There are 5 main ways an individual can obtain residency and work authorization in the United States:
- Sponsorship by an Employer
- Sponsorship by a close Family Member in the United States
- The Diversity Visa Lottery Program
- Asylum & Refugee Status
If you are interested in investment or trade in the USA, check out EB-5 Investor Visa and E-1 Treaty Trader and E-2 Treaty Investor Visa options. The main types of temporary US work visas are the H1B, the L-1 and the E.
Lawful Permanent Residence –The ‘Green Card’
For many people, obtaining a ‘Green Card’ is a significant personal goal. The technical term is ‘lawful permanent residence’, and the visa is no longer green, but we are happy to use the near-universally accepted term ‘Green Card’. The sad news is that it will generally take several years to obtain a green card, so your employer will probably want to use a temporary (‘non-immigrant’) visa to get you to the US; once you are there you can embark on the longer project of getting your ‘Green Card’.
Can I be a freelance contractor in the US?
Being a professional freelance contractor, in the way that IT professionals have been able to in Australia, the UK (pre IR35), and in much of Continental Europe, is not an option in the US. This restriction is not linked to visa requirements. Indeed, agencies are able to sponsor visas,. However, in the US people do not normally act through personal service companies, because laws force them to be the direct employees of the agency.
H1-B Speciality Occupation Visas
This is a visa for people coming to the USA to work for a US employer in a professional-level position. Valid for 3 years initially, can be extended to 6. The candidate must have a US job offer in a speciality occupation, and must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Have completed a US bachelor’s or higher degree required by the specific specialty occupation from an accredited college or university.
- Hold a foreign degree that is the equivalent to a U.S. bachelor’s or higher degree in the specialty occupation.
- Hold an unrestricted state license, registration, or certification which authorizes you to fully practice the specialty occupation and be engaged in that specialty in the state of intended employment.
- Have education, training, or experience in the specialty that is equivalent to the completion of such a degree, and have recognition of expertise in the specialty through progressively responsible positions directly related to the specialty.
L-1 Intra-Company Transfer Visas
The L-1 visa is used to transfer workers from a related foreign company to a US parent, affiliate, subsidiary or branch office. There are two types of L-1 visas:
- The L-1A for Executive/Managerial staff
- The L-1B for Specialist Knowledge staff
L-1 visas are issued for an initial 1 or 3 years. L-1A visas can be extended to a maximum of 7 years, while L-1B visas can be extended to a maximum of 5 years. To be eligible:
- You must have worked for the transferring employer outside US for at least one year in the last three.
- If you are a manager/executive, you must be going to manage a major subdivision or function of your employer’s US operation.
- If you are a specialized knowledge worker, you must have in-depth experience of your employer’s particular products, processes, procedures and/or practices.
E-3 Visa for Australians
These visas allow certain Australian professionals to enter the US in order to work in certain ‘specialty occupations’.
E visas are generally issued for an initial period of up to 2 years; they can be renewed indefinitely. A specialty occupation is one that requires a body of knowledge in a professional field, and at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent, as a minimum for entry into the occupation in the United States. For Australians interested in the E3 visa, the process is actually quite similar to the H1B visa. You must first find a job with a company who will then sponsor your visa. There are 10,500 E-3 visas available per year. Spouses of an E-3 visa holder are permitted to come to the US and work also. A spouse’s employment may be in a position other than a specialty occupation.
Exchange visas can be obtained for 18 months through approved J visa programs. The aim of this program is to foster international relations by bringing exchange visitors into the US to acquire skills that can be utilized in their home country. These programs need to be designated by the United States Information Agency. If you wish to work for a short period of time, the easiest method may be on a J-1 exchange visitor visa. However if you wish to apply for a more permanent non-immigrant visa at a later date or permanent residence, depending on the scheme, there may be problems as there is a two-year home residency requirement after the J visa program is complete.
TN-1 Visas for Canadians
Canadians can often gain entry to the US with greater ease than others; this preferential treatment for Canadians is linked to treaty provisions within the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While there are many NAFTA related visas, the most useful one is the TN1. The TN1 visa was modeled on the H1B; it may only be used where the employer is based in the US, and the candidate is a professional in one of the categories listed on below. Where a candidate, by their profession and nationality, qualifies for the TN1 visa, it has the following advantages over the H1B:
- It is granted for one year, but can continue to be renewed indefinitely.
- It can be applied for at the border with the US, and is usually granted immediately.
- The documentary requirements and procedure is far less burdensome than the H1B visa.
What about my spouse and children?
Dependants of personnel with US work visas are not generally allowed to work in the US, unless they can qualify for a US work visa in their own right, and can find a US employer to sponsor them. Though these rules vary depending on which type of work visa is held. Dependants can, however, engage in study in the US. The dependants of a US work visa holder obtain their derivative visas at the same time as the main visa holder.