Who Qualifies for a Work Permit in the United States?

Only people with green cards, U.S. citizenship, or certain types of work visas can accept employment in the U.S. without getting an EAD (work permit) first; and only a few categories of people will qualify for a work permit.

Updated by , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Foreign nationals living in the United States cannot work here unless they have received explicit permission under the terms of their visa or other status, or have separately qualified, applied for, and received a work permit.

A work permit is not the same thing as a green card. Instead, it is a photo identity card issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It is also called an Employment Authorization Document or EAD.

The EAD looks a lot like a driver's license. Its holders can show it to employers in order to prove their right to work. All U.S. employers must, when hiring a new employee, request proof of their immigration status or right to work—employers who violate this rule can face sanctions.

Which Non-Citizens Don't Need to Separately Apply for a Work Permit?

All green card holders (lawful permanent or conditional residents) automatically have permission to work in the United States. They simply need to show their green card to employers.

Immigrants who go on to become U.S. citizens can, of course, work, and will be able to show their U.S. passport or naturalization certificate to employers.

Foreign nationals who have obtained work-based visas that have been sponsored by U.S. employers are also eligible to work in the United States. For example, such visas include an H-1B (for specialty workers), an L-1 visa (for intracompany transferees), an E-3 visa (only for Australians), and an E treaty trader or treaty investor visa (for employees of companies registered as treaty traders or treaty investors in the United States).

Who Is Eligible to Apply for a Work Permit

There are numerous classes of other people who can (and must, if they wish to accept employment) apply for a special "work permit" from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). They must submit their application before they start working.

The categories include things like:

  • K-1 fiancé visa holders
  • applicants for asylum who have been waiting 150 days or more for a decision on their case
  • people granted withholding of removal
  • people with a pending application for adjustment of status (a green card)
  • spouses of various visa holders
  • people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)
  • F-1 students experiencing economic hardship or seeking optional practical training (OPT)
  • nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela who were recently paroled into the U.S.
  • J-1 exchange visitors who can show the income is not necessary to maintaining their status
  • M-1 vocational students planning post-completion optional practical training (OPT)
  • people from south of the border who attended a CBP One appointment and were permitted to U.S. entry
  • domestic servants of certain nonimmigrants, who were themselves permitted entry to the U.S. on B-1 visas in order to accompany the employer, and
  • others.

The categories are too many to list here—you can find a full list in the instructions that go with USCIS Form I-765 (the work permit application form).

Notice, however, that there is no category for tourists (B-1 visa holders) or undocumented immigrants. USCIS will not grant these people permission to work in the United States, and indeed for them to do so (or for employers to hire them) is illegal.

How to Apply to USCIS for a Work Permit

In order to apply for an EAD, you'll need to fill out USCIS Form I-765, attach documentation showing that you're in a category of people allowed to apply for work permits, and attach photos and the appropriate fee. (Read the instructions carefully: Some categories of applicants are not required to pay a fee.)

Most applicants will need to submit the application to USCIS by mail. Expect to wait several weeks for a reply. However, USCIS is working toward online filing options; already available to F-1 students applying for OPT, starting in early 2021. To file online, you'd need to create an account with USCIS.

See How to Apply for a U.S. Work Permit (EAD) for more on the process.

Getting Legal Help

If you have any questions about whether you are eligibility for a work permit, or you want help with the application process, consult an immigration attorney.