Can You Work in the U.S. With an H-4 Visa?

Learn about the prohibitions on working while in H-4 status, and alternatives to explore.

If you are in the U.S. in H-4 status, then you are the dependent (spouse, or else unmarried child under the age of 21) of a person who is in the U.S. in H status. Holding H-4 status provides you with significant benefits, such as the right to remain in the U.S. for the duration of your status and the ability to travel in and out of the U.S. for the duration of your status.

However, many H-4 visa holders want to know whether they can also work while in the United States. This article provides information regarding H-4 visa holders’ ability to legally accept U.S. employment.

Restrictions on People in H-4 Status

Unfortunately, as an H-4 visa holder, the law prohibits you from engaging in employment in the United States.

However, in addition to the ability to travel, H-4 status also allows you to study. U.S degrees carry great weight and significant prestige both in the U.S. and in other countries around the world. It may be in your best interest to attend a college or university in the U.S., not only for your personal development, but as a way to form work contacts and meet potential future employers.  

If you are interested in studying while in H-4 status, contact the specific schools that wish to attend. Almost every U.S. college has an international student department with advisers who can guide you with the college admissions process.  

I Really Want to Work – What Are My Options?  

If you want to work in the U.S. your only real option is to change status to an employment-based visa that will give you work authorization. There are several types of work visas that may be available to you, depending upon your employment credentials.

For example, if you can find an employer willing to sponsor you, the employer can file an I-129 petition to change your status to H-1B. See Overview of the H-1B Visa Application Process for further information.

Importantly, there is a maximum period of time you are allowed to be in H-1B (and H-4) status. Unless you qualify for an exception to this rule, you cannot be in H-1B status for longer than six years. However, any time you have spent in the U.S. in H-4 status does NOT count towards your six-year maximum for H-1B.   For example, let’s say you enter the U.S. in H-4 status on February 1, 2010 and you change status to H-1B effective February 1, 2013. Those three years that you were in the U.S. in H-4 status do NOT count towards your six-year max, so you can continue to extend your H-1B status for six years.

Or, you may qualify for L-1 status, another employment visa. To qualify for L-1 status, in the three years preceding your entry into the U.S., you must have worked for one year for a foreign company that has an affiliate office in the U.S.   For further information on L-1 status, please see our articles, Overview of the Application Process for an L-1 Work Visa and Who Qualifies for an L-1 Visa?

Or, you may qualify for O-1 status, another employment visa. For O-1 status, you must be an alien of extraordinary ability coming to the U.S. to perform services for a U.S. employer.

Another option that may be available to you is obtaining an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). If you are in H-4 status and your H-1B family member is eligible to file for a U.S. green card (I-485 application), you can also file for your green card as a dependent. When you file the I-485, you are also eligible to file for an EAD on the Form I-765. Once you receive your EAD from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), you can work for any U.S. employer, and the employer is not required to file for an employment visa for you.  

However, it is important to note that working on an EAD terminates your H-4 status. If you have filed an I-485, you are in authorized status even if your H-4 status terminates, but you should carefully consider these complicated issues before you proceed.

Good News on the Horizon

Although currently, H-4 visa holders are not eligible to work, this may change in the future. On May 6th, 2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a press release stating that the Obama administration had proposed a change to the current DHS regulations. This change would allow certain H-4  spouses  (not children who are in H-4 status) to legally work in the U.S. while in H-4 status. The change would apply only where the H-4’s H-1B spouse is filing a green card application.  

Keep your eyes on the news or consult an attorney for the latest.

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