U.S. Work Visas and Eligibility Requirements

Are you a foreign national interested in employment in the U.S.? If so, you will need a work visa to be legally employed in the United States of America. There are several types of work visas available to foreign nationals who want to work in the United States, including green cards (for permanent residency), temporary work visas, seasonal work visas, and exchange worker visas.

The type of visa you may be eligible for will depend on the type of work you do, whether you have a relationship with an employer, and, in some cases, your country of origin. The guidelines for obtaining authorization to work in the United States vary depending on the type of visa and the eligibility requirements for that visa.

Here is information on each type of U.S. work visa, including eligibility and requirements, plus information on how to apply for a visa. It is important to note that these requirements can change at any time so we’ve provided links to government resources, which will be the most reliable source of updated information on restrictions, quotas, and guidelines for green card and visa applications. 

U.S. Work Visas Requirements

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What's a U.S. work visa and why do you need one? A visa is a document that provides authorization for travel to and admittance to a stipulated country, in this case the United States. Before visiting, working or immigrating to the U.S., generally a citizen of a foreign country must first obtain a U.S. visa.

The visa provides entry to the U.S. and, depending on the type of visa obtained, may provide authorization for employment in the U.S.

Having a visa does not guarantee entry to the U.S. However, it does indicate a consular officer at a U.S. embassy or consulate has determined you are eligible to seek entry for the specific purpose listed on the visa. Visas are obtained from the U.S. embassy or consulate closest to your residence abroad. 

U.S. Green Cards

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It is possible to become a permanent resident (Green Card holder) of the United States through a job or offer of employment. There is also a lottery program that provides a limited number of green cards to successful applicants.

However, some categories require a certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to show that there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available in the geographic area where the immigrant is to be employed and that no American workers are displaced by foreign workers.

U.S. immigration law provides foreign nationals with a variety of ways to obtain a Green Card through employment in the United States. These employment-based (EB) “preference immigrant” categories include:

  • (EB-1) -  First preference for priority workers, including “foreign nationals with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers; or certain multinational managers and executives.”
  • (EB2) - Second preference for “foreign nationals who are members of the professions holding advanced degrees or who have exceptional ability (including requests for national interest waivers).”
  • (EB3) - Third preference for foreign nationals who are “skilled workers, professionals, or other workers.”
  • (EB4)- Fourth preference for special immigrants like religious workers, neglected/abused juveniles, and retired officers or employees of certain international organizations, or NATO, and certain family members.
  • (EB5) Fifth preference for immigrant investors, “foreign nationals who have invested or are actively in the process of investing [sums of at least] $1 million (or $500,000 in targeted employment areas) in a new commercial enterprise that will benefit the U.S. economy and create at least 10 full-time positions for qualifying employees.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has more information on how to apply for a Green Card.

Green Card Lottery Programs

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The annual green card lottery program (Diversity Immigrant Visa Program) is an opportunity for potential immigrants to obtain the status as a permanent legal resident of the U.S. This program runs each year and provides green cards to applicants randomly selected in a lottery process – known as the Green Card Lottery. Applicants must apply far in advance of the actual date when they would like to enter the country. The current lottery is DV2021, which means that lottery winners will be able to enter the country in 2021.

Eligibility is limited for natives from some countries. The eligible country list is posted with the guidelines for each year's diversity program. Fewer than one percent of applicants are selected to undergo the process, which includes background checks. The State Department currently estimates that 55,000 green cards will be awarded as a result of DV2021.

Immigrants from the following countries are excluded from the Diversity Lottery: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Korea, United Kingdom (except for Northern Ireland), and Vietnam.

Exchange Visitor Visas

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U.S. Exchange Visitor (J) non-immigrant visas are available to individuals approved to participate in work and study-based exchange visitor programs. These visas allow visitors to experience life in the U.S., before returning to their home countries with an appreciation for the American culture and lifestyle. 

As per the State Department, eligible categories of visitor for this visa type include au pairs, camp counselors, college students, interns, physicians, professors, scholars, teachers, and trainees. 

Temporary Work Visas (Non-Agricultural)

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U.S. Temporary Non-Agricultural (H-2B) visas are available to foreign workers in non-agricultural fields to work in the United States, provided there is an insufficient number of domestic laborers to fill the position. H-2B visas are generally used for jobs that are temporary, though not agricultural – for example, jobs at ski mountains, hotels, beach resorts, or amusement parks.

There is a cap - currently 66,000 a year - on the number of employees who are issued this type of visa. Learn more about current requirements and restrictions at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Temporary Worker Visas (Skilled Workers)

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U.S. H1-B non-immigrant visas are for skilled, educated individuals employed in specialized occupations. The H1-B visa enables foreign workers to work temporarily for a specific employer in the United States.

To apply, you must have an employee-employer relationship, work in a specific in-demand specialty occupation, and be paid above the prevailing wage for that job. There is a cap of 65,000 regular H1-B visas issued each year and an additional 20,000 for those qualifying for the advanced degree exemptions. The USCIS website includes the latest instructions and forms for H1-B visas.

Seasonal Agricultural Worker Visas

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U.S. Seasonal Agricultural Worker (H2-A) visas are available to foreign agricultural workers to work in the United States on a seasonal or temporary basis, provided there is a shortage of domestic workers. Visas are limited to three years and immigrants must originate from a country on the selected countries list.

To learn more about the program process and requirements, see the USCIS website.

Eligibility to Work in the United States

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When you have secured the appropriate visa, you will need to get a permit to work, which is officially known as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), in order to prove you are eligible to work in the United States. The document provides proof to employers that you are legally permitted to work in the U.S.

You can review information on Employment Authorization Documents and how to acquire, renew, or replace them.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law.