Many foreign nationals want to work in the United States, whether on a short-term or long-term basis. Although the available U.S. jobs that can qualify someone for a work visa usually start off as temporary, because it's easier for employers to sponsor someone for temporary visas rather than lawful permanent U.S. residence, such U.S. employment can in many cases lead to U.S. permanent residency (a green card).
This article summarizes the most frequently obtained work visas in order to help point readers in the right direction as to which visa they might qualify for. We'll discuss both immigrant visas (permanent employment work visas) and "nonimmigrant" visas (temporary employment work visas).
Please note that the following list is not exhaustive. There are multiple categories of work visas, and other types of U.S. visas (such as student or tourist) that will allow you to enter the United States on a short-term basis.
If you come to the U.S. with a nonimmigrant visa, you will need to depart the U.S. by the date of your visa expiration (unless you apply to extend your visa). The following are temporary work visas that will allow someone to work in the U.S. for a specific employer.
The H-1B visa is a popular nonimmigrant visa. In fact, more people want them than can get them, owing to annual caps on the supply in most cases.
To obtain an H-1B visa, you must have an offer of employment from a U.S. employer. Your proposed job position must be in a specialty occupation, which usually means that a bachelor's degree or higher is required to do the job.
The U.S. employer must sponsor you for the H-1B visa by filing an I-129 petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Because this type of visa is in high demand, and many more people apply than can be granted visas each year, you (and your employer) might want an attorney to help you through the process.
The L-1 nonimmigrant visa is for employees working for a foreign company that is an affiliate of a U.S. company. L-1 employees are transferred from the foreign company branch to the U.S. company branch. Or, the L-1 employee can be transferred by the foreign company to the U.S. in order to establish a U.S. office.
In either scenario, the L-1 employee must have worked for the foreign affiliate for one continuous year within the past three years immediately preceding entry into the United States. If, for example, you want to enter the U.S. in L-1 status in 2023, you must have worked for the foreign affiliate for at least one year during the time period of 2021 through 2023.
Additionally, the L-1 visa is subdivided into two categories: L-1A (managerial/executive capacity) and L-1B (specialized knowledge).
The L-1 visa application is also made on the I-129 petition (filed with USCIS by the U.S. employer).
The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for people of extraordinary ability who are coming to the U.S. to work in their field of expertise. To obtain an O-1 visa, you must have an offer of employment from a U.S. employer and prove that you are extraordinary in your field.
To prove you are extraordinary, you must meet three of six prongs. These include earning a high salary (remuneration), making original contributions to your field, receiving achievements/awards, and performance in a lead/starring/critical role in your field.
The U.S. employer will need to file an I-129 petition with USCIS on your behalf, which also must include a letter from your industry's labor union stating that the union has no objection to your proposed U.S. employment.
The E-1 nonimmigrant visa allows nationals of certain countries to come to the U.S. in order to carry on trade activities. You can obtain the E-1 visa as a treaty trader or a treaty investor. You must be a national of a country that maintains a trade treaty with the U.S., and you must establish that you are coming to the U.S. pursuant to that treaty to carry on substantial trade.
Also, if you want to come as a treaty Investor, you will have to invest a substantial amount of money in a U.S. business, and prove that you are coming to the U.S. to develop that investment. Typically, you apply for an E-1 visa at the U.S. consulate in your home country, and you do not file any documents with USCIS.
The TN visa was created by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), and continued by the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement. The TN visa allows only Canadian and Mexican citizens to come to the U.S. to work for a U.S. employer for three-year increments.
To qualify for a TN visa, you must prove that you are a citizen of Canada or Mexico, that you have a job offer with a U.S. employer, and that your position qualifies for the TN visa. Examples include accountants, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and teachers.
If you come to the U.S. after having successfully applied for an immigrant visa, you will receive permanent residence upon U.S. entry and your actual green card soon after. In almost all cases, you must have a job offer, and your employer must be willing to go through a demanding set of sponsorship steps.
The following are immigrant work visas that will allow someone to work and live in the U.S. permanently (you might also be able to apply for these classifications while you are already in the U.S., in which case you would change your status to permanent resident instead of having to leave the United States).
To learn about the typical steps for applying, see Employment-Based Green Cards - Application Process.
The extraordinary ability visa is included in the employment-based 1st preference immigrant category (EB-1). Few foreign nationals qualify for extraordinary ability visas, because you have to demonstrate that you are in the top of your profession and that you have sustained international or national acclaim in your field.
To do so, you must demonstrate that you meet three of ten prongs showing extraordinary ability. These include publication of scholarly articles, publications about you or your work, awards, critical role for a leading organization, membership in professional associations, original contributions, high remuneration, showcases or exhibitions of your work, judging of the work of others, and commercial success in the performing arts.
The multinational executive visa is also included in the employment-based 1st preference immigrant category (EB-1), and is a bit like an immigrant version of the L-1 nonimmigrant visa. To qualify as a multinational executive, you must meet the same criteria as for the L-1A visa (former employment in the past three years for the foreign affiliate and that you will work in a managerial/executive capacity).
The advanced degree category is in the employment-based second preference immigrant category (EB-2). To qualify, you will need a U.S. employer to sponsor you. Your employer will need to complete the PERM certification process.
You will need to possess at least a U.S. Master's degree (or foreign equivalent), and you will need to demonstrate that your offered job position requires at least a U.S. master's degree. You will also need to show that your position requires this degree. For example, if you have a master's degree in education, and your job position is that of an elementary school teacher, you will not qualify for the advanced degree category, because your job position does not require a master's degree (elementary school teaching positions require only a bachelor's degree). However, if your prospective job is for a university teacher position, you might qualify for the advanced degree category, because university teacher positions require at least a Master's degree.
Alternatively, if you do not have a master's, you might qualify for EB-2 if you have a bachelor's degree and five years of progressive experience.