What are U.S. Work Visas?

In a Nutshell

Generally, you can get work authorization as a foreigner in the United States working for U.S. employers, either as a temporary employee or as a sponsored, permanent employee. This article is a guide to all the different U.S. work visa types that exist for noncitizens of the United States. Broadly speaking, there are permanent immigrant work visas, temporary nonimmigrant work visas, and other categories of employment authorization for some nonimmigrant groups.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Written May 30, 2022

Immigrant Work Visas

Immigrant work visas, or employment-based green cards, allow noncitizens to become permanent residents. Most of these permanent work visas intend to help employers in sectors with a shortage of skilled workers in the United States. Employers who hire foreign nationals must confirm with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that they hired from abroad due to a shortage of American labor in their fields of work. The employers will have to demonstrate with the DOL’s labor certification process that hiring foreign nationals will not take away jobs from U.S. citizens. 

Generally, the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country will handle the work visa application process. There are five types of employment-based visas: 

First Preference EB-1 Visas 

EB-1 visas are for priority workers. Priority workers include workers with extraordinary abilities, executives, and professors. Usually, the U.S. employer must file for labor certification, except in cases where the foreign employee has extraordinary ability. 

As an EB-1 visa holder, your family members can apply to enter the United States with E-14 or E-15 immigrant status. Their status will depend on your approved Form I-140 for a green card.

Second Preference EB-2 Visas

EB-2 visas are for three cases: professionals with advanced degrees, those with at least 10 years of experience in a field, or those with employment relevant to the United States’ national interests. For the first two categories, the Department of Labor requires labor certification. 

Family members or dependents can apply for admission to the United States through E-21 or E-22 forms. It depends if you have an approved I-140. 

Third Preference EB-3 Visas

EB-3 visas are for those with a bachelor’s degree, skilled workers with at least two years of experience, or other unskilled workers who are not in temporary or seasonal positions. These categories all require a full-time job offer and labor certification. 

Family members can apply for admission to the United States as long as you, the principal applicant, has an approved I-140. 

Fourth Preference EB-4 Visas 

EB-4 visas are for specialized workers. This includes certain religious workers, employees of U.S. foreign service jobs, and retired employees of international organizations. It also includes noncitizen minors whom U.S. courts are responsible for. Labor certification is not required for this visa application. 

Some family members of specialized workers may also apply for admission to the United States. 

Fifth Preference EB-5 Visas

EB-5 visas are for people who invest $1.8 million in a new enterprise that employs at least 10 full-time U.S. workers. Alternatively, EB-5 is for people who invest $900,000 in a new commercial venture in a targeted employment area with at least 10 full-time U.S. workers. Labor certification is not required.

Investors and their families can apply for green cards.  

Nonimmigrant Work Visas

Nonimmigrant visas or temporary work visas allow foreign nationals to work in the United States temporarily. Once their authorized stay or employment contract ends, the temporary worker must leave the United States and return to their home country. 

To get a nonimmigrant work visa, a U.S. employer must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on behalf of the foreign employee. Then, the foreign employee has to file a visa application before coming to the United States. They will present this visa to Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers at an official port of entry. 

Family members of temporary foreign workers will have to undergo their own visa application process. There are many different visa categories for specific types of work. Here are the most common work visas for temporary employment: 

H Visas

H-1B visas provide temporary work permits for people in specialty occupations. H-1B applicants may be in professional or academic fields or have some specialized expertise. They need to have a bachelor’s degree or higher or equivalent work experience. If approved, you can only reside in the United States for a maximum of six years, renewable after the first three years. You will have to show that you have a job offer and a bachelor’s degree to prove your eligibility for this application. Your employer will need to prove that there is a lack of U.S. applicants for you to get the H-1B visa. 

H-2A visas and H-2B visas are for seasonal, temporary agricultural workers (H-2A) or nonagricultural (H-2B) foreign workers. You can usually only stay for a maximum of three years. 

H-3 visas are for those seeking training in any area except graduate medical school. This visa is for people who want training in the United States but plan to work elsewhere. You can stay in the United States on this visa for up to two years.

I Visas 

I visas are for members of the foreign press. These jobs include reporters, film crews, editors, and other nonimmigrant workers representing a foreign media outlet. You can usually stay in the United States for an indefinite period if you remain in the same job at the same company. 

L-1 Visas

L-1 visas are for people who are intracompany transferees. They must work at a management level (L-1A) or have specialized expertise (L-1B). L-1A visa issuances last for an initial maximum of three years, renewable for up to seven years total, while L-1B visas have a maximum five-year limit.  

O Visas 

O visas are for people with exceptional abilities or achievements in many industries. O visas extend to family members or those traveling with a person with extraordinary ability. 

P Visas

P visas are for those who excel in performance, arts, or athletics and for people accompanying them. These usually last as long as a particular event does. 

R Visas 

R visas are for nonimmigrant religious workers belonging to a religious denomination with official nonprofit status in the United States. They must come to work for the denomination or a related nonprofit. 

TN Visa 

The TN NAFTA visa allows certain Canadian and Mexican citizens to temporarily enter the United States for business activities under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Work Authorization for Students and Exchange Visitors

Academic students, vocational students, and cultural exchange program members are eligible for temporary work authorization associated with their visa status.

F Visas

F-1 visas are for students at accredited academic institutions. Students can work as long as they remain enrolled full time in school. They cannot work off campus in their first year but can work on campus. After the first year, they can work in three types of off-campus employment: 

  • Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

  • Optional Practical Training (OPT)

  • Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) OPT

F-2 visas are available for students’ family members, including spouses and children. F-3 visas are for Canadian or Mexican students who commute. 

M Visas 

M visas are for students at vocational or nonacademic institutions other than language training ones. Language training institutions fall under F visas. M-2 visas are available for family members, including spouses and children. M-3 visas are for Canadian or Mexican students who commute. 

J Visas 

J visas are for work- or study-based programs, like au pairs, interns, and camp counselors. Most programs must promote cultural exchange and require meeting certain eligibility criteria, like English language proficiency. J-2 visas are available for dependents of J-1 visa holders.

Visas for Temporary Business Visitors

The following visas are for short-term business: 

B-1 Visas

B-1 visas are for short-term business in the United States. These are usually valid from one to six months, with a possible additional six-month extension. It is rare for these visas to last over one year. Family members cannot travel under these visas and must apply for their own. 

GB Temporary Visitor to Guam 

GB Temporary Visitor to Guam visas are issued to people from the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Visa holders can travel for business or pleasure but cannot stay in the United States for over 45 days. 

WB Temporary Business Visitor Under Visa Waiver Program 

The WB Temporary Business Visitor under the Visa Waiver Program lets nationals of 39 countries travel to the United States for business or tourism without a visa for 90 days or less. You can find which countries are eligible for this visa through the Department of State’s website.