U.S. Work Visa - The Ultimate Guide to Hiring and Bringing Foreign Workers to the U.S

Types of U.S. Work Visas

A U.S. work visa is typically a non-immigrant visa for foreign nationals to temporarily work in the United States for an authorized period of time, as indicated by their employment contract or visa application. Applicants for U.S. work visas must fulfill certain requirements to be eligible for their desired U.S. work visa and apply through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the Department of State. The most common types of U.S. work visas include:

  1. Temporary Non-Immigrant Work Visa
  2. Employment-Based Immigration Visa
  3. Academic and Exchange Student Visa
  4. Business-Related Temporary Visa

Temporary Non-Immigrant Work Visa

Most work visas are temporary in nature. These types of visas are used for those seeking employment in the U.S. for a certain amount of time. Here are the most common types of non-immigrant work visas:

The H Visa Categories

There are several types of visas within the H Visa category. The H-1B visa, for example, is suited for foreign national workers who are specified professionals or have special expertise and have at least a college degree or the equivalent in work experience. Typically, H-1B visa holders will stay in the U.S. for three years, which can be extended an additional three years. To be eligible for an H-1B visa, the following conditions must be met:

  1. The applicant is accepting a job offer from a U.S. employer for a position that requires specialized expertise.
  2. The applicant has proof of their expertise, such as a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent.
  3. The U.S. employer must prove that there is a lack of qualified U.S. applicants for the position.

The H-2A visa and H-2B visa are used by seasonal temporary workers, with the H-2A visa being for agricultural workers and the H-2B visa being for non-agricultural workers (like restaurant staff as an example). Both of these visas do not extend beyond a year and the foreign national must return to the country of origin upon completion of the duration of stay.

The H-3 nonimmigrant visa category allows noncitizens coming temporarily to the United States as either a trainee or a Special Education Exchange Visitor.

Trainee to receive training in any field of endeavor, other than graduate medical education or training, that is not available in the noncitizen’s home country. This classification is not intended for U.S. employment.  It is designed to provide a noncitizen with job-related training for work that will ultimately be performed outside the United States.

Special Education Exchange Visitor to participate in a special education exchange visitor training program that provides for practical training and experience in the education of children with physical, mental, or emotional disabilities. There is a numerical limit (or “cap”) on the number of H-3 special education exchange visitors. No more than 50 may be approved in a fiscal year. 

I Visas

The I visa is for eligible members of foreign press looking to complete their work in the U.S. and is typically indefinite as long as the holder maintains their job with their foreign media or information outlet. These occupations include reporters, journalists, editors, film crews, and so on.

L-1A and L-1B Visas

The L-1A visa and L-1B visa (also known as the intracompany transferee visas) are for foreign national workers who are temporarily transferring within a company that they are already working under. The L-1A visa has a three-year duration and is for workers who are at the executive or managerial level, while the L-1B visa has a one-year duration and is for workers with specialized knowledge. For the L-1 visa, the employee must have at least one year of working for the organization in their current country in order to be eligible. 

O-1 Visas

The O-1 visa is for those who have national- or internationally-recognized extraordinary abilities or achievements across certain industries. Classifications of the O-1 visa include:

  • O-1A (abilities in science, education, business, or athletics)
  • O-1B (abilities in the arts, movies, or television industry)
  • O-2 (those joining an O-1 visa holder into the U.S. to assist with an event)
  • O-3 (those who are the spouse or child[ren] of the O-1 or O-2 visa holder)

P Visas

The P visa is for internationally recognized foreign athletes, artists, or performers as well as those who accompany these performers. Classifications of the P visa include:

  • P-1A (athletes, either individual or team)
  • P-1B (entertainers and performers, either individual or group,)
  • P-2 (artists, either individual or group, performing for a reciprocal exchange program between countries)
  • P-3 (artists or entertainers, either individual or group, performing for a culturally unique program)

R Visas

The R visa is for those seeking to be employed as religious workers in an eligible non-profit religious denomination in the United States. Applicants must be working directly in their religious occupation. Classifications of the R visa include:

  • P-1A (athletes)
  • P-1B (entertainers and performers)
  • P-2 (artists performing for a reciprocal exchange program between countries)
  • P-3 (artists or entertainers performing for a culturally unique program)

TN NAFTA Professionals

This permit is for North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) professionals from Canada or Mexico to engage in professional business activities.

Employment-Based Immigration Visa (Known as Employment-Based Green Card)

These visas can be obtained with a qualified applicant who has the right combination of expertise, eligibility, skillset, and education. Most often, an employer certified by the U.S. Department of Labor must have an available offer and verify that there is a lack of qualified U.S. applicants. Here are the five types of employment-based green cards:

First Preference Employment-Based Green Card Category (EB-1)

EB-1 visas are for foreign nationals who display “extraordinary ability”, including scientists, researchers, business professionals, artists, and athletes. EB-1 does not require labor certification. Family members may apply to accompany the EB-1 visa holder in the U.S. on E-14 or E-15 immigrant status if the holder has an approved I-140 form.

Second Preference Employment-Based Green Card Category (EB-2)

EB-2 visas are for foreign professionals with an advanced degree and can prove at least ten years of experience in their field, and/or if their employment is in the national interest of the country. Unless the applicant’s employment is in the national interest of the U.S., EB-2 requires labor certification. Family members may apply to accompany the EB-2 visa holder in the U.S. on E-21 or E-22 immigrant status if the holder has an approved I-140 form.

Third Preference Employment-Based Green Card Category (EB-3)

EB-3 visas are for skilled workers or professionals receiving a non-temporary employment offer from a U.S. employer. EB-3 requires labor certification. Family members may apply to accompany the EB-3 visa holder in the U.S. through spouse and child forms on USCIS’s website if the holder has an approved I-140 form.

Fourth Preference Employment-Based Green Card Category (EB-4)

EB-4 visas are for “specialized” immigrants. Specialized immigrants include but are not limited to: workers of U.S. foreign service posts, certain religious workers, Afghan or Iraqi interpreters, certain physicians, members of the U.S. armed forces, certain broadcasters, certain employees of the U.S. government, retirees of international organizations, and more. Labor certification is waived for the EB-4. Some families may be eligible to join the EB-4 holder.

Fifth Preference Employment-Based Green Card Category (EB-5) 

EB-5 visas are for foreign investors who make an investment in a commercial enterprise in the U.S. and plan to employ at least 10 full-time U.S. workers permanently. Labor certification is waived for the EB-5. Through this immigrant visa, the EB-5 holder and their family can apply for green cards.

Academic and Exchange Student Visa

These non-immigrant visas are for academic students, vocational students, and students enrolled in an educational or cultural exchange program.

F Visas

F visas are for academic foreign students attending school at an academic institution. They are only limited to 20 hours of on-campus employment (called work-study) as long as they maintain their study.  Classifications of the F visa include:

  • F-1 (the student)
  • F-2 (family of the student, including spouse and children)
  • F-3 (Canadian or Mexican students who commute)

M Visas

M visas are for foreign students enrolled in a technical or vocational program. Classifications of the F visa include:

  • M-1 (the student)
  • M-2 (family of the student, including spouse and children)
  • M-3 (Canadian or Mexican students who commute)

J Visas

J visas are for foreign nationals involved in work-based and study-based programs such as trainees, interns, camp counselors, and more. Such programs must promote cultural exchange and applicants must meet eligibility requirements. Classifications of the J visa include:

  • J-1 (the holder)
  • J-2 (dependents of the J-1 visa holder)

Business-Related Temporary Visa

These visas are used for very short-term business trips in the United States. Examples of short-term business trips might be attending a convention, negotiating a contract, or settling an estate.

B-1 Visas

The B-1 visa is the most commonly used visa for those visiting the U.S. for business-related reasons. They are typically issued for a one- to six-month period and will rarely extend beyond one year. Family members of a B-1 holder must obtain their own B-1 visas to travel with the B-1 holder.

WB Temporary Business Visitor Under Visa Waiver Program

The WB Temporary Business Visitor Under Visa Waiver Program allows foreign nationals from 39 countries, authorized by the State Department, to enter the U.S. for business or tourism reasons without a visa. Those enrolled in this program stay for a maximum period of 90 days.

What are the Requirements for a U.S. Work Visa?

Requirements are detailed and vary based on the visa type. If you are unsure whether you meet a certain requirement, reach out to an immigration lawyer for assistance. Here are three general requirements you may need to meet in order to be eligible for a U.S. work visa:

  1. You need to have applied (or have been accepted) for a job offer within the United States. This is because your employer needs to provide the appropriate documentation for your visa application.
  2. You need to have an approved petition by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Before you apply for a U.S. work visa, your U.S. employer must file Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”) with USCIS. It is only after I-129 is approved that you can begin applying for your U.S. work visa. Note that an approved I-129 does not guarantee you a work visa—consider consulting an experienced immigration lawyer that can help you apply successfully.
  3. Your U.S. employer may need to have a labor certification from the Department of Labor. Some U.S. work visas require this (H-1B, H-1B1, H-2A, and H-2B), while other visas do not. Your U.S. employer should apply for certification prior to filing Form I-129 with USCIS. Your U.S. employer must prove that they are unable to fill in these work positions with U.S. employees and that your employment will not negatively affect job opportunities for U.S. citizens.

Required Documentation and Fees for a U.S. Work Visa

  • Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”). There is a filing fee of $460.00. Depending on which country the applicant is coming from, there may be additional fees involved. These fees might include a visa issuance fee or a biometrics service fee. The U.S. employer must be the one to submit this form.
  • Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”). There is a filing fee of $190.00. Depending on which country you are coming from, there may be additional fees involved. All non-immigrant visa applicants must fill out this form.

Submitting the wrong documents or failing to submit the required documents can delay your case or even result in a denial. Each case is different, and you may need to require other documents. If you are unsure about what you need to submit, reach out to an immigration lawyer for guidance. Here is a general list of additional documents required for a U.S. work visa application:

  • Your passport. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your authorized period of stay in the U.S.
  • A colored, digital photograph of yourself taken in the last six months with a plain, light background. You may wear a headdress if mandated by religious order, but you must not wear eyeglasses in the photo.
  • The receipt number, which can be found on the approved Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”) your U.S. employer filed, or Form I-797 (“Notice of Action”) from USCIS.
  • A DS-160 confirmation page, which can be printed after you have completed Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”).
  • Receipts that prove you have paid the fees. These fees must be paid before your visa interview. Aside from filing fees, there may be additional fees that apply to your location. Check with your U.S. embassy and consulate for details about fees.
  • Proof that you have intentions to return to your country of residence after your visa status ends, such as property deeds, an apartment lease, a long-term plan, or familial relationships.
  • If you are applying for an L visa, you need to bring a filled Form I-129S (“Nonimmigrant Petition Based on Blanket L Petition”) to your visa interview.

U.S. Work Visa Process

Obtaining a U.S. work visa is a multi-step process with varied requirements. You are unable to start the U.S. work visa process until your U.S. employer files Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”) and it is approved by USCIS. If you fail to properly file your case or fail to complete these steps, your case may be rejected, delayed, or even denied. To avoid making costly mistakes, hire an immigration attorney to guide you through each step and closely review the instructions on your U.S. consulate’s website. Here is an outline of the process:

Step 1. Form DS-160
Step 2. Schedule Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate
Step 3. Attend Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

Step 1. Form DS-160

After USCIS has approved your U.S. employer’s Form I-129 (“Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker”), once you are given the go-ahead, you can start the process by filing Form DS-160 (“Non-Immigrant Visa Application”) at a U.S. consulate or embassy in your home country. You will need to pay the fees and include the required documents. Properly filing DS-160 and compiling the required documents is not easy: avoid the guesswork and work with an immigration attorney to make sure everything is sorted out.

DS-160 will inquire about your personal information, background, as well as the intent of your visit to the United States. Even though the form is available in many languages, you must correctly indicate your answers in English. 

When DS-160 is submitted, save the confirmation page and code. You will need to bring both of these items to your visa interview.

Step 2. Schedule an Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

If you are between the ages of 13 and 80, you should schedule an interview with an official at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate as soon as possible to avoid long wait times. When you schedule your interview, you will receive an appointment letter. Make sure to bring this appointment letter, the DS-160 confirmation page, the receipt number printed on Form I-129, and Form I-797 (“Notice of Action”) with you to the interview.

Step 3. Attend the Interview with U.S. Embassy or Consulate

It is in your best interest to show up to the appointment on time, dressed appropriately, and with the required documentation and fees. During the interview, you will need to demonstrate that you meet the requirements under U.S. law to be granted the visa for which you are applying. Depending on your location, you may be required to have your fingerprints digitally scanned at your interview.

After your interview, your application may undergo administrative processing. You will be informed by the consular officer if this is the case. 

When your work visa is approved, you may need to pay a visa issuance fee. You will be notified as to how you will receive your visa. Note that a visa allows you to travel at a U.S. port-of-entry and request permission to enter the country, but you are not guaranteed admission. Review any restrictions and prohibited goods on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website.

U.S. Work Visa Rights and Responsibilities

As a temporary worker, you are protected from violation and exploitation. You are entitled to report a violation of your rights without your visa status being terminated. 

If you were allowed entry into the U.S. by Homeland Security and other departments, you also have the right to apply for an extension of your stay, as well as the extended stay of your spouse or dependent children in your same visa category. However, you must leave the country once your visa expires unless the U.S. embassy or consulate has extended your visa. If you overstay your work visa, you will not be able to apply for a new one in the future.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is a Labor Conditions Certification?

A. A Labor Conditions Certification (LCA) is a certificate issued by the U.S. Department of Labor to an employer planning to hire a foreign employee. With this certificate, the employer is granted the right to hire and sponsor foreign employees for visas.

Q. How long does it take for USCIS to process Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker? 

A. USCIS’s processing time, which can be reviewed on the USCIS website, is dependent on many factors. Once you submit your application, you will be able to receive an updated estimate on your particular case.

Q. How do I request expedited processing for Form I-129, Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker? 

A. As an employer, you can file Form I-907 (“Request for Premium Processing Service”) with the appropriate filing fee in two stages of the application process: when you submit I-129, or after you have received a receipt notice for the submission of I-129.

Q. If the employer is hiring more than one employee, can they all be included in one petition?

A. It depends on which visa they are applying for. For example, H-1B, H-3, O and R visas require you to file for each employee separately. You may include more than one employee on H-2A, H-2B, P, and Q-1 visa applications, provided they will work under the same service in the same location.

Q. What is the employer liable for when hiring a foreign worker?

A. Under immigration law, the employer is liable for:

  • the costs of transportation for a foreign employee
  • Keeping USCIS informed of any changes in employment status or eligibility
  • Validating the employment eligibility of all workers
  • Other labor-related responsibilities

Q. Can a foreign employee change employers or work for more than one employer simultaneously?

A. Yes, as long as each employer files a separate I-129, is certified, and is approved by USCIS.

Q. If the employer filed an extension of status for the employee and did not receive a decision by the time of the employee’s visa expiration date, can the employee continue to work?

A. Provided that USCIS has received the application before the expiration and the employee is still eligible, then they can continue their lawful employment for up to 240 days or until USCIS makes a decision. If USCIS denies the extension of status, then the employee will be considered “out of status” and will need to leave the U.S. immediately. This decision cannot be appealed.

Q. If the foreign employee’s passport expires, is their U.S. work visa still valid?

A. Yes, your U.S. work visa is still valid until its expiration date unless it has been canceled or revoked. Do not remove your valid visa from your expired passport. As long as it remains valid, you can use it in your expired passport with a new valid passport for travel.

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