One of the more common questions from people living outside the United States is how they can come to the US to live and to work. The answer is always complicated and requires a full consultation because there is not only one way to come to the US. There are many types of temporary and permanent green card options. Many people have few options available to them, while others might have good options.
This article describes some of the general options that might be useful for people to consider if they want to come to the US. Only an experienced immigration lawyer can help you to decide which of those options, if any, are strong possibilities.
What types of visas or immigration statuses are available?
There are many types of visas and options for visiting the US. The immigration system is extremely complex and bureaucratic. A person cannot simply apply for any visa. Rather, they must apply for a specific visa, meet the requirements, pay the required fees and present the necessary evidence. The first step is deciding what type of visa is the best fit.
Here are some of the available temporary and permanent options, but it doesn’t include every single option. There are far too many to list, and some a very specific to certain situations.
Common visas for visiting the United States without work authorization
B1/B2 visitor visas and ESTA
Millions of people visit the US each year on B1/B2 visitor visas or through the Visa Waiver Program, also known as ESTA. These programs have low requirements but, at the same time, people are still often denied visas. They require that someone has the intent to return to their country, sufficient ties to their country to demonstrate their intent to return, and no prior immigration violations.
The B1 or B2 visa is a common option for many people. The B1 visa is for business visitors, such as for attending conferences, meetings, and some other less common purposes. Generally speaking, it does not allow productive work, but there are some exceptions. It is not a general work visa, however.
The B2 visa is for tourism or visiting family. The period of time given is typically six months each entry. Individuals on B2 visas cannot work and cannot live in the US. They must maintain a residence abroad. If they violate those conditions they can be deported. While visitors can return many times, if they come too frequently they risk having their visa canceled and even being deported at the port of entry.
Temporary visa options for study, work and travel
There are a number of other visa classifications that allow some work and travel in the US. These options tend to be more complex and often people seek legal advice and representation.
Student F Visas, Vocational M Visas, and Exchange J Visas
Many people visit the US each year for the purpose of study, exchange programs, vocational study, and similar purposes. The most generally applicable programs are for students under the F Visa or M Visa, and other exchange programs which fall under the J Visa.
Student visas under the F Visa classification are very popular. Studying in the US can be expensive, and ultimately the F Visa is intended for a temporary stay, even if many students effectively live in the US for many years. For that reason many students on F visas will look for ways to change their status to another when their program ends or they decide to pursue a higher level of education. Many F Visa students eventually transfer to H-1B visas, O-1 visas, or green cards depending on their eligibility.
The J Visa encompasses a wide variety of exchange visitor programs. The US Department of State has a website which describes the different types of J Exchange Visitor programs in detail. It is recommended to review that website to see if any options are interesting or available for a temporary visit.
Many J visa applicants would like to live in the US at some point, however, and they should be cautious. Some J visas carry conditions and those conditions are strict. Getting a conditional visa under 212(e) means that the person must return to their country for two years before they can change status or apply for many common types of visas. It can cause difficult situations for those who would prefer to stay in the US or who are offered other options that require a new visa status. These issues are complicated and it’s important to review them with a lawyer.
The M Visa is less common but also used for vocational training. Most people coming on an M Visa pursue vocational or technical training rather than academic study. The type of visa will generally depend on the type of study that is desired.
Individuals in F, J, and M status can work in some capacity and if they meet the requirements.
Temporary employment visas for professional and non-professional positions
People frequently work in the US on a visa under a variety of visa classifications. H Visas are for general and professional work and there are several subcategories. O visas are for individuals with high levels of ability or accomplishment in their fields, and can include artists and nontechnical professionals. L visas are for employees being transferred from a company abroad to an affiliated company in the US. E investor and trader visas sometimes allow for certain employees.
H visas are the most popular of these types, and include the very competitive H-1B visa. This visa is for professional positions and specialty workers. Other H visas are for non-professional positions, such as the H-2A agricultural worker and the H-2B temporary or seasonal worker. The H-1B1 visa is specific to nationals of Singapore or Chile and the H-3 is for trainees. All of these visas are complex topics in and of themselves but are good options to consider. The H-2A and H-2B programs are limited to nationals of specific countries.
E visas are based on international treaties. The E-1 and E-2 visas are for traders and investors and are available for nationals of certain countries only. The E-3 visa is specific to Australians working in specialty occupations.
O Visas include individuals who have extraordinary ability in the arts and sciences. This category is broad but more exclusive than some of the others. At the same time, applicants have the higher burden of showing their level of ability is higher to meet the visa requirements.
L visas are also available for people transferring from a company’s international office or an affiliated company. L Visas are available both for manager positions and individuals with specialized knowledge of some sort.
Visas for permanently living and residing in the US
While many of the above temporary visas may be good options for coming to the US and eventually transitioning to a long term option, they generally don’t allow for unrestricted work or permanent stay. That type of status is Lawful Permanent Residency, or having a green card in the US.
The main ways to get a green card are through family, employment, diversity visas, or special programs. There are no general green card applications, other than the diversity visa, which functions more like a lottery. Besides that program, nearly everyone who gets a green card must demonstrate that they qualify under a specific visa classification or program.
Family-based immigration is sometimes available to people who have US Citizen or permanent resident family. A parent, spouse, child, or sibling can petition for some family members. There are restrictions within each category, and sometimes people can include children and spouses of their relative as dependents. Because the system can be complicated it’s best to work with an experienced attorney.
Employment-based immigration is divided into separate classifications. There are green card options based on the level of skill, and most but not all classifications require a petitioning employer. The employer petition process can be complicated and take time. There are also investment based green cards under the EB5 program for people willing to invest large amounts of money into specific types of projects which are intended to produce jobs. Finally, there are special visa programs for religious workers.
The diversity visa program is a great way for people to come to the US without prior connections. This program allows people from many, but not all countries, to register for a lottery system. If selected, they can then apply for the diversity visa and get a green card. It is one of the most straightforward green card options available, but it has some restrictions and not all nationals of all countries are eligible.
Finally, there are special green card programs. People can often get a green card based on some other type of status or program. They are usually quite specific to groups of people and cannot easily be summarized. For example, there is the LRIF program for certain Liberians and their family, refugee and asylee green cards, special immigrant visa green cards, green card options for victims of crime and trafficking, and so on.
Due to the complexity of the green card process, it’s vital to meet with a lawyer and undertake a full, comprehensive review of immigration options to see if something might be available.