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How Do I Obtain a Work Visa in the US?

Legal AssistantBusiness Law, Immigration Law

If you are a non-US citizen looking for US-based work or you’ve received a job offer that requires you to relocate to the United States, it is entirely likely that your employer won’t be able to sponsor you for a Green Card – not right away, anyway. You would need to obtain a temporary nonimmigrant visa before you can take up your new role. Here’s a comprehensive overview of the different types of US visas and the process to obtain one.

What Is a Work Visa

A US work visa is a temporary authorization issued to foreign nationals who want to enter the United States for employment. These visas are not permanent. They are valid for a fixed duration and require a US-based employer to file a petition with the USCIS. You can only apply for a work visa once this petition is approved.

Types of Work Visas

The United States is the world’s largest economy. Immigrants are partly responsible for driving this sustained boom. If you’re a foreigner who wishes to come to the US to work, several different visa options are available. These fall into one of four main categories:

  • Temporary nonimmigrant visa
  • Permanent workers
  • Student and exchange visitors
  • Temporary visit for business

Here is a detailed overview of the different categories of work visas and the eligibility requirements for each.

1. Temporary Nonimmigrant Visa

These visas are for people looking to work in the US for a specific duration. The prospective employer is required to file a work visa sponsorship petition with the USCIS prior to the individual’s departure. Once approved, the prospective employee still has to apply for a visa in the US Embassy or Consulate in their home country.

There are several different subsets of visas that fall under this category. Below are the most common ones.

H Visas

An H1B work visa is for individuals in specified academic or professional fields. It also applies to people with special expertise with a college degree, or higher academic qualification, or its equivalent in work experience. An H1-B work visa is valid for three years. To qualify, you need:

  • An active job offer from a US-based employer for a role that calls for specialty expertise
  • Proof of a college degree or its equivalent in that specific field
  • The prospective employer needs to prove that there’s a lack of qualified US applicants for that specific role

If you intend to work as a temporary, peak load, or seasonal worker in an agricultural or non-agricultural setting, you’ll need to apply for an H-2A and H-2B visa. These are generally valid for less than a year.

If you’re training within the United States in a field other than Graduate Medical School or training to offer your services to those who need special education but will pursue your career outside of the country, you’re required to apply for an H-3 temporary nonimmigrant visa.

I Visas

If you’re an eligible member of the foreign press or represent a foreign media outlet such as film, radio, print, or any other type of foreign information media, you can apply for an I visa to the US provided the media outlet in question has an office in a foreign country. These visas are usually indefinite for the duration the individual is working with the company. Editors, film crews, and reporters all constitute foreign press.

L Visas

An individual who is temporarily transferring within the firm in which they’re already working to the company’s offices located in the United States would need to apply for an L visa. If they’re transferring at the management/executive level, they require an L1A work visa which is valid for three years. If they’re transferring through specialized experience, they would need an L1B work visa which is valid for one year.

O1 Visas

Individuals with exceptional and extraordinary achievements or abilities in different industries can apply for an O1 work visa. If their expertise lies in education, sciences, athletics, or business, they’ll need to apply for an O1A work visa. If their extraordinary ability lies in the television or motion picture industry, they’ll need to apply for an O1B work visa.

Individuals who will be traveling with the O1 individual to assist with their work, event, or performance will need to apply for an O2 visa. Children and spouses of O1 and O2 visa holders need to apply for an O3 visa to accompany them.

P Visas

These are issued to internationally recognized athletes, performers, or entertainers and the people who travel with them. P visas are valid for the duration of the event they’re taking part in or performing in.

R Visas

Any nonimmigrant religious worker, who is an active member of a religious organization holding non-profit status in the United States, will need to apply for an R work visa. They could either be working directly with the organization itself or with a non-profit associated with it.


The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) formed special terms to promote trade and economic relationships between the US, Mexico, and Canada. A TN work visa allows qualified Mexican and Canadian nationals to engage in business activities in the US at professional levels. Individuals who are eligible for TN work visas include teachers, scientists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers, and accountants.

2. Permanent Workers

The government issues approximately 140,000 employment-based visas and permanent resident cards to individuals with the right combination of eligibility, education, skill set, and expertise. These visas are also extended to their children and spouses.

The majority of these visas require the prospective employer to have a valid US Department of Labor certification, confirming that hiring the foreign national does not take a job away from a deserving US citizen and that there aren’t enough workers within the country with the skill set they require. This is known as “labor certification” and is done by filing ETA Form 9089, Application for Permanent Employment Certification.

There are five main types of visas that fall under this category.

First Preference EB-1 Visas

An E1 work visa applies to individuals with “extraordinary ability,” including researchers, academics, scientists, business professionals, and those in the arts or athletics. EB-1 work visas don’t require labor certification. Once they get their Green Card approved, their children, spouses, and close family members may also apply for entry into the United States on an E-14 or E-15 immigrant status.

Second Preference EB-2 Visas

A second preference E2 work visa is granted to professionals who are advanced degree holders, have at least 10 years of verifiable work experience in a certain field, or whose employment is of national interest to the United States. They also extend to the family members of the visa holders through E21 or E22 visas.

Labor certification is also required for all but the third subcategory of eligibility – National Interest Waiver – before the prospective employee can be granted this category of employment-based visa.

Third Preference EB-3 Visas

An individual who holds a bachelor’s degree or a skilled/unskilled worker, who has received a non-temporary employment offer from a US-based employer, can apply for an E3 work visa. Once the prospective employer gets the mandatory labor certification and the prospective employee’s Green Card is approved, their children and spouse can then apply for permanent residency.

Fourth Preference EB-4 Visas

This is a specialized category of employment-based visas that applies to retired employees of international organizations, US Foreign Service post employees, certain religious workers, and foreign citizen wards of the court. Labor certification is not required for E4 work visas. Certain family members of the Green Card holder may be eligible for admission into the country.

Fifth Preference EB-5 Visas

E5 work visas apply to the Immigrant Investor Program and are available to individuals who invest a minimum of $900,000 in a new commercial enterprise in a targeted employment area that employs 10 or more full-time American workers, or invest a minimum of $1.8 million is a commercial enterprise in any location within the US that employs at least 10 or more full-time American workers.

3. Student and Exchange Visas

Three types of work visas apply to different categories of students:

  • F Visa – This student work visa is for any academic individual enrolled at an accredited academic institution for the duration of the study. They are restricted to campus-based jobs for the first year of study.
  • M Visa – This work visa is for any student enrolled at a vocational or nonacademic institution.
  • J Visa – This work visa is available for students enrolled in work-and-study programs such as interns, trainees, camp counselors, and au pairs.

4. Temporary Visit for Business

These visas are for short-term business engagements. There are three types of visas that fall under this category.

  • B-1 Visa – This work visa is issued to individuals conducting short-term business in the US and is valid for anywhere between one and six months.
  • GB Temporary Visitor to Guam – This is a 45-day visa for individuals traveling for business or pleasure to any US territory of Guam.
  • WB Temporary Business Visitor Under Visa Waiver Program – This is a 90-day temporary visa that authorizes citizens of 40 participating countries to travel to the US for business or pleasure without a visa.

How to Get a Work Visa

Visa stamp in a passport
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Here’s an overview of the work visa application process.

1. Labor Certification

It’s important to note that some of the temporary worker visa classes need prospective employers to get labor certification or any other admissible form of authorization from the Department of Labor on behalf of their prospective employee. This has to be done before filing Form I-129 Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker. Prospective employers first have to review the form instructions to determine whether you require labor certification.

2. Petition Approval

The other important factor to keep in mind is that some categories of workers have a cap on the total number of petitions the government can approve annually. Before you can go to your country’s US Embassy or Consulate to apply for a temporary work visa, your employer must first file Form I-129 and wait for USCIS approval. If the work visa sponsorship petition is approved, your prospective employer will receive a Notice of Action denoted by Form I-797.

3. Online Visa Application

Only after Form I-129 has been approved can you go ahead and start the visa application process. The precise order of the steps you’re required to take may vary depending on the US Embassy or Consulate you apply through. The best thing to do would be to consult your local embassy’s website and follow the instructions provided.

Certain procedures are standard, though. You will need to complete the online nonimmigrant visa application Form DS-160, and then print the application form confirmation page and take it with you to your interview. While completing the online application, you will be required to upload your photo.

4. Schedule an Interview

If the applicant is aged between 14 and 79, interviews are generally required, with some exceptions for renewals. Nonetheless, it is at the discretion of a consular and embassy officer to interview any applicant regardless of age.

You’ll need to schedule an appointment for your visa interview in your home country’s US Embassy or Consulate. The waiting period before your interview varies depending on the visa category, season, and location. It’s always a good idea to start the process as early as possible. All bookings are made online.

5. Pay the Visa Application Fee

When you apply for a US work visa, you’re required to pay a non-refundable application fee before you show up to your interview. If your visa is approved, most countries have a visa issuance fee you’ll also need to pay. The precise amount varies depending on the country.

6. Provide the Required Documentation

Before your visa interview, ensure you carry the following documents with you:

  • A passport that’s valid for a minimum of 6 months beyond your duration of stay in the US
  • Printed confirmation page of the nonimmigrant visa application Form DS-160
  • Payment receipt for the application fee
  • Printed photo if the photo upload while completing Form DS-160 fails
  • Approved petition receipt number
  • Nonimmigrant Petition Based on Blanket L Petition Form I-129S for L visa applicants

How Long Is a Work Visa Good For

It depends on the specific type of nonimmigrant work visa you have. It varies anywhere from one year to indefinitely as long as you work for the same company, which is the case with I-visas.

Even if the process seems straightforward, it is worth retaining an immigration attorney to assist you with the visa process, as a mistake in paperwork can result in steep penalties or consequences.

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