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Work Visas in the USA

work visa usa
student visa
career planning
By Deshan Mendis
Last updated on July 28, 2022

Planning to work and study in the US? Learn about the different types of work visa, permits, and which one applies to you!

A female international student wearing professional attire shakes hands with a recruiter at a job fair

When you complete your US university degree and are planning to start your professional career, looking for jobs in the US can be a great option because of the many opportunities available around the country. As a former international student or nonimmigrant in the US, you will have to obtain a work visa or a work permit, depending on the type of work you are planning to do.

This guide covers everything you need to know about temporary nonimmigrant labor visa in the USA, US work authorization, different types of work permits in the USA, how to get a working visa for the USA, legal rights and protections for nonimmigrant employees, and more.

Temporary Nonimmigrant Visas

A temporary work visa permits you to enter the US and engage in work for a certain period of time. To apply for a work permit in the USA, your employer must file a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). This means you must first apply for and be accepted for a job in the US before you can apply for a temporary nonimmigrant visa. 

After the petition has been accepted by the USCIS, you can then apply for a temporary nonimmigrant work visa in the USA. As it is a temporary visa, you are only permitted to work in the US for a limited time (usually determined by the work contract with your employer). If necessary, your stay in the US can be extended by applying for an extension of stay which can be approved by USCIS.

There are many types of work visas available, and each type is relevant to a specific industry, type of job, or reason for employment. When applying for your work visa in the USA, you must choose the right type specific to your job. Learning about the different types of USA work visas allows you to understand which one you need. 

H Visas

The H-series of work visas cover five categories of work visas and apply mainly to employees working in specialized careers. With these visas, spouses and any children younger than 21 can also apply for admission into the US under H-4 nonimmigrant classification. 

Many roles, especially STEM roles in the US, require H-1B visas – but what is a H-1B visa? What are H-1B visa requirements? The list below outlines each H-type labor visa in the USA and who can apply. 

The H visas are:

  • H-1B: Person In Specialty Occupation — Covers specialty jobs, including fashion modeling, government-to-government research and development, and co-production projects assigned by the Department of Defense. A higher education degree or equivalent qualification is required to apply.

  • H-1B1 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Professional - Chile, Singapore — Required for work in a specialty job, and requires a post-secondary degree with at least four years of study in a field related to the applicant’s specialized career. This specific work visa is not petition-based and has special application procedures for individuals applying from Chile or Singapore. (Check each country’s embassy website for eligibility and application procedures.)

  • H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker — Relevant for careers related to seasonal agricultural work, this visa type is limited to citizens of specific countries (though there can be exceptions). The full list of eligible countries whose citizens can apply for this work visa can be found here.

  • H-2B Temporary Non-agricultural Worker — Covers careers related to seasonal non-agricultural work, such as hospitality employment. This visa is also available only to citizens from a specific list of countries (which can be found here), with some exceptions.

  • H-3 Trainee or Special Education Visitor — Relevant for training opportunities not available in the trainee’s home country, outside of graduate medical or academic fields. This work visa is also valid for practical training programs related to educating children with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities.

L Visas

L work visas are for jobs that involve working at a branch, parent, affiliate, or subsidiary of an employer, usually in a managerial/executive role, or an equivalent position that requires specialized knowledge. As a requirement for this work visa in the USA, applicants must also have been employed abroad by the same employer for at least one year within the last three years.

This type of visa is mainly needed for job roles with advanced tasks and responsibilities, such as general manager, branch manager, country coordinator, or other similar executive positions. It should be noted that this work visa only applies to individuals; it does not permit family to travel with you.

O Visas

O work visas are required if you have shown extraordinary ability in specific fields, and aim to work in this specialized field in the US. This visa type is split into two classifications:

  • O-1A: For people with extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics

  • O-1B: For people with extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion pictures or television

Anyone providing essential services to support you or to assist in certain events or performances can apply under an O-2 visa. Spouses and children younger than 21 can also travel with you under an O-3 nonimmigrant visa, following the same admission period and limitations as your labor visa in the USA.

P Visas

P work visas are for jobs related to athletics, entertainment, or art, and also cover anyone providing essential services to support you, such as a coach or trainer. To address the wide variety of potential careers here, P visas are split into three categories:

  • P-1: For anyone performing at an athletic competition as an athlete or part of an entertainment group

  • P-2: For individual performers or entertainment groups taking part in an exchange program between the US and another country

  • P-3: For teaching or coaching in a program that involves traditional ethnic, folk, cultural, musical, theatrical, or artistic performances and presentations

With a P visa, your spouse and children younger than 21 are permitted to travel with you by obtaining P-4 status.

Q Visas

Q work visas are mainly for practical training and jobs with international cultural exchange programs involving sharing history, culture, and traditions of your home country.

The main purpose of this work visa type is to promote the sharing of history and culture between the US and international cultures. You must be qualified to carry out the service, training, and communicate cultural aspects effectively. It is important to note that your spouse and any children are not permitted to accompany you with this type of work visa. 

How to Apply for an Employment Visa

After you choose the right US work authorization visa which matches your job category and requirements and your employer’s petition is approved, it is time to start preparing to apply for your labor visa in the USA.

This process can be different for certain visas, but usually has the following steps:

  • Gather the necessary paperwork

  • Fill out an online application

  • Attend your visa interview

While there are only three major steps in this process, keep in mind that gathering the documents you need to apply and scheduling your interview can take a significant amount of time. Start the process as early as possible to minimize delays or interruptions.

Gather Necessary Paperwork

Before you attend your visa interview, make sure the following documents are ready:

  • Confirmation page of your nonimmigrant visa application, Form DS-160

  • Receipt of your application fee payment

  • Copy of the photo to be used for your visa

  • Receipt number of your employer’s approved petition as it appears on Form I-129 or Form I-797

  • Valid passport

Additionally, if you have applied for a L work visa, you are required to bring Form I-129S (nonimmigrant Petition Based on Blanket L Petition) with you to your interview.

You may require additional documents depending on the type of labor visa in the USA you have applied for, so be sure to check with your local US embassy or consulate on the exact documents you need. For example, all work permit in the USA applicants for visas except H-1B and L must show proof of intent to return to their country after completing temporary work in the US. 

Fill Out Online Application

To apply for your US work authorization, you need to fill out the online nonimmigrant visa application, Form DS-160. It takes approximately 90 minutes to complete this form and you also have to upload a photo of yourself to submit with your application. (You can view the exact requirements for your photograph here.)

After completing your application, print a copy of the DS-160 barcode page and keep it safe. Remember to also print the application form confirmation page, as you must bring this to your visa interview. You must also pay a nonrefundable visa processing fee of $190 (USD). Keep the receipt of this fee payment as well, as it is required for your interview.

Once you have submitted your application and have paid the fee, you need to schedule a visa interview at your local US embassy or consulate. Anyone aged 13 and younger or 80 and older usually does not require an interview, but consular officers are allowed to make this a requirement at their discretion. 

Attend Visa Interview

For your visa interview, you are interviewed by a consular officer who will ask you about your reasons for travel and plans after completing your work, among other questions, to evaluate if you meet the specific visa requirements. You are expected to answer these questions honestly and in detail.

Examples of questions that may be asked during your visa interview include:

  • What is the purpose of your trip to the United States?

  • Do you have any family in the United States?

  • Why do you want to work in the US?

  • When are you planning to travel?

  • What are your plans after your work visa validity period ends?

If you are not confident in your interviewing skills, try practicing your answers with friends or family members. This can make it easier for you to respond to the consular officer during your actual interview. 

When you pass your interview for your work visa in the USA, it is time to celebrate! You will have US work authorization and can start preparing for your trip to the US. Depending on the country you live in, you may be required to pay a visa issuance fee when the visa is approved. Remember to clarify this with your local embassy or consulate.

Student Visa and OPT

Optional Practical Training (OPT) programs enable international students like you to gain work experience in the US during your program or after you graduate. OPT programs usually last for 12 months, and if you graduate with a STEM-related degree, you can apply for an extension for 24 additional months. This gives you a total of three years to work and train in the US! 

Since OPT opportunities can be applied for after graduation, this is a great option for students who want to build long-term careers in the US.

Student Visa and CPT

Work experience through Curricular Practical Training (CPT) may be included in specific academic programs as part of your requirements to earn a degree. Because you cannot engage in CPT after graduation, this option makes sense for international students who want to gain short-term practical experience. Programs with CPT are usually designed to give you enough time to work, which means they can be easier to balance with your study load compared to unaffiliated part-time jobs. 

No matter which work opportunity you choose, as a temporary visitor to the US, you have specific rights and protections under US law that you should be aware of before you travel.

Legal Rights and Protections

If you have a H-1B, H-2A, or H-2B work visa, the US government encourages you to learn about your rights as a temporary employee and to report any violations you encounter.

Temporary workers in the US have the right to:

  • Be paid fairly: You must be paid for all work you do, and at a rate equal to at least the federal legal minimum wage for most jobs.

  • Be free from discrimination: You must be treated fairly and without discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, and/or religion.

  • Be free from sexual harassment and sexual exploitation: It is unlawful of your employer to sexually harass you in any way, including gender-based comments.

  • Have a healthy and safe workplace: You must be provided with the right to report work-related injuries and illnesses, receive protective equipment and training when working with or near hazards, and have access to clean potable water and bathrooms.

  • Request help from union, immigrant, and labor rights groups: You have the right to request improved wages or working conditions together with your coworkers and are allowed to attend public speeches and rallies related to labor rights when not working.

  • Leave an abusive employment situation: You have the right to leave your employer if you are feeling abused. This will invalidate your visa, but you may still change your visa status or employer after you leave an abusive employer.

This is a brief overview of the many rights available to you in the US. For a full list of your legal rights and protections as a temporary worker, refer to this pamphlet from the Bureau of Consular Affairs. This pamphlet is also available in multiple languages.

Need Help Figuring Out What Kind of Visa Is Right for You?

As there are so many types of visas, it can be challenging to choose the right work permit in the USA that best fits your job role. Always speak to your employer about which visa best suits both your needs. 

The following table may help you understand the most appropriate work visa in the USA option for you, depending on the type of job:

What is the job?

Fashion model

Apply for this visa:

H-1B

What is the job?

Worker for a government-to-government research and development project

Apply for this visa:

H-1B

What is the job?

A role that requires theoretical and practical application of specialized knowledge and skill

Apply for this visa:

H-1B

What is the job?

A role requiring a bachelor's degree or higher for qualification

Apply for this visa:

H-1B

What is the job?

A role that requires theoretical and practical application of specialized knowledge and skill of a worker from Chile or Singapore

Apply for this visa:

H-1B1

What is the job?

A role requiring a bachelor's degree or higher for qualification from a worker from Chile or Singapore

Apply for this visa:

H-1B1

What is the job?

A job that requires seasonal employment in the agriculture industry and you are applying from

this list of countries

Apply for this visa:

H-2A

What is the job?

A job that requires seasonal employment in non-agricultural industries and you are applying from

this list of countries

Apply for this visa:

H-2B

What is the job?

An opportunity for training not related to graduate medical or academic fields and is not available in your home country

Apply for this visa:

H-3

What is the job?

A job involving re-educating children with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities

Apply for this visa:

H-3

What is the job?

A job with a managerial (or equivalent) role that requires you to work at a branch, parent, affiliate, or subsidiary of your employer

Apply for this visa:

L

What is the job?

A job related to the sciences, education, business, or athletics where you have displayed a high level of achievement and skill or are well known

Apply for this visa:

O-1A

What is the job?

A job related to the arts, motion pictures, or television where you have displayed a high level of achievement and skill or are well known

Apply for this visa:

O-1B

What is the job?

Participating as an athlete at an athletic competition

Apply for this visa:

P-1

What is the job?

Performing as part of an entertainment group

Apply for this visa:

P-1

What is the job?

Participating in an exchange program between your country and the US as an individual entertainer or part of an entertainment group

Apply for this visa:

P-2

What is the job?

A job that requires you to teach or train others in a program involving cultural or traditional ethnic performances and presentations

Apply for this visa:

P-3

What is the job?

Participating in a training opportunity or job related to sharing history, culture, and traditions between your country and the US as part of a cultural exchange program

Apply for this visa:

Q-1

If you need additional support in choosing the right work visa for you, consider reaching out to a Shorelight advisor! Your advisor can connect you with career counselors for new graduates to help you determine the right path forward for your US career.

Additionally, while you are still enrolled at a US university, expert Shorelight counselors can provide career counseling and visa assistance services to help you choose the right work visa that matches your job. They can also direct you to career development programs, help you apply for an internship, and guide you on how to make a career plan.

With a work permit in the USA, you can gain valuable international work experience and build in-demand skills that will serve you well with employers around the world. You can also connect with experts and professionals who you can learn from as you expand your skill set. They may even help you find more opportunities to keep building your career. 

Working in the US allows you to grow both professionally and personally, and equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to take your career to the next level!

Reach out to a Shorelight advisor today >