Updated: January 21, 2020
come in a wide variety of types, from ‘A’ (diplomats)
through ‘V’ (certain family members of lawful
permanent residents). Holders of nonimmigrant visas are allowed
to travel to and remain in the US for a temporary stay and
for a particular purpose—for example, to work for a
limited period, to study, to make business visits or to travel
as a tourist.
All persons seeking admission to the United
States must have a visa, unless they qualify to enter the
US under the Visa Waiver Program or are otherwise exempt
(e.g., certain Canadian citizens). Derivative family member
visas are available to the qualified spouses and unmarried
children (under the age of 21) of principal applicants in
many visa classifications.
As part of the nonimmigrant visa application
process most applicants, with certain important exceptions,
must prove that they intend to remain in the US for only
a temporary period. Many visa classifications require that
applicants demonstrate that they will at all times during
their US stay maintain a residence outside the US that they
do not intend to abandon.
Below you will find a brief description
of the Visa Waiver Program, followed by information regarding
some of the most common nonimmigrant visas.
|Visa Waiver Program
Visa-free travel is available to qualified citizens of 39 countries. The countries included in the Visa Waiver Program are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom. Qualified Visa Waiver Program travellers must travel on a participating carrier or authorized private aircraft and must either hold an individual, unexpired, machine-readable, tamper-resistant passport, or obtain a visa. Citizens of some of the Visa Waiver countries must hold so-called ‘e passports.’ For further information, please see our website article Travelling to the US Without a Visa.
Visa Waiver admission is available to both tourists (WT) and business travellers (WB). If otherwise eligible the person will be admitted for a period of 90 days. Neither WT nor WB entry generally permits productive employment (including self-employment) while in the US. For a discussion of the exceptions, please see our website article Working (Legally) on a Visitor’s Visa or Visa Waiver Entry. In addition, Visa Waiver entrants may not apply to extend their stay or to change status while in the United States, with the exception of an application to adjust status to lawful permanent residence based upon marriage to a US citizen. For additional information regarding the requirements of the Visa Waiver Program, go to Travelling to the US Without a Visa
|Visitor for Business
Persons holding B-1 visas or who are admitted for business purposes under the Visa Waiver Program may travel to the US on business, which includes but is not limited to activities such as the negotiation of contracts and attendance at business meetings and conferences. With few exceptions business visitors are not authorized to engage in ordinary local employment or labor for hire, and may not receive a salary or other remuneration (other than expenses incidental to their business visit) from a US source.
Our website article Working (Legally) on a Visitor’s Visa or Visa Waiver Entry. contains additional information regarding these exceptions to the general rule.
|Visitor For Pleasure
The B-2 is the standard tourist
visa and admission as a B-2 is generally for a period of six
months. In B-2 status the visa holder may take a holiday in
the United States, travel, visit family and friends, or seek
medical treatment. Employment is never authorized.
Holders of ‘C’
visas are authorized to remain in the US for no more than
29 days, while they are in immediate and continuous transit
through the United States. The ‘D’ visa is primarily
for crew members of either a vessel or an aircraft.
The ‘E’ visas
are available to otherwise eligible citizens of countries
with which the United States has a qualifying treaty of friendship,
commerce and navigation or a bilateral investment treaty.
As set forth below they are available both to the business
owner/investor, and to certain qualifying employees.
The E-1 ‘treaty trader’
visa is available to qualified persons who seek to enter the
US solely to carry on an already existing, substantial trade
in goods, services or technology principally between their
home country and the United States.
The E-2 ‘treaty investor’
visa is available to qualified persons who seek to develop
and direct a business in which they have invested (or are
actively in the process of investing) a substantial amount
Further information regarding E visas for business owners can be found in our article Immigration Options for Investors, Entrepreneurs and Business Owners.
E-1 and E-2 visas may also
be available to prospective employees of a treaty trader or
treaty investor if the employees are the same nationality
as the trader or investor and either (a) an executive or supervisor,
or (b) a skilled worker with special qualifications that are
essential to the efficient operation of the US enterprise.
The spouse of an E-1 or E-2 visa holder, and unmarried children
under the age of 21, regardless of their nationality, are
also eligible for E-1 or E-2 visas. After entry to the US
on an E-1 or E-2 visa the spouse may apply for an unrestricted
work permit (employment authorization document (‘EAD’))
and may commence employment as soon as the authorization has
Aliens in Specialty Occupations (E-3):
E-3 visas are available to
otherwise eligible citizens of countries designated by statute.
At the present time the only such country is Australia. The
E-3 is available for persons offered US employment in a ‘specialty
occupation,’ defined as one which for entry requires
a US baccalaureate degree or equivalent in a field related
to the occupation. The person being offered the job must have
either a US baccalaureate degree in a relevant field or the
foreign equivalent of that degree or the equivalent in a combination
of formal education and work experience. The spouse of an
E-3 visa holder, and unmarried children under the age of 21,
regardless of their nationality, are also eligible for E-3
visas. E-3 spouses may apply after entry to the US for unrestricted
work permits and may commence employment as soon as the authorization
has been granted. No petition need be filed in the US for
the E-3 visa but an approved Labor Condition Application must
be submitted at the time of the visa application.
For additional information regarding the E-3 please see our website article Frequently-Asked Questions About the ‘Australians Only’ E-3 Visa.
Student visas are available
to persons who wish to attend a full course of study at an
approved institution, either academic (F-1) or vocational
or other recognized non-academic (M-1).
Before applying for either an F-1 or M-1 the prospective student must obtain from the school a Form I-20 A-B certificate of eligibility for the requested status. The prospective student must also pay to the Department of Homeland Security a fee of $200.00 to defray the cost of enrolment in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Proof of payment must be brought to the applicant’s visa interview. For instructions on how to pay the SEVIS fee, click here.
and Trainees (H Visas), of which there are 4 types:
This visa is available for persons offered US employment
in a ‘specialty occupation,’ defined as one
which for entry requires a US baccalaureate degree or
equivalent in a field related to the occupation. The person
being offered the job must have either a US baccalaureate
degree in a relevant field or the foreign equivalent of
that degree or the equivalent in a combination of formal
education and work experience. H-1B visas are also available
to fashion models of ‘distinguished merit and ability,’
and to individuals who seek to perform services of exceptional
nature in connection with certain government-sponsored
H-1B availability is limited to 65,000 per year. Of that
number, 6,800 are reserved for applicants under the Singapore
and Chilean free trade agreements, leaving 58,200 available
for applicants from the rest of the world. Petitions for
current H-1B workers do not count toward the quota; neither
do petitions for aliens who will be employed at an institution
of higher education (or a related or affiliated nonprofit
entity), or at a nonprofit research organization or a
governmental research organization. Moreover, the first
20,000 H-1B petitions filed within a fiscal year for persons
who have earned master’s degrees or higher from
a US institution of higher education are treated as exempt
from the annual maximum of 58,200. In order to apply for
an H-1B visa at the Embassy the applicant must be the
beneficiary of a petition filed by the prospective US
employer and approved by a US-based office of US Citizenship
and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Nurses in Shortage Areas (H-1C):
Five hundred visas per year are available for nurses
who seek to work in geographical areas designated by the
US Department of Health and Human Services as ‘Health
Professional Shortage Areas.’
Temporary Workers (H-2):
Skilled and unskilled workers who seek to fill positions
in the US that are temporary or seasonal in nature may
apply for H-2 visas. The sponsoring employer must prove
not only the temporary or seasonal nature of the job but
also that there is a shortage of US workers to fill the
In order to qualify for an H-3 visa
an individual must be seeking to receive in the US training
that is not generally available in his or her home country.
The sponsoring employer must describe the type of training
to be offered, certify that the trainee will not engage
in productive employment except incidentally and as is
necessary to accomplish the training, and demonstrate
that the training will benefit the applicant in pursuing
a career outside the United States.
US immigration law authorizes
the granting of ‘I’ nonimmigrant classification
to representatives of foreign press, radio, film or other
information media who seek to enter the US solely to engage
in that vocation. ‘I’ visas are available not
only to primary employees of foreign information media engaged
in filming a news event or documentary, but also to the employees
of independent production companies.
The purpose of the Exchange
Visitor Program is to facilitate educational and cultural
exchanges between people of the United States and other countries,
in order to increase mutual understanding. A wide variety
of educational, cultural and employment possibilities are
available under programs administered by the public and private
entities that act as exchange sponsors under supervision of
the US Department of State. J-1 visas are available to qualified
applicants who seek to undertake temporary employment (including
work as an au pair), training or research under the aegis
of a sponsoring organization.
Some exchange visitors and their families may be subject to a two-year foreign residency requirement after the completion of their US stay. If the visa holders are subject to this requirement they may not be granted ‘H,’ ‘L,’ ‘K’ visas, or lawful permanent resident status, until they have either returned to their home country for a period of two years, or obtained a waiver of that requirement. J-1 visa applicants must pay a fee to the Department of Homeland Security (for most applicants $180.00) to defray the cost of enrolment in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). Proof of payment must be brought to the applicant’s visa interview. For instructions on how to pay the SEVIS fee, click here.
The K-1 visa allows the fiancé or fiancée of a US citizen to travel to the United States for the purpose of marrying the US citizen within 90 days after entry. The process is begun by the US citizen, who must file a petition for the fiancé/fiancée with the USCIS office with jurisdiction over the US citizen’s residence. In-depth information regarding the K-1 visa is contained in our website article Before You Say ‘I Do’: Options for British-American Couples.
Because the fiancé/fiancée
visa allows the person to travel to the United States, marry
a US citizen shortly after arrival, and begin the process
of application for permanent resident status, the K-1 applicant
must meet most of the requirements to qualify for an immigrant
visa, including a medical examination and the provision of
police certificates and public charge documentation. The unmarried
children of the K-1 applicant, if under the age of 21, may
apply for K-2 visas to accompany or follow to join their parent.
|Spouses of US
The spouse of a US citizen, and the spouse’s children, can travel to the United States on K-3 and K-4 visas, respectively, and wait in the US to complete the immigration process. The US citizen must first file an immigrant petition for alien relative, to sponsor the spouse and any qualifying child. Once the immigrant petition has been filed the US citizen may then file a second petition, for the K-3 and K-4 visas. When that second petition has been approved, the spouse and any qualifying children must apply for their visas at the US Embassy or Consulate in the foreign country where the marriage took place or, if there is no consular post in that country, at a post designated by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services. If the marriage took place in the United States, the visa applications must be filed in the applicants’ country of nationality or last foreign residence. Information about the K-3/K-4 option can be found at Before You Say ‘I Do’: Options for British-American Couples.
The L-1 visa requires that the applicant have been employed outside the United States for one continuous year in the previous three years, in a position that is managerial, executive, or requires the use of specialized knowledge, and that he or she be transferring to a position in the US for the same or a related company, which position is either managerial, executive, or requires the use of specialized knowledge. In order to apply for an L-1 visa at the Embassy the applicant must be the beneficiary of a petition approved by a US-based office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). L-1s can often serve as a route to lawful permanent resident (‘green card’) status for individuals and their families. You may wish to consult our website articles on this subject, Intracompany Transfers and Multinational Executives and Managers – EB-1-3.
L-2 visas are available for
the L-1 holder’s spouse and unmarried children under
the age of 21. After entry to the US on an L-2 visa the spouse
may apply for an unrestricted work permit (employment authorization
document (‘EAD’)) and may commence employment
as soon as the authorization has been granted.
|Alien of Extraordinary
Ability/Extraordinary Achievement (O-1):
The ‘O’ visa classification provides for the admission into the United States of persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television production, and their essential support personnel. For additional information regarding the extraordinary ability visa, see our website article How to Prove You’re an Alien of Extraordinary Ability. The extraordinary achievement visa for those in motion pictures and television is discussed in the article Lights! Camera! Visa! Aliens of Extraordinary Achievement in Film and Television.
The applicant for an O-1 must
be sponsored by an employer or agent, and the visa is granted
for a specific event, such as a tour, lecture series or project.
The sponsor must file a petition with the USCIS and it must
be approved before the applicant may apply for his or her
Essential support personnel
who are an integral part of the performance and have skills
and experience not available in the United States location
may apply for O-2 visas to accompany and assist the O-1 visa
holder. Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21
may accompany O-1 and O-2 visa holders by obtaining O-3 visas.
| Athletes, Entertainers
and Artists (P-1, P-2 and P-3):
The P-1 visa is available
to athletes, artists, members of entertainment groups and
their essential support personnel. Individual members of the
entertainment industry are not eligible for the P-1 visa classification
but individual athletes are. Individual athletes may be admitted
for up to five years and members of an athletic team for a
period of six months. For members of the entertainment industry
the P-1 visa will be issued for a specific event only. The
P-1 applicant must perform with, or as an integral and essential
part of the performance of, an entertainment group that has
been recognized internationally as being outstanding in the
discipline for a sustained and substantial period of time.
The individual must also have had a sustained and substantial
relationship with the group (ordinarily for at least 1 year)
and provide functions integral to the performance of the group.
The P-2 visa provides for
the admission into the US of an artist or entertainer, either
an individual or a group, involved in a reciprocal exchange
program between an organization or organizations in the United
States and one or more foreign countries, which program provides
for the temporary exchange of artists and entertainers.
The P-3 visa is reserved
for the admission into the United States of an artist or entertainer,
either an individual or a group, who will perform, teach or
coach under a program that is culturally unique.
Applications for P visas
must be preceded by the filing of a petition with the USCIS,
and the approval of that petition.
The spouses and unmarried
children under the age of 21 of the holders of P-1, P-2 or
P-3 visas may apply for P-4 visas to accompany their spouse
or parent to the United States.
Upon approval of a visa petition filed by a petitioning employer in the US, a minister of religion or a religious worker may apply for the religious worker ‘R’ visa if, for the two years immediately preceding the time of application, the applicant has been a member of a religious denomination which has a bona fide nonprofit religious organization in the United States. The applicant must plan to enter the US solely to either (1) carry on the vocation of a minister of the religious denomination, or (2) work in a qualifying religious vocation or occupation. R-2 visas are available to the spouses and unmarried children under 21 of the R-1 visa holder.
Children of Permanent Residents (V):
In order to qualify for a
‘V’ visa an applicant must be the spouse or unmarried
child under the age of 21 of a lawful permanent resident of
the United States. The applicant must be the beneficiary of
an immigrant visa petition filed by his or her spouse or parent
on or before December 21, 2000. The ‘V’ visa allows
the holders to live and work in the US whilst awaiting permanent