Everything You Need To Know About U.S. Work Permits (EADs): What They Are, Who Is Eligible, and How To Apply

In a Nutshell

A work permit is an official document from the U.S. government that allows immigrants to work in the United States. It's also known as an Employment Authorization Document or EAD. You do not need to be a permanent resident to get a work permit, but you need to have an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa that allows you to live and work in the United States. DACA recipients can also get work permits. It costs $410 –$495 to apply for a work permit and takes 2-7 months to get one. The cost and timing vary based on your reason for applying as well as where you live.Some applicants don't have to pay the application fee. This article explains everything you need to know about U.S. work permits.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Written August 20, 2020

What Is an Employment Authorization Document (EAD)?

Immigrants living in the United States and foreign nationals who want to come to the United States cannot work unless they receive permission from the U.S. government. That permission comes in the form of an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). EADs are more commonly known as work permits or employment authorization cards. Work permits are photo identification cards issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and they look a lot like a driver's license.

Image of a Work Permit Photo ID Card, front and back

What Is the Difference Between a Work Permit and a Work Visa?

Many people confuse work permits and work visas, so if you're not sure of the difference, you're not alone. 

  • A work visa allows you to live in the U.S. and work for a specific employer. That employer applies for the visa for you, and the visa remains valid for as long as you continue working for that employer. But you may only work for that employer while in the U.S. If you leave that employer, you will not be able to work for anyone else until you get another immigration status. 

  • Work permits or employment authorization cards are not tied to a specific employer. Once you have a work permit, you can work for any employer in the U.S. So long as you have an immigration status that allows you to keep working, you can also renew your permit.

Pay attention to your work permit’s expiration date so you can apply for renewal and give USCIS enough time to process it. The length that your work permit is valid varies based on your immigration status. Many immigrants have to renew their work permits every year. But there are some exceptions. For example, since May 2022 asylum employment authorization cards last 540 days (almost 1.5 years).

If you aren’t sure how long your work permit is valid, you can look at the expiration date on the front of your work authorization card.

U.S. employers must confirm that you are legally authorized to work before they hire you. Once you have a work permit, you can show it to potential employers to prove that you can lawfully work in the U.S. 

What Happens if I Work Without a Work Permit?

Working in the United States without a work permit/employment authorization card is very dangerous. If you work without authorization, the government may deport you. They may also bar you from entering the U.S. for 3–10 years, and you may have a much harder time trying to get temporary or permanent status in the future.  For example, if you don't have a work permit and work while in the U.S. on a visitor visa and later apply for a student visa, the State Department will almost certainly reject your student visa application. 

You also need a work permit for short-term or "under the table" employment. Even if you only get paid for working a few hours, working without authorization can cause serious immigration problems for you down the road. 

The bottom line? Do not work in the United States without a work permit.

The good news is that applying for a work permit is easy. If you submit an application for a green card at the same time, it's also free!

Who Is Eligible for a Work Permit?

Many immigrants can apply for a work permit from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS provides detailed information about who is eligible to work in the U.S. 

Eligible immigrants include:

You can find a complete list of immigration statuses that allow you to work with an employment authorization card in the U.S. on the Form I-765 instructions from USCIS.gov.

Who Isn't Eligible for a Work Permit?

Work permit eligibility is straightforward. If you are eligible for an immigration status that will allow you to work or have that status already, you can get a work permit.

If you aren't eligible for this type of immigration status, then you can't get a work permit.

Tourists (B-1 visa holders) and undocumented immigrants are not eligible for work permits unless they become eligible for a humanitarian status like asylum while they are in the U.S. USCIS will not issue work permits to these immigrants. Under federal law, it is illegal for U.S. employers to hire them.

‍If you are a B-1 Visa Holder or undocumented immigrant and need to work in the U.S., you should speak to a lawyer before you do any work. You may be eligible for a status that would allow you to get a work permit, and working without a permit can make it impossible for you to get that status.

Who Can Work Without Applying for a Work Permit?

Green card holders (lawful permanent residents) do not need to apply for a work permit. Your green card authorizes you to work in the U.S. for as long as it is valid! If your employer asks for proof that you can work in the U.S., you can show them your green card.

You also don't need to apply for a work permit once you become a U.S. citizen. If your employer asks for proof that you can work in the U.S., show them your U.S. passport or naturalization certificate.

If you have an employment visa, you don't need to apply for a separate work permit. This rule applies to immigrants with visas like the H-1B Visa,  L-1 Visa, E-3 Visa, and E Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor visa.

How To Apply for a Work Permit in 5 Easy Steps

Now that you understand what work permits are and who can get them let's talk about the application process. There are five easy steps that everyone who applies for a work permit must follow.

Step 1: Apply for an Immigration Status That Allows You To Work

To get a work permit, you need to have an immigration status that allows you to work in the U.S. If you already have this type of status, or if you are in the process of applying for it, you can move on to Step 2. People with several different types of immigration statuses can apply for a work permit, from refugees and asylum seekers to students and K-1 fiancé(e) visa holders.

Step 2: Prepare Form I-765

You will use USCIS Form I-765: Application for Employment Authorization, to apply for a work permit. Form I-765 is pretty simple. You fill in your name, contact information, and information about your eligibility.

There are only a few tricky questions:

  • Question 22: You need to list your most recent entry into the U.S., even if you have been living here for years and only left for a short trip. "Manner of entry" refers to the visa you used to enter the U.S. after your most recent trip abroad.

  • Question 27: You need to choose the correct code for the reason you are eligible to work in the U.S. You can find these codes in the Form I-765 instructions. Some of the most common categories are

    • (c)(9) for immigrants who have applied (or are currently applying) for a green card

    • (c)(3)(C) for students doing OPT

    • (a)(5) for asylees

    • (a)(12) for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients

    • (c)(5) for spouses of J-1 visa holders.

Step 3: Prepare Your Supporting Documents

You will need to submit six supporting documents with your Form I-765 to get a work permit:

  1. A copy of your passport photo page.

  2. A copy of your current U.S. visa (if you are in the United States already). This visa will almost always be in your passport.

  3. A copy of your original Form I-94 travel record (front and back), or a printout of your electronic I-94 from your most recent entry into the U.S. You can get your electronic I-94 online.

  4. Copies of any of your previous work permits (front and back).

  5. Two 2-inch-by-2-inch passport-style photos of yourself taken recently (print your full name and Alien Registration Number on the back of each with a pencil or felt-tip pen).

  6. A copy of the receipt notice you received from the U.S. government when you submitted your immigrant visa application. You only need to provide this if you are applying for a work permit after you submitted your immigrant visa application. For example, 150 days after USCIS confirms that they have received your asylum application. If you apply for permanent residence at the same time as your work permit, you do not need to send in a receipt notice.

If you have never had a work permit before, you will also need to send one of the following forms of identification documents with your Form I-765:

  • A copy of your birth certificate from your home country and a copy of your photo ID.

  • A copy of a visa you received from a consulate of a country other than the United States.

  • A copy of some other national identity document that has your photo or fingerprint on it.

Step 4: Pay the Filing Fee

USCIS charges a $410 fee to process most I-765 forms. If you are applying for "Deferred Action" (for example, if you are a DACA recipient), you must also pay an $85 biometrics fee. These fees change regularly, so be sure to double-check USCIS's fee schedule for the most up-to-date amount before you file.

Some immigrants do not need to pay the fee when they file Form I-765. For example, immigrants applying to adjust status to a green card do not have to pay the I-765 filing fee. If you’re filing an initial asylum work permit application, you also do not have to pay the filing fee or the biometrics fee. However, if you are renewing with Form I-765, you do need to pay the filing fee or apply for a fee waiver. Check the instructions for Form I-765 for a full list of immigrants who do not need to pay the fee.

You can pay the work permit filing fee by money order, personal check, or cashier's check made out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. If you are filing at a USCIS Lockbox facility, you can pay with a credit card or debit card by submitting Form G-1450, Authorization for Credit Card Transactions with your Form I-765. Service centers can't process credit card payments.

Step 5: Submit Your Work Permit Application

Once you have completed your Form I-765, assembled your supporting documents, and paid the filing fee, it's time to submit your application for a work permit to USCIS. It is a good idea to include a cover letter with your paperwork so that the government knows precisely what they are receiving from you. There are no specific requirements for cover letters, but you can use this cover letter template as a guide.

Though there are limited exceptions, immigrants in most categories cannot file Form I-765 online. That means that if you submit it with an application for immigration status (like a green card), you should probably file your entire application by mail. The address where you will send your application depends on where you live, where you want to have any necessary visa interview, your reason for filing Form I-765, and even which mail carrier you use to submit your application. Make sure that you carefully review the USCIS website's addresses so that you get your application to the correct location.

Make a complete copy of everything in your packet, including the checks, before sending it to USCIS.

How Long Does It Take To Get a Work Permit?

Once you submit your work permit application to USCIS, the processing time is usually 2–7 months. USCIS processes some employment authorization applications, like those for asylum work permits, more quickly. USCIS will send you a receipt notice with a receipt number when they receive your paperwork. You should receive this notice 2-3 weeks after you file. 

Once you have your receipt notice, you can use your receipt number to track your application status on USCIS's website.

What Happens After I Get My Work Permit?

If you've never worked in the United States before, you'll need to get a Social Security number (SSN) and a work permit to work legally. Thankfully, Form I-765 allows you to apply for a Social Security number, or a replacement Social Security card, at the same time as your work permit. All you need to do is check the option on your Form I-765.

Image of USCIS Form I-765, Part 2 with a red arrow pointing to Question 14

When you start work, your employer will need you to complete a Form I-9 form and to show proof that you are allowed to work in the United States. Your work permit and SSN are all of the evidence you need! Once you have a Social Security number and a work permit, it's illegal for U.S. employers to discriminate against you based on your immigration status.

Working in the U.S. comes at a price, though — you'll have to pay U.S. payroll and income taxes just like everyone else.

There are severe penalties if you don't pay the required taxes. Not paying could ruin your chances of ever becoming a U.S. citizen!

How Do I Switch or Renew My Work Permit?

Many immigrants who come to the United States for one reason end up staying for another. For example, you might come as an asylum seeker and want to stay in the U.S. long-term to live and work. You could also come on a work visa and end up getting a job with a company other than the one that initially sponsored you. Whatever the case, if you have a status that allows you to work and you want to switch to another status for any reason, you will need to submit a new Form I-765.

Let's say that you are a student working through the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, and you marry a U.S. citizen. It is good to submit an application for a work permit with your marriage green card application even if your current work permit is still valid. There are no disadvantages to having two different work permits at once, and applying this way will help you make sure that you can continue working just in case one of your statuses expires before your new one begins.

Renewing Your Work Permit

It's essential to avoid any gaps in employment authorization and to start the work permit renewal process well ahead of your permit’s expiration date. The good news is that you can usually renew your work permit up to 180 days before your current one expires. For certain statuses like asylum, you can renew your work permit any time after USCIS approves your previous application. Whatever your status, it's a good idea to renew as soon as possible, even if you think that USCIS will approve you for a new status before your current work permit expires.

If your work permit expires before you renew it or get a new employment status, you will not be able to work!

Don't let this happen to you. All you need to do to renew is file another Form I-765 with proof that you are still eligible for a work permit. You'll also need to include the supporting documents listed in Step 3 above and pay the renewal fee listed in Step 4. Renewals can take USCIS 150 days or longer to process, so renew sooner than you think you should.

What Should I Do if USCIS Denies My Work Permit Application?

There are three main reasons that USCIS might reject your work permit application:

  1. You made a mistake on your application. If you filled out Form I-765 incorrectly, forgot to sign it, or didn't send the correct supporting documents, USCIS may reject your application.

  2. You weren't eligible for a work permit. The only way you can get a work permit is to have a U.S. immigration status that allows you to work while you are here. If you do not have such status and submit an application for a work permit, USCIS will reject your application.

  3. You received other work authorization before your work permit application was approved. If you apply for a green card and a work permit at the same time, your green card application might be approved before your work permit is. This doesn't happen very often. If it does, though, don't worry! Your green card allows you to work, and you will not need a separate work permit.

If USCIS rejects your work permit application because of a mistake or eligibility reason, it’s advisable to speak to an immigration attorney or seek legal aid. You can often reapply if you are eligible, but doing so after a rejection can be tricky. It's best to get the advice of an expert so that you can get approved and start working.