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Obtaining a Visa to Live, Study and Work in: the United States of America

13 June, 2012 09:16  EasyExpat EasyExpat

This is the fourth in a series of articles concerning visa options. We cover the different types of visas and how to apply. The other regions in the series are the United Kingdom, Canada, Austrailia, and the Schengen area. Get ready to go abroad!

immigration control © TMAX - Fotolia.comIf you've ever wanted to live or work (legally) in the USA, you've come to the right place. Below you will find information on visa regulations for short-term visitors, long-term visitors, students, and individuals moving to America to work or to join spouses, partners or other family members. This is the fourth in a series of five articles: in the coming weeks, the final installment will investigate visa requirements for permanent residents, students, workers and certain other visitors to the Schengen Area of western Europe. Each article in the series is designed to focus on how to meet the requirements for obtaining a visa and/or work permit for the country or region.

Every effort has been made to provide accurate information; however, you should consult with the appropriate consulate or embassy to obtain the most recent information and to discuss your specific circumstances. In addition, fees have been deliberately omitted because this information often becomes outdated very quickly.

Do You Need a Visa?

Citizens of 36 countries who also meet the requirements for Electronic System for Travel Authorization are eligible to travel to the United States without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program. The VWP allows visitors to travel to the United States for leisure and business-related activities of up to 90 days without obtaining a visa. Your passport must be valid for at least six months after your planned departure date from the United States.

Visitors from some countries will be required to have passports containing biometric chips to be eligible for the VWP. Citizens and permanent residents of Canada and Bermuda are generally eligible to travel to the United States for up to 180 days without a visa. Citizens of Mexico must have either a visa or a Border Crossing Card to enter the United States.

If you a non-American citizen or permanent resident and you are not eligible for the Visa Waiver Program and you are not an eligible citizen of Canada, Mexico or Bermuda, you must obtain a visa to enter the United States for visits of any length. If you do not intend to emigrate permanently to the US, you must complete the Form D S-160 Nonimmigrant Visa application before arriving in the United States. You may complete the application online. In nearly all cases, after completing the application, you must print out a copy of the barcode page, pay the appropriate fee and schedule an interview with your embassy or consulate to complete the application process.

    Required Documents:
  • Passport (valid for at least six months after planned departure date)
  • Travel Itinerary (if available)
  • Dates of last five visits to the United States (or travel history for the past five years)
  • Resume or CV (to answer questions relating to your education and work history)
  • Digital photo meeting photo requirements (you may also need to bring a printed photo to your interview)

In addition, visitors from most countries will be required to be fingerprinted and photographed upon entering the United States, even under the VWP. Most Canadian citizens presenting Canadian passports and citizens of Mexico presenting a Border Crossing Card who are traveling entirely within the border zone between Mexico and the United States are exempt from this requirement. Visitors from other countries who are under the age of 14 or over the age of 79 and certain other visitors designated by the United States Department of State are also exempt from the fingerprint and photograph requirement.

If you want to temporarily extend your stay in the United States, you must file Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) before your authorized stay expires. You must submit a copy of Form I-94, Nonimmigrant Arrival Departure Record along with your application. Your passport must remain valid for the entire period of your requested extension. You may not apply to extend your stay if you entered the United States through the VWP.

Citizens of Puerto Rico and other territories held by the United States do not need either a visa or a passport to enter the United States, and may remain in the country indefinitely. If you claim United States citizenship (born in the United States or born abroad with one or both parents holding American citizenship), you should not apply for a visa to enter the United States.

B-1 Visitor Visa

If you are traveling to the United States to attend a conference or convention, conduct business for your company, negotiate a contract, participate in a short-term craning program or settle an estate, you may qualify for a B-1 visitor visa that allows you to remain in the United States for the duration of your business transaction, conference, convention or training program.

Studying in the United States

Enrollment for foreign students in the United States is handled by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Visa information and similar data are maintained in the SEVIS program, an Internet-based system that maintains current information on
Non-immigrant students (F and M visas)
Exchange visitors (J visas)
and their dependents (F-2, M-2, and J-2 visas). Spouses and dependent children may accompany foreign students to the United States, but must obtain their own visas.

Students between the ages of 14 and 79 must also undergo an interview with the embassy consular section as a condition of receiving a visa. Student visas remain valid for the entire program of study as long as you remain enrolled full-time. You are allowed to return to your home country for brief visits without reapplying for a visa.

Foreign students enrolled in undergraduate or graduate programs are allowed to work up to 20 hours per week on campus during the first year of study. After the first year, you may apply to work up to 20 hours per week off campus in a position directly related to your program of study during the academic year. Under certain circumstances (especially pertaining to graduate students), you may also be permitted to work full-time during the summer months.

Students who hold an F-1 visa and who enroll in public secondary school are limited to a maximum of 12 months of enrollment. In addition, the student, or another individual, must pay the full, unsubsidized cost of the student's education for the entire period of enrollment. Students in other visa categories, and students who hold F-1 visas and enroll in private school are not subject to this restriction.

In most cases, students may enter the United States no more than 120 days before the beginning of their educational programs. Most students must return to their home countries for at least two years after finishing their studies. If you wish to remain in the United States after completing your educational program, you must apply for a waiver using Form I-539.

    To apply for a student visa, you must present the following documents:
  • Form I-20A-B OR Form I-20M-N (issued by your school after acceptance)
  • Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (F-1) Student Status For Academic and Language Students OR Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant (M-1) Student Status for Vocational Students
  • Completed Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application, Form DS-160
  • Passport (valid for at least six months beyond the applicant's intended period of stay in the United States)
  • One (1) 2x2 photograph meeting photograph requirements
  • MRV fee receipt (to show payment of visa application fee)
  • SEVIS I-901 form fee receipt

You should also be prepared to present the following documentation to obtain a student visa:

  • Transcripts and diplomas from previous institutions attended
  • Scores from required standardized tests (e.g. TOEFL, SAT, GRE, GMAT)
  • Proof of sufficient financial resources to cover your entire period of academic study

Working in the United States

If you have obtained a job or have received a job offer, you may be eligible to live and work in the USA. Most employment petitions require a job offer and require that the employer petition for the worker. Most employers petition for an employee using Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker.

As with family visa applications, Green Cards through a Job Offer are subject to annual quotas for certain categories according to preference categories; each country also has a set allotment of available visa slots. The wait time for processing employment based visa applications frequently stretches into many years. For example, work permit visa preference categories are limited to 140,000 per year. As of March 2012, there are 234,000 pending applications for employment based Green Cards.

    The preference categories for employment based visas:
  • First Preference: Priority Workers (e.g. outstanding professors and researchers, certain multinational executives and managers)
  • Second Preference: Advanced Degreed Professionals (including individuals seeking a National Interest Waiver)
  • Third Preference: Skilled Workers (professionals and other qualified workers)
  • Fourth Preference: Special Immigrants (e.g. religious workers)
  • Fifth Preference: Employment Creators (investors or entrepreneurs)

Applications are made by submitting the Form I-140. You may apply for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) by completing Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, if you have received an offer of work from an American employer. The EAD allows you to work legally in the United States for 12 months even without a Green Card and can be renewed if you are still working for an eligible employer.

Application Process

If You Are Living Outside the United States, you can become a permanent resident through consular processing. Consular processing is when USCIS works with the Department of State to issue a visa on an approved Form I-140 petition when a visa is available.

If You Are Living in the United States, you can become a permanent resident through adjustment of status when living inside the United States. Once the I-140 is approved and a visa number is available, you can apply on Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, to become a permanent resident.

    Submit the following documentation:
  • Copy of Form 1-94 Arrival Departure Record (front and back)
  • Job offer letter from your employer
  • Copy of Prior EAD, if issued (front and back) OR a copy of your passport, birth certificate or comparable document (showing name, date of birth and photo)
  • Two (2) identical color photos meeting photograph requirements ( taken within 30 days of your application date)
  • Form G-325A, Biographic Data Sheet (for applicants between the ages of 14 and 79)
  • Form I-693, Medical Examination (not required if you are applying based on continuous residence since before 1972, or if you have had a medical exam based on a fiancé visa)
  • Form I-864, Affidavit of Support (completed by the sponsor - This requirement will not apply to you if you are adjusting based on employment petition unless you or a relative own a percentage of the employer company)

Exchange Visitor Visa

Certain categories of individuals, such as au pairs and students from certain countries participating in pilot summer job programs may qualify for an Exchange Visitor Visa. Visitors traveling to the United States under the Exchange Visitor Visa cannot participate in the VWP. You may bring your spouse or dependent children along with you, however, you must also apply for an EAD if you wish to work while you are in the United States. The Exchange Visitor Visa is valid for the length of your employment or program. You must submit the following documentation to be eligible for an Exchange Visitor Visa.

    Required Documents
  • Valid passport
  • One (1) 2x2 photograph meeting photograph requirements.
  • DS 2019, Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status (generated by SEVIS)
  • A Training/Internship Placement Plan, Form DS-7002
  • Online Nonimmigrant Visa Electronic Application, Form DS-160

Temporary Worker Visa

You may also qualify for a temporary worker visa if you are an artist, athlete or entertainer, a researcher, a seasonal worker, participating in a cultural exchange program, or possess extraordinary talent in business, science or the arts.

If you are the spouse or dependent child of a worker assigned to the United States for diplomatic work, you may be eligible to work legally while you are in this country if your home country has a Bilateral Work Agreement or a de facto Work Arrangement with the United States.

Getting a Green Card

If you wish to remain in the United States permanently, you must file Form I -485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, commonly called a Green Card. You may file this form simultaneously with Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker for no additional fee.

There are eight categories of applicants eligible to apply for a Green Card.

  • Refugees and Asylum Seekers
  • Nationality Status Applicants (e.g. residents of Micronesia, Palau or the Marshall Islands)
  • Foreign Students
  • Eligible Dependents of Diplomatic Missions, International Organizations or NATO
  • Employment Based Non immigrants
  • Family Based Non immigrants
  • EAD Applicants Seeking Adjustment of Status
  • Other Categories (e.g. individuals appealing deportation)
Green Cards for most categories of applicants are subject to annual quotas for certain categories; each country also has a set allotment of available visa slots.


If you qualify for the following categories, you may receive priority processing of your Green Card application:

In most instances, you must obtain a Green Card before entering the United States. You must submit the following documentation to obtain a Green Card. All documents must be in English, or must be accompanied by a certified English translation.

To apply for a visa, you must present the following documents:
  • Completed Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration (PDF)
  • Birth Certificate (for all family members applying for Green Cards -- must include full name, date and place of birth, names of both parents and official certification)
  • Court and Prison Records (if applicable)
  • Form I-212, Permission to Reapply After Deportation (if you were previously deported from the United States)
  • Marriage Certificates (if applicable)
  • Marriage Termination Documentation (if previously married and applying as an eligible spouse or intended spouse)
  • Military Records (if applicable)
  • Petitioner Documents (applicants for IR5 - Parent of a U.S. Citizen visas)
  • Photocopy of Valid Passport Biographic Data Page
  • Two (2) identical color photographs meeting photograph requirements
  • Biometric fingerprints (for applicants between the ages of 14 and 79)
  • Police Certificates (for each applicant age 16 or older)
  • Adoption Documentation (for adopted children, if applicable)
  • Immigration Medical Examination
  • Affidavit of Support (from your sponsoring relative)
  • Family Members

    If you are an immediate relative of an American citizen, you may be able to submit Form I-485 at the same time your sponsoring relative submits Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. You may submit your application either before coming to the United States or while you are legally present within the country.

    Visas for immediate family members of United States citizens are not subject to quotas. However, quotas for other family categories are subject to quotas according to preference categories. When visa limits are reached, cutoff dates are set, and applications received after the cutoff date will not receive a Green Card. The preference categories for family sponsored visas are ranked below:

    • First Preference: Unmarried, adult (21 years of age or older) children of U.S. citizens
    • Second Preference A: Spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) of permanent residents
    • Second Preference B: Unmarried children (21 years or age or older) of permanent residents
    • Third Preference: Married children of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children
    • Fourth Preference: Siblings of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children

    Fiancé(e) Visas

    You may also obtain a Green Card by applying for a Fiancé(e) Visa if:

    • Your intended spouse is a United States citizen
    • Both you and your intended spouse must be single and free to marry one another
    • Must have met one another at least once no more than two years prior to your application
    • You may apply for a waiver of this requirement if religious or social customs strictly forbid meeting an intended spouse or if you can prove that you would suffer extreme hardship because of this requirement
    You must marry your intended spouse within 90 days after entering the country. If you do not marry within 90 days, you must leave the United States before your visa expires. A Fiancé(e) Visa cannot be extended under any circumstances.

    If you have dependent children under age 21, you may be able to bring them with you to the United States.

    Once the fiancé(e) visa has been issued, you may apply for permission to work by completing Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.

    Researched by Audrey Henderson
    -- freelance writer based in Chicago



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