A Guide to U.S. Nonimmigrant Visas

In a Nutshell

If you would like to visit the United States and you're not a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident, you will have to get a nonimmigrant visa to make the trip. Nonimmigrant visas are available for different travel reasons, and U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide grant them for a temporary period. This guide explains what U.S. nonimmigrant visas are and who needs to get one. We also describe the different types of U.S. nonimmigrant visas and the application process step by step.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated December 7, 2022

What Are U.S. Nonimmigrant Visas?

Unlike immigrant visas, such as green cards, which are for people who plan to permanently live in the United States, nonimmigrant visas are for those who want to make short visits. Nonimmigrant visas are available for tourism, college, or business purposes. They usually have a set end date.

Who Needs a Nonimmigrant Visa?

If you are not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident and plan to temporarily come to the United States, you need a nonimmigrant visa. 

However, for foreign nationals from certain home countries, you won't need one as long as you visit the United States for less than 90 days for tourism, business, or while in transit. This program is called the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), and it applies to people from 40 countries and territories, including most within the European Union. In addition, most Canadians will not need a visa to enter the United States unless they plan to work, study, invest, or immigrate.

The Visa Waiver Program has multiple rules for eligibility. You have to enroll in the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program before air travel. You can only stay in the United States for a maximum period of 90 days with no extension. You cannot have a history of having a U.S. visa refused or denied. You will also have to prove you have strong ties to your home country and won’t overstay your visa.  

What Are the Nonimmigrant Visa Types?

There are three primary nonimmigrant visa categories. You can visit the United States for temporary tourism or business, study, and work. 

Visitor Visas (B Visas)

If you plan to visit the United States for tourism or temporary business, you need a B-1 or B-2 visa unless the Visa Waiver Program covers your home country. For your U.S. visa application, you will have to provide documents to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that explain the reasons for your trip and your trip itinerary. 

Your visa validity could last between three months and 10 years and depends on your home country. You can enter the United States anytime, either once or multiple times within the period of time that the visa is valid. 

How Long Can I Stay With a Visitor Visa?

The government official from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at your port of entry determines how long you can stay in the United States. The maximum is six months. You may extend this time, but you will have to apply 45 days before the visa expires, and immigration authorities may reject your extension. Your I-94 Form will indicate the length of stay. This is different from your visa expiry date. You can only stay as long as the I-94 Form indicates. Still, you can leave and re-enter the United States again during the visa validity period. 

Study or Work-Exchange Visas (F, M, and J Visas)

If you plan to be a student in the United States, you will also need a visa. The first type of visa available to students is the F-1 visa for full-time students at an accredited educational institution. Institutions include colleges, high schools, seminaries, and conservatories. If you want to get a job, you can only have on-campus employment. The second type of visa is an F-2 visa, which is for spouses or children of F-1 visa holders. The final option is an F-3 visa for people who live in Canada or Mexico and commute to the United States for their studies. 

Another type of student visa is the M visa, for students at vocational or other accredited nonacademic institutions. However, language training programs fall under the F visa category. 

For work- or study-based exchange visitors, there is the J-1 visa. These visa holders could include teachers, interns, au-pairs, and other participants in exchange visitor programs. They must be part of a program that promotes cultural exchange. There are also specific categories of eligibility, such as proficiency in English. J-2 visas are for dependents of J-1 visa holders. 

Employment Visas (H, L, Q P, C, D, G Visas)

Work visas allow people to enter the United States for a temporary period. The visa does not apply to indefinite or permanent work — only U.S. citizens and permanent residents can work in the country permanently. Your employer needs to start the visa application process by filing a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If accepted, you can get a nonimmigrant work visa. 

There are multiple visa classifications for temporary workers. H-1B and H-1B1 visas are for professional jobs. These jobs must require at least a bachelor’s degree. You must have an employer sponsor. 

H-2A and H-2B visas are for seasonal work that don’t have available U.S. citizens as employees. This could include agricultural work. 

L-1A or L-1B visas are for people transferring from within a multinational company to a U.S. office. O-1 visas are for people with unique talents. P-1A, P1-B, P2, and P-3 visas are for artists and entertainers. Q visas are for people participating in international cultural exchange. C-1, D, and C-1/D visas are for crew members of ships or airline employees. 

G visas are diplomatic non-immigrant visas issued to individuals representing foreign governments who are working in international organizations in the United States.

How To Apply for a U.S. Nonimmigrant Visa

For a nonimmigrant visa application, you need to fill out Form DS-160, pay a fee, and schedule an interview. Then, you need to get your documents and attend the visa interview. 

Step1: Complete Form DS-160

First, you need to fill out Form DS-160. You will need to provide lots of personal information. This information includes travel history, employment history, information about your family members, and more. 

Step 2: Pay the Visa Fee

Next, you will have to pay an application fee. You will pay this to a consular section at a U.S. embassy or consulate responsible for visa services. The fee is $160. However, if you are a temporary worker, you will have to pay $190. You can pay this processing fee when you submit your application form.  

Step 3: Schedule Your Visa Interview

The next step for visa applicants is to schedule an interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy. You should check ahead of time through the U.S. Department of State about appointment wait times. Check that there are no current travel restrictions, such as coronavirus pandemic-related ones. Your visa appointment wait time will depend on the U.S. Consulate General location you choose. 

Step 4: Gather Supporting Documents

You will have to bring documents to your interview. These include a valid passport, a passport photograph, the Form DS-160 confirmation page, proof of payment, and a printout of your interview appointment letter. 

You may also have to show proof of your nonimmigrant intent. This intent means evidence you will return to your home country after visiting the United States. For example, you may have to show your travel itinerary, employment documents from your home country, or invitation letters from family or friends. 

Step 5: Attend Your Visa Interview

At your interview, you will have to swear under oath and have your fingerprints taken. The consular officer will review your application and documents. They may ask questions about why you want to visit, your itinerary, and how you will pay for it. The interview may be short or long. It is essential to give accurate answers. 

Step 6: Receive a Decision From U.S. Embassy

After your visa issuance, you can travel to the United States anytime until the expiry date on the visa. You will show your visa and passport to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the port of entry. 

Form I-94 is a record of your entries or exits from the United States. It is usually electronic now. You can either find it online or ask the officer at the port of entry for one. 

It is very important to know the entry date on your Form I-94. You want to ensure you will not overstay your visa. Your I-94 exit date could be earlier than your visa expiry date. The I-94 date takes precedence over your visa stamp, so make sure to check the form carefully. U.S. immigration law enforces strong consequences for overstaying your visa, including travel bans from the United States.