Work Visas for the United States

A work visa allows its holder to be legally employed while in the United States.

There are a variety of visas which will permit foreign individuals to work in the United States. Some of these visas are issued for a specific period of time, usually for the performance of specific jobs.

In the alternative, a foreign worker may qualify for a permanent residence visa, also known as a green card, that qualifies the worker for any job in the United States and ultimately to apply for citizenship.

The following preferences apply to applicants for employment-based visas:

  • First Preference: Priority workers. Workers in this category do not require labor certification, documentation by a prospective employer that there is a shortage of qualified domestic workers to fill the visa holder's job position.
  • Second Preference: Skilled Professionals. Professionals holding advanced degrees, or who possess exceptional ability, Also, if their work fulfills a qualifying national interest of the United States, the labor certification and job offer requirements can be waived.
  • Third Preference: Skilled workers and Labor Shortages. Skilled workers, or those capable of performing work requiring at least two years experience or training for which qualified workers are not available in the United States, professionals with bachelor's degrees but not advanced degrees, and other workers including unskilled laborers whose employment is not of a temporary or seasonal nature.

The H-1B Visa - The Professional Person's Visa

The most common non-immigrant visa is the H-1B visa, which permits foreign professionals to work in the United States. The H-1B visa is ordinarily available to foreign individuals who have a college or post-graduate education, and have a job offer from a United States company that is willing to sponsor them.

This visa can usually be obtained in approximately thirty days, with a duration of between one and three years. H-1B visas are renewable, and require only that the foreign professional work for the sponsoring employer.

In order to change jobs within the United States, the foreign professional must obtain a new H-1B visa through the new employer. The H-1B visa can be converted into a permanent residency visa.

The E-1 Visa - Treaty Traders

Businesses from countries that have entered into bilateral investment, commerce, or navigation treaties with the United States, where over 50% of the company's trade is with the United States, may qualify for an E-1 visa.

The E-2 Visa - Treaty Investor Visas

Individuals from countries that have entered into bilateral investment, commerce, or navigation treaties with the United States, and who have made substantial investment in a U.S. business, may apply for an E-2 visa.

Although the law does not define a minimum investment, often an E-2 visa holder's investment will be in the range of $100,000 to $150,000. The business cannot be the investor's only source of support.

Typically, an E2 visa may be obtained in about thirty days. The E-2 visa can be converted into a permanent residency visa.

The J-1 Visa - Exchange Visitors

Through the J-1 visa program, the Department of State grants certain educational institutions and organizations the right to sponsor persons as exchange visitors. Persons who hold J-1 visas are restricted to working, studying or participating in the specific exchange programs for which the visa has been approved.

The L-1 Visa - Intracompany Transfers

An L-1 visa may be available to a person who has been employed outside the United States as a manager or executive (L-1A), or as person with specialized knowledge (L-1B), for at least one of the prior three years, and who is transferred to the United States within a company in order to fill a similar position.

The U.S. company to which the L-1 visa holder is transferred must be a branch, subsidiary, affiliate or joint venture partner of the non-U.S. company, including the foreign division of an American company. The non-U.S. company must remain in operation while the person holds the L-1 visa.

Additional Visas

Additional types of work or investment visa are available. For example:

  • The O-1/2 visa is available to people with extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, education, business or sports.

  • The P visa is available to athletes and entertainers.

  • An EB5 visa may be granted to somebody who makes an investment of not less than $500,000.00 in a business in a rural area, or $1,000,000 in an urban area. This form of investment visa is a permanent residence visa.

  • Individuals who do not have special professional skills or training may qualify for labor certification. This requires sponsorship by a U.S. company. This process usually takes years to complete, and results in the issuance of a green card to the immigrant.

  • Certain individuals in NAFTA member states may qualify for TN visas.

  • Qualified religious workers may qualify for an R-1 visa.

Restrictions on Visas

In order to protect the health, welfare and security of the United States, certain individuals will not be eligible to receive visas, including individuals who:

  • Have a communicable disease;
  • Have a dangerous physical or mental disorder;
  • Have committed a serious criminal act;
  • Are terrorists, subversives, members of a totalitarian party;
  • Are former Nazi war criminals; or
  • Have entered the United States by illegal means.
Copyright © 2002 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 7, 2018.