and deadlines and is run on an annual basis. Applicants will need to familiarize themselves with the process to avoid delays or missing the annual windows.
This is a highly competitive visa category, with the number of applications typically far exceeding the visas available each year. Given the high volumes of H1B registrations received each year, 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.
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.
L visa for intracompany transferees
The L visa enables intra-company transfers, allowing non-US employers 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 foreign 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.
E visas for investors, entrepreneurs and traders
A further US work visa option are the E visas. 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.
Among the qualifying criteria, the 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.
The E-1 Treaty Trader visa may be available 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 your visa with unlimited two-year extensions, provided you maintain your E-1 eligibility.
You can also bring dependents with you to the US.
The E-2 Investor Trader visa is 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.
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. O-1 visa holders may be joined by key individuals under the O-2 category where they assist in “the artistic or athletic performance” of the O-1 visa holder, and dependents under the O-3 visa.
Need advice on a US work visa? NNU Immigration can help!
These are just some of the possible work visa options for foreign nationals looking to enter the US for work or 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.
NNU Immigration are specialists in US immigration, helping non-US nationals to make successful visa applications. Contact us for expert guidance on securing the permission you need to work in the USA.
US work visa options FAQs
How can I get work visa in USA?
The requirements depend on the type of work visa you apply for. The primary route for skilled foreign workers is the H1B visa, which requires you to have a US sponsor/employer and a job offer in a ‘specialty occupation’ role. This route is, however, typically oversubscribed and selection is managed through an annual selection process using a lottery system.
Which US visa allows you to work?
The US offers many work visa routes, catering for different types of workers and skillsets. The L1 visa, for example, is for employees of overseas companies who are transferring to a US branch or subsidiary, while the H1B visa is for highly skilled workers with a US sponsor/employer. Take advice on your circumstances to understand your visa options.
Can UK citizens work in the US?
Yes, UK citizens can work in the US provided they have authorization, either through their visa or by obtaining a Green Card.
Is it difficult to get a work visa for USA?
The prospects of obtaining a US work visa depend in large part on your skills, the type of work you intend to do and the type of visa you are applying for. The H1B visa, for example, is competitive since it is typically oversubscribed each year, while Blanket L1 applications tend to have a high success rate since the employer has pre-approval for intracompany transfers.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.