The Different Types of U.S. Work Visas

Generally, a citizen of a foreign country who wishes to enter the United States must first obtain a visa, either a nonimmigrant visa for temporary stay or an immigrant visa for permanent residence. Citizens of qualified countries may be able to visit the U.S. without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. If you do not qualify for the Visa Waiver Program or are traveling to study, work, participate in an exchange program, or any other purpose that does not fall under a B visa (business/visitor) purpose of travel, you will need a nonimmigrant visa. Below are the most common types of visas that allow foreigners to work in the United States

Temporary Non-Immigrant Visa

These visas are for people looking to work in the United States for a fixed period of time. Most often, a potential employer files a petition for this type of work with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and prior to coming to the U.S., the employee would still need to apply for a visa. Within this qualification, there are many different categories of workers, which can be found on the USCIS website. Spouses and family of holders of these visas need to file for their own visas prior to coming to the U.S. Below are the most common type of non-immigrant work visas:


H-1B visas are for people in a specified professional or academic field or with special expertise who have a college degree or higher or the equivalent in work experience. These visas have a residency cap of three years.


  • A job offer from a U.S. employer for a role that requires specialty knowledge
  • Proof of a bachelor’s degree or equivalent in that field
  • Your employer must show that there is a lack of qualified U.S. applicants for the role

H-2A and H-2B visas are for seasonal, or peak load, temporary workers in an agriculture (H-2A) or non-agricultural (H-2B) setting. Generally, these do not extend beyond a year.

H-3 are for those seeking training in any endeavor except graduate medical school or training; or training to meet the needs of those who require special education. This classification is for citizens who want training within the United States, but will be pursuing their careers outside of the U.S.


I visas are for any eligible member of the foreign press including reporters, film crews, editors, and similar occupations, representing a foreign media outlet such as print, radio, film, or other foreign information media, when the outlet has a home office in a foreign country. For most, this is an indefinite visa as long as the holder is engaged in this profession for the same company.


L Visas are for those who are temporarily transferring within a company at which they already work, either at the executive/management level (L-1A) or through a specialized expertise (L-1B). An L-1A visa comes with a three-year duration; L-1B has only one year.


O visas are for those with extraordinary and exceptional abilities or achievements, across industries. O visas are also extended to those who travel with the person of extraordinary ability or a family member.


These visas are for those who excel in performance, athletic, or artistic endeavors and the people who accompany these extraordinary performers. These are usually event-based durations.


R visas are extended to non-immigrant religious workers who are members of a religious denomination that holds official non-profit status in the U.S. coming to work either directly for that denomination or an associated non-profit.


This permits qualified Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the United States to engage in business activities at a professional level, under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Permanent (Immigrant) Workers

Those with the right job skills — and their spouses and children — can apply for the roughly 140,000 employment-based green cards available each year. Permanent residence in the U.S. can be obtained through the right combination of education, expertise, eligibility, and skill set. Most of these visas call for an existing offer of employment from an employer who has the proper U.S. Department of Labor certification, verifying that there are both insufficient workers with this skillset within the United States, and the hiring does not take a job away from a U.S. citizen. Called “labor certification,” this is done through ETA Form 9089 (“Application for Permanent Employment Certification”).

There are five key types of employment-based visas:


EB-1 covers those with “extraordinary ability” such as business professionals, academics and researchers, scientists, the arts, or athletics. This type of visa does not require labor certification. Family of EB-1 visa holders may apply for admission to the U.S. on E-14 or E-15 immigrant status, respectively, if that person has an approved I-140 (green card) form.


EB-2 visas are available to professionals holding an advanced degree or foreign equivalent; or who can prove at least ten years experience in a field; or those whose employment is in the national interest of the U.S. For all but the third category of eligibility, labor certification must be obtained. Family of EB-2 visa holders may apply for admission to the U.S. through E21 or E22 forms, if that person has an approved I-140 (green card) form.


EB-3 visas are available to those holding a bachelor’s degree, or foreign equivalent, as well as skilled and unskilled laborers who have a non-temporary offer of employment from a U.S. employer. For each eligibility category within EB-3, labor certification must be obtained. Family of EB-3 visa holders may apply for admission to the U.S. through specific spouse or child forms listed here, if that person has an approved I-140 (green card) form.


EB-4 visas are a specialized category of visa, eligibility to which includes but isn’t limited to: certain religious workers, employees of U.S. foreign service posts, retired employees of international organizations, and noncitizen minors who are wards of courts in the United States. Labor certification is waived for this type of visa. Some families may be eligible for admission. Learn more here.


EB-5 visas cover the Immigrant Investor Program. These are available to people who make either an investment of 1.8 million USD in a new commercial enterprise that employs at least 10 full-time U.S. workers, or 900,000 USD in a new commercial venture in a targeted employment area that employs at least 10 full-time U.S. workers. Labor certification is waived for this type of visa. Under this program investors and their family are eligible to apply for green cards.

Student and Exchange Visitors

These visas cover three types of students: academic students, vocational students, and those enrolled in educational or cultural exchange programs. These are not immigrant visas.


F-1 visas are for academic students enrolled at accredited academic institutions. As long as a course of study is maintained, students may work. Students cannot work off-campus during the first academic year, but may accept on-campus employment subject to conditions and restrictions. After the first academic year, F-1 students can engage in three types of off-campus employment:

Curricular Practical Training (CPT)

Optional Practical Training (OPT) (pre-completion or post-completion)

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

Learn more about F-1 visas here. F-2 visas are available for the family of the student, including spouse and children. F-3 visas are available for Canadian or Mexican students who commute.


M visas are available for students at vocational or other recognized nonacademic institutions, other than language training programs (those require an F visa). M-2 visas are available for the family of the student, including spouse and children. M-3 visas are available for Canadian or Mexican students who commute.


J visas are available for those involved in work- and study-based programs, like au pairs, camp counsellors, trainees, interns and more. Programs must promote cultural exchange and applicants must meet eligibility criteria, including English language proficiency. J-2 visas are used for dependents of the J-1 visa holder.

Temporary Visit for Business

These visas are for very short-termed business purposes. If a person were, for example, negotiating a contract, attending a convention, or settling an estate, they would travel under this type of visa.


B-1 visas are for those conducting limited, short-term business in the United States. These demand a specific period of time, and are usually given for a one- to six-month period, with possible extension of an additional six months. It is rare if these visas extend beyond one year. Family of B-1 visa holders are not eligible to travel under these visas; they must obtain their own B-1 visas to travel.


GB Temporary Visitor to Guam visas cover the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands. Visa holders may be traveling for business or pleasure, but they need to be traveling with a return ticket. The stay cannot exceed 45 days.


The WB Temporary Business Visitor under Visa Waiver Program allows nationals of 39 countries, specified by the State Department, to travel to the U.S. for business or tourism without a visa for a period of 90 days or less.

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