According to official statistics, there are some 42.4 million immigrants in the United States of America - accounting for over 13% of the total population. As a global powerhouse, America has long been an aspirational destination for adventurers looking to live the dream and launch their new life.
When it comes to work, there are few places in the world that can offer such a range of opportunity as the USA. Whether you work in academia or technology, manufacturing or the service industry - or somewhere else entirely - you’re going to find first class employers and exciting businesses. But in order to join them, you'll most likely need a specific employment permit granting you permission to live and work in the USA.
Check out this guide to getting your American work visa.
Most foreigners will need a visa or permit to work legally in the United States. There are a wide range of visa options, although helpfully the Department of State provide a Visa ‘Wizard’ which will point you in the right direction. Simply enter your personal details and they type of work you'll be doing, and it will come up with the most suitable visa for your needs.
If you’re travelling to the USA for some very specific business purposes you might not need a visa, if you’re from a country covered by a visa waiver policy. For example, if you’re entering the US for training or to negotiate a contract then you might need only an ESTA travel authorisation. However, the circumstances in which this applies are fairly narrow, so it’s best to assume you'll need to arrange a visa before you travel.
Visa applications for the USA are managed by the Department of State, and there's a wealth of information about different visa types available on the department website.
For people moving to the US to work on a permanent basis, the E type (employment-based) visa category is the most common. Under this visa type, you can apply for a ‘Green Card’, also known as a Legal Permanent Residence (LPR) card.
These visas are managed by a cap on an annual basis, meaning that even if you fulfil the criteria you'll only be issued a visa if the quota has not been reached yet in that time period.The E type visas are divided into different sub categories according to the circumstances and roles covered. Each category receives a different priority level, and the number of visas available within the quota is dictated by this level of priority.
Before you can be considered for a visa under this programme, you must have a job lined up. Your employer will usually need a certificate of approval from the Department of Labour, and then may be required to make a second application to the Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Once the employer has completed their side of the application, it's passed to the National Visa Centre (NVC). You'll be told by the NVC which application forms you're now required to complete, and the documentary evidence required for your application. As part of your application you'll need to attend an interview with a visa officer at the consulate section of your local embassy, as well as having medical tests conducted by an approved doctor.
You need to give yourself enough time for your visa to be processed. The Department of State doesn't commit to any fixed processing time, and because of the quota system, E type visas might take longer than others to process. You can get an estimate on the wait time to arrange an interview at your local consulate on the Department of State’s website.
Once you've had your interview, your visa application is either approved or rejected. If approved, you'll be given your passport with a visa stamp, and a sealed packet including the documentation you submitted as part of your application. You must not open the sealed packet. Instead, you present this at the border, along with your valid visa.
You'll need to pay an immigrant fee before you can collect your permanent residence card. This is paid online, after your application is approved, but before you travel to the USA. The fees are currently around USD 1140 for the first application. Assuming you've paid your fees, you cross the border using the visa you have in your passport, and then your residence card (Green Card) is sent to the address you've registered in the USA.
Because the visa process has several different steps and can be fairly complex, it's not uncommon to appoint an agent to act on your behalf. This is perfectly acceptable to the authorities, but you'll have to confirm that this is your preference. Processing your agent application can take a few weeks, adding to the length of time you need to get your documentation lined up.
You must submit documents to the Visa Centre before you attend your interview, including those listed below. If the originals aren't in English then you'll need a certified translation.
- Passport valid for at least six months
- Completed Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration Application
- Two passport type photographs
- Translations of supporting documents (see note below)
- Proof of adequate financial Support
- Completed Medical Examination Forms
The exact documents you’ll need to provide vary depending on which country you’re applying from. The Department of State website has a handy page where you can input your personal information and pull up a list of the documents required for your chosen visa type. It's worth checking this and asking your consulate if you're unsure about other requirements to support your application.
In some cases you'll need to submit original documents which are then given back to you at the time of your appointment. Otherwise you may be able to take some documents along to the interview with you. You'll also be required to give fingerprints at the time of completing your application interview.
Temporary work visas for the USA are split according to the type of role you’re coming to do. So there are specific visas for people working in specialist occupations requiring higher education, for example, or those coming to work in agriculture for a season. The process for getting a temporary visa is much the same as that outlined above. Your employer must start the application, before it is passed over to you. At this stage you must collect your documents, submit them, and go for an interview at your local consulate or embassy. The application fees for this visa type are in the region of $190, although there might then be an additional fee added at the point your visa is issued.
An alternative route if you’re coming to the States for temporary work as a camp counsellor, or for some specific summer jobs, is to get an ‘Exchange Visitor Visa’. This visa type will only apply if the work you're going to do is arranged by an approved organisation. If so, your new employer will be able to provide the full application details.
Whatever visa type you choose, it's likely that you'll be asked to prove your compelling reasons to return home, in order to have your temporary visa approved. You'll have to show that you really intend to leave once your visa expires, by showing commitment to your home based family, residence or employer.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services Department suggests that entrepreneurs seeking a visa might follow either an immigrant pathway or a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa route, to come to the US. You'd follow a similar route to that outlined above, but the employer is, effectively, yourself as an entrepreneur or business owner.
Because this route features many different potential options and pitfalls, it's advised that you consult a specialised immigration attorney to discuss the work you intend to do, and your personal circumstances. They can then advise you on your options.
If you’re approved for an E type visa you should be able to bring your spouse and children under the age of 21 into the USA. You can all apply at the same time, and follow a similar process to obtain a visa. Most likely the visa type which will apply will be the F2 visa, although it’s a good idea to check with your employer or agent in case there's a better fit. The F2 visa is subject to a quota on an annual basis, similar to the employment based visas.
It’s worth remembering though that the primary applicant must enter the USA before or at the same time as accompanying family members.
A great place to start if the guide to the USA for immigrants, which is issued in 14 different languages, and available for free online. This guide covers practical detail about life in the US, as well as citizenship information.
You need to have a social security number to work legally in the USA. You can either elect to have this sent to you via snail mail to you once you arrive in America - in which case it should arrive within 6 weeks, or contact Social Security directly to make arrangements once you get settled.
To get the most of your money in America, you'll want to open a bank account in America, which you can do before you arrive.
Once you send money either to or from the States, consider using a money conversion service like TransferWise to avoid unfair exchange rates. There's a small transparent fee, and when your money is converted from one currency to another you’ll get the real exchange rate - the same one you can find on Google. Not only that, but TransferWise receives and sends money via local bank transfers instead of internationally, further saving you money by cutting out hefty international transfer fees.
If your trip is short or opening a bank account in America isn't an option, you can always withdraw money from your foreign account using an ATM there. Just keep in mind it'll be more favorable to agree to be charged in the local currency, not your home currency.
Regardless of when you start your new job abroad, it should be fairly straightforward to get yourself a visa if you follow the right steps. The most important part is just to make sure to enjoy your new adventure.