Guide to US Immigration Visa Types
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offer a wide array of visa options, shifting requirements, eligibility and quotas for those wishing to immigrate to, work in, invest in or otherwise live in the United States. Visa options usually fall under two categories:
- Immigrant visas for those seeking legal permanent residence "Green card" and possibly US citizenship.
- Nonimmigrant visas for temporary stays in the US where the visa typically has an expiration date.
This guide outlines the most common visa types. Contact us for an immigration consultation to review your unique situation and goals.
Investor Visas | E2, EB5
E2 Treaty investor visa
The E-2 nonimmigrant classification allows a national of a treaty country (a country with which the US maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation) to be admitted to the US when investing a substantial amount of capital in a US business. Certain employees of such a person or of a qualifying organization may also be eligible for this classification.
To qualify for E2 visa classification, the treaty investor must:
Be a national of a country with which the United States maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation. List of US Treaty countries.
Have invested, or be actively in the process of investing, a substantial amount of capital in a bona fide enterprise in the US.
Be seeking to enter the US solely to develop and direct the investment enterprise. This is established by showing at least 50% ownership of the enterprise or possession of operational control through a managerial position or other corporate device.
EB5 Visa immigrant investor program
Under this program, EB-5 visa entrepreneurs (and their spouses and unmarried children under 21) are eligible to apply for a green card (permanent residence) if they:
- Make a minimum investment of $1,000,000 in a commercial enterprise in the US. A lower investment minimum of $500,000 can apply for investing in certain regional centers and "Targeted Employment Areas" with high unemployment or rural locations.
- Plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified US workers.
EB5 visa investments can be made directly or through USCIS approved regional centers and include a wide variety of options including real estate, businesses and restaurants among others. Investments can either be passive or actively managed by the investor.
Immigrant Work Visas | EB1, EB2, EB3, EB4
EB1 & EB4 Visa for permanent workers
Under the EB-1 to EB-4 visa programs, if you have the right combination of skills, education, and/or work experience and are otherwise eligible, you may be able to receive a green card and live permanently in the US. Approximately 140,000 immigrant visas are available each fiscal year for aliens (and their spouses and children) who seek to immigrate based on their job skills. The following visa preference categories do not require a labor certification:
- EB1 visa: The EB-1 visa preference is reserved for persons of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors or researchers; and multinational executives and managers. EB-1 criteria.
- EB4 visa: The EB-4 visa preference is reserved for “special immigrants,” which includes certain religious workers, employees of US foreign service posts, retired employees of international organizations, alien minors who are wards of courts in the US, and other classes of aliens. EB-4 criteria.
EB2 & EB3 Visa for permanent workers
The EB-2 and EB-3 visa preference categories require a labor certification unless applicant can obtain a national interest waiver. The visa qualification criteria are as follows:
- EB2 visa: The EB-2 visa preference is reserved for persons who are members of the professions holding advanced degrees or for persons with exceptional ability in the arts, sciences, or business. EB-2 criteria.
- EB3 visa: The EB-3 visa preference is reserved for professionals, skilled workers, and other workers. EB-3 criteria.
Nonimmigrant Work Visas | H1B, L1, O1, E1, E3
H1B Visa for specialty occupations
The H1-B visa category applies to people who wish to perform services in a specialty occupation, services of exceptional merit and ability relating to a Department of Defense (DOD) cooperative research and development project, or services as a fashion model of distinguished merit or ability. Your spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may seek admission in the H-4 nonimmigrant classification.
H1-B visa quota caps are quickly used up within days of release on April 1st of each year. For 2018 Congress mandated a regular cap of 65,000 H1 B visas and a further H1B Master's Exemption cap of 20,000 visas available for Master's degree or higher applicants.
Congress caps the quantity of H-1B visas that can be issued each year as follows:
- H-1B Regular Cap: 65,000 (Less the Chile-Singapore Cap)
- H-1B Master's Exemption: 20,000 (Requires a U.S. Master's degree or higher)
- Chile-Singapore Cap: 6,800 (Deducted from the Regular Cap as used under the U.S. Chile and Singapore Free Trade Agreements)
For 2017, USCIS reached the quota on April 7th after receiving 236,000 applications in 5 days for the 85,000 available visas. The separate 6,800 H-1B petition quota for nationals of Chile and Singapore has never been exhausted. While this separate quota is deducted from the Regular Cap, any unused quota is added back to the Regular Cap the next fiscal year.
The earliest start date for an April 1st application is October 1st of each year.
Cap-exempt H1B visa for specialty occupations
Congress has carved out exemptions from H-1B cap limitations for workers employed at certain qualifying institutions. These institutions are free to employ as many H-1B workers that otherwise qualify. The USCIS definition of cap-exempt employers includes workers employed by or at:
- Higher education institutions
- Non-profits related to or affiliated with higher education institutions
- Nonprofit research or governmental research organizations
E1 Treaty trader visa
The E-1 nonimmigrant visa classification allows a national of a treaty country (a country with which the US maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation) to be admitted to the US solely to engage in international trade on their own behalf. Employees of such a person or qualifying organization may also be eligible for this classification.
To qualify for E-1 classification, the treaty trader must:
- Be a national of a country with which the US maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation. List of US Treaty countries.
- Carry on substantial trade with continuous flow of sizable international trade items, involving numerous transactions over time.
- Carry on principal trade between the US and the treaty country where over 50% of the total volume of international trade is between the US and the trader’s treaty country that qualified the treaty trader for E-1 classification.
L1 Visa intracompany transferee
The L1A and L1B nonimmigrant classifications enable a US employer to transfer an executive, manager or professional employee with specialized knowledge relating to the organization’s interests from one of its affiliated foreign offices to one of its offices in the US. This classification also enables a foreign company which does not yet have an affiliated US office to send an executive or manager to the US with the purpose of establishing one.
To qualify for L-1 classification the named employee must:
- Generally have been working for a qualifying organization abroad for one continuous year within the three years immediately preceding his or her admission to the US; and
- Be seeking to enter the US to provide service in an executive or managerial capacity or to provide services in a specialized knowledge capacity for a branch of the same employer or one of its qualifying organizations.
O1 Visa extraordinary ability worker
The O-1 nonimmigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements. An advisory consultation letter from a qualified peer group is generally required to qualify. O2 and O3 visas are available for assistants and family members accompanying O-1 visa recipients. O-1 criteria and classifications.
TN Visa NAFTA professionals
The TN nonimmigrant classification permits qualified Canadian and Mexican citizens to seek temporary entry into the US to engage in business activities at a professional level as authorized under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The initial period of stay can be up to 3 years and may be extended upon application.
Among the types of professionals who are eligible to seek admission as TN nonimmigrants are accountants, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and teachers. The TN nonimmigrant classification is available to qualified citizens of Canada or Mexico who have prearranged a full-time or part-time job with a US employer. Any accompanying or “following to join” spouse and children under the age of 21 may be eligible for TD nonimmigrant status. Spouses and children are not permitted to work while in the US, but they are permitted to study.
E3 Visa specialty occupation from Australia
The E-3 classification applies only to nationals of Australia coming to the US solely to perform services in a specialty occupation. The specialty occupation requires theoretical and practical application of a body of knowledge in professional fields and at least the attainment of a bachelor's degree, or its equivalent, as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the US. Your spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age are entitled to the same E-3 classification. Your spouse is entitled to work authorization, but not your children.
Dependent Visas: Family & Marriage Visas | K1, K3 Visa
K1 Fiancé & marriage visa
The K-1 is a nonimmigrant visa that permits a foreign national fiancé/fiancée of a US citizen to travel to the US to marry the US citizen sponsor within 90 days of admission to the country. The k1 marriage visa program is a collaborative process involving US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), US Department of State (DOS), and US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
The 3 step process involves: (1) Petitioning UCICS to recognize the foreign citizen as the US citizen's fiancé, (2) Applying for a K1visa and passing a DOS background check, and (3) Inspection of the K-1 visa holder at a US port of entry.
K2, K3 & K4 Visas for spouse, dependent & children
There are several dependent visa types for dependant children and foreign spouses coming to the US, depending on their relationship and stepparent-child dependant relationships:
- K2 visa: K-2 visa dependent child of a fiancé of a US citizen
- K3 visa: spouse of a US citizen. Once admitted to the US, K-3 visa nonimmigrants may apply to adjust status to a permanent resident at any time and may obtain an employment authorization document (EAD).
- K4 visa: K-4 visa for an unmarried, under 21 year old child of a US citizen
Immigration law allows the alien spouse of a US citizen and his or her dependent minor children to be admitted to the US as nonimmigrants while they are awaiting the approval of Petition for Alien Relative. It also allows them to obtain employment authorization while they are waiting.
US citizens at least 21 years old can apply for their parents (mother or father) to come live in the US as greencard holders. Green card holders (permanent residents) may not petition to bring their parents to live permanently in the US.
Once parents are admitted as an immigrant with their immigrant visa, they do not need to apply for employment authorization (work permit). If parents are now outside the US, they will receive a special passport stamp upon arrival in the US. This stamp will prove they are allowed to work in the US until their Permanent Resident Card is received.
Student & Exchange Visitor Visas | F1, M1, J1 Visas
F1 Student visa
The F-1 Visa (Academic Student) allows you to enter the US as a full-time student at an accredited college, university, seminary, conservatory, academic high school, elementary school, or other academic institution or in a language training program. You must be enrolled in a program or course of study that culminates in a degree, diploma, or certificate and your school must be authorized by the US government to accept international students. A students spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age may seek admission in the F-2 visa classification. Dept of State F-1 visa site →
F 1 visa students may not work off-campus during the first academic year, but may accept on-campus employment subject to certain conditions and restrictions. There are various programs available for F1visa students to seek off-campus employment, after the first academic year. F1 visa students may engage in three types of off-campus employment, after they have been studying for one academic year. These three types of employment are:
- Curricular Practical Training (CPT)
- Optional Practical Training (OPT visa) (pre-completion or post-completion)
- Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Optional Practical Training Extension (OPT)
M1 Student visa
The M-1 visa (Vocational Student) category includes students in vocational or other nonacademic programs, other than language training. M 1 visa students may engage in practical training only after they have completed their studies. Dept of State M-1 visa site →
For M-1 visa students any off-campus employment must be related to their area of study and must be authorized prior to starting any work by the Designated School Official (the person authorized to maintain the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and USCIS.
J1 Exchange visitor visa
The exchange visitor J-1 visa classification is authorized for those who intend to participate in an approved program for the purpose of teaching, instructing or lecturing, studying, observing, conducting research, consulting, demonstrating special skills, receiving training, or to receive graduate medical education or training.
In carrying out the responsibilities of the Exchange Visitor Program, the Department of State designates public and private entities to act as exchange sponsors. J 1 visa nonimmigrants are therefore sponsored by an exchange program that is designated as such by the US Department of State. These programs are designed to promote the interchange or persons, knowledge, and skills, in the fields of education, arts, and science.
Examples of exchange visitors include, but are not limited to:
- Professors, scholars, teachers & research assistants
- Students & Trainees
- Nannies/Au pairs
- Camp counselors
Some J1visa nonimmigrants enter the US specifically to work (as a researcher, nanny, etc.) while others do not. Employment is authorized for J-1 nonimmigrants only under the terms of the exchange program. The sponsoring agency would provide information on any restrictions that may apply to working in the US.
Your spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age, regardless of nationality, are entitled to J2 visa classification. Your spouse and children are entitled to work authorization; however, their income may not be used to support you. Dept of State J-1 visa site →
Other Visas | B1, B2, U Visa
B1 Business visitor visa
A B-1 visa business visitor is a nonimmigrant visa and generally is used to enter the US temporarily for business. Some examples of activities permitted with a business visitor visa:
- Consult with business associates
- Attend a scientific, educational, professional, or business convention or conference
- Settle an estate
- Negotiate a contract
B2 Tourism and visit visa
A tourism visitor B-2 visa is a nonimmigrant visa and generally is used to enter the US temporarily for tourism, pleasure or visiting.
U Visa for victims of criminal activity
The U nonimmigrant status (U visa) is set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. Congress authorized the U visa to strengthen the ability of law enforcement agencies to investigate and prosecute crimes, while also protecting victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse due to the crime and are willing to help law enforcement authorities in the investigation or prosecution of the criminal activity.
You may be eligible for a U nonimmigrant visa if:
- You are the victim of the criminal activity.
- You suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a victim of criminal activity.
- You have information about the criminal activity.
- You are helpful, or are likely to be helpful to law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crime.
- The crime occurred in the United States or violated US laws.
Example qualifying criminal activity includes any of the following: Abduction, Abusive Sexual Contact, Blackmail, Domestic Violence, Extortion, False Imprisonment, Female Genital Mutilation, Felonious Assault, Fraud in Foreign Labor Contracting, Hostage, Incest, Involuntary Servitude, Kidnapping, Manslaughter, Murder, Obstruction of Justice, Peonage, Perjury, Prostitution, Rape, Sexual Assault, Sexual Exploitation, Slave Trade, Stalking, Torture, Trafficking, Witness Tampering, or Unlawful Criminal Restraint. Also any similar activity where the elements of the crime are substantially similar or includes attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of the above or other related crimes.
Up to 10,000 U visas may be granted to principal petitioners each year. When granted the U visa is valid for four years and extensions are available in certain, limited circumstances.
Last updated 6.17.18
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