Helpful guide to USA work permits, work visas, and student visas

The United States offers many pathways to legally enter the country. Along with Green Cards and naturalization methods, the U.S. also offers student visas, work visas, and work permits. As with all other pathways, there are certain specifications that must be met. For a work visa, only certain categories of employment fit the requirements. The same is true of work permits. Similarly, student visas have their own specifications and qualifications. Fortunately, for all categories, the requirements and application process are both clear.

Video — 10 steps for apply for an H-1 visa

Work Permits and Visas

Per the United States regulations, work permits and and work visas are not the same. There are clear distinctions to both of them.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office sets the requirements for different categories of workers that are eligible for work permit authorization. Being an eligible employee means that you are legally authorized to work in the United States. The onus of checking whether employees are legally permitted to work in the country usually fall on the employers, however, it is the worker’s responsibility to ensure his/her documentation is complete and approved before seeking lawful employment. Proof of an approved work permit for nonimmigrants is an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). If questioned at anytime, the EAD will serve as proof that you are allowed to work in the U.S. If you are a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S. you will not have to file for an EAD.

By contrast a work visa is for a nonimmigrant citizen looking to enter the United States for a finite period of time in order to complete a specific order of business. As you will see below, there are many types of work visas so make sure you obtain the correct one before coming to the United States. This is good practice because if you are a national of certain countries (a U.S. partner) and are visiting the country for tourism or business (closing a deal, negotiating a contract), you may be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Be clear and honest about your intentions for visiting the United States and apply for the correct type of visa/authorization and you should have an issue-free time in the country.

Work Permit: Application for Employment Authorization (Form i-765)

Applying for a work permit is actually a relatively simple process; especially as it relates to the work visa process. Form I-765 is a one-pager that asks for biographic information and delves into the times you have entered the U.S. Plus, you must have proof of eligibility to file i-765. The instructions for form 1-765 make a clear case of who is eligible to file the form. Eligibility for the work permit is restricted to certain immigrant categories. To correctly complete your form, you will need to read the instructions and figure out under which of the 8 primary categories you fall.

The top-level categories are:

  1. Asylees/Refugees and Their Children and Spouses
  2. Nationality Categories
  3. Foreign Students
  4. Certain Dependents of NATO, Diplomatic Missions, or International Organizations
  5. Employment-Based Nonimmigrants
  6. Family-Based Nonimmigrants
  7. Adjustment-of-Status
  8. Others

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Under each category there are many exceptions, rules, and qualifications. Ensure that you read the directions carefully to ensure that you have a proper understanding of where you fall. This is greatly important to your application as you must select the proper code under which you are filing.

Form I-765 can also be used to file for a replacement EAD, a renewal EAD, and an interim EAD. You can only file for renewal EADs 120 or less before your current one expires. Replacement EADs will only be issued in the case of a stolen, lost, or damaged EAD. Also, EADs with incorrect information must be replaced. If the incorrect information is due to USCIS, your replacement card will be free. However, if your provided incorrect information and, thusly, caused the misinformation, you will be required to file a new form and pay another fee. Who wants that? No-one! If your EAD case is in limbo and has not been adjudicated within 90 days (30 days for asylum) then you may be eligible for an interim EAD.

Ensure that the form is completed honestly and thoroughly. Be careful to not get denied on a technicality. USCIS states that not completely filling out the form could be cause for a outright denial. In some instances, you may be required to provide additional information and/or have an interview. If this happens you will be given clear instructions on what to bring and when your interview is.

Hopefully, your application is approved without hesitation! If so, YAY! Your EAD will be available via mail or pickup at the nearest USCIS office. Unfortunately, in some instances your petition will be denied. Bad things, good people, right? In this case, you will receive a notice detailing the reasons for denial. Hopefully, it wasn’t on a technicality. Double and triple-check your form before sending it.

As of this writing, the filing fee is $380, but could cost up to $465 if a biometric fee needs to be included. Also, there are 11 exemptions to the filing fee. It would be helpful (and could save money) to see if you fall under any of them. Whether exempt or not, include either payment, proof of payment, or proof of payment exemption with your form I-765.

Work Visa: Temporary Employment Visas (DS-160)

The United States Department of State lists four primary categories from which someone could seek an employment visa. Below, we break the categories down and talk specifics:

  1. Temporary Employment Visas: This one is a bit of a misnomer because all work visas and permits are temporary. This category denotes a longer term employment (perhaps up to a year), instead of a shorter term opportunity which could better fit into one of the other categories, including the VWP. The temporary employment visa is unique from the other categories because an employer has to petition on your behalf before you apply for a visa. In fact, your employer may have to get labor certification approval from the Department of Labor before they can petition for you. Keep in mind that sometimes a labor certification is not required. However, all temporary work visa applications must be preceded by an approved employer petition (Form I-129). If the prospective employer’s petition is approved, they will receive a Form I-797 notice of action and then you are eligible to apply for a temporary visa. Well will discuss the application process more below.
  1. First let us look at the categories. All visa application fees for the types below are $190. Temporary worker visas fall under the following subsets:
    • People in Special Occupations (H-1B): This category states that you must have a higher degree of education, experience, or training. Essentially, you have to be among the best at your profession in order to be approved for this category. Similarly, the H-1B1 visa is also available for distinguished specialists, but it is only available for Chilean and Singaporean nationals.
    • People working in Agriculture Temporarily (H-2A): If the U.S. deems certain seasonal work in agriculture as a positive benefit to the country, they will allow a limited amount of people from selected countries to apply for authorization. An H-2B designation is similar in that the specifications are the same, except this category is for non-agricultural workers.
    • Specialized Education or Specific Training (H-3): People that need specialized training or education that cannot be obtained in the petitioner’s home country, are of eligible to apply for a temporary work visa.
    • Intracompany Transfers (L): High-level employees, like managers and executives, of companies with offices abroad and the United States, may be eligible for a work authorization visa as a transferee.
    • People with High Achievements or Exceptional Talents (O): If a person has been high-achieving in certain areas (ex: science, arts) and has received national and international accolades, they may be eligible for a work permit under this category.
    • Athletes and Entertainers (P-1): If performing at specific events, athletes, entertainers, and their support staff are eligible for authorization under this route if they have demonstrated high-achieving and recognized levels.
    • Artist and Entertainer Exchange (P-2): Participants in exchange programs with the United States and other countries can apply under this specification.
    • Culturally Specific Artist or Entertainers (P-3): If teaching or performing a unique cultural or traditional program that is not likely to be found in the United States, artists and entertainers can use this designation to petition.
    • International Cultural Exchange Participants (Q-1): This category is for people sharing insights into their traditions and cultures of their home countries.
  2. Exchange Visitor Visa: These (J-1) visas are for people applying for U.S. based visitor exchange programs. Examples include interns, au pairs, teachers, physicians, and camp counselors. This is not an exhaustive list so you may be able to find other categories within the J-1 visa that better suits your intentions and/or interests.
    Special things to note: There are different requirements if the citizen is from a VWP country. Please ensure that you are familiarized with the VWP and are inline with all regulations. J-1 visa applications are $160. Also, before applying for this visa, you must already have acceptance into a United States based exchange program. This category is unique in that after acceptance into a proper program, it requires a Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) fee. The SEVIS fee ranges from $35-$200. Different factors dictate how much you will pay and in some cases the fee may be waived.
  3. Media Visa (I): As the name implies, this visa type is for members of the international press looking to report on matters that are of importance in the petitioner’s home country. It costs $160 for the nonimmgrant I visa application.
  4. Trade/Inverstor Treaty Visa (E-1 and E-2): If the work visa applicant is a citizen of one the United State’s treaty partners and is visiting the U.S. to do business in trade or invest in enterprise, they should petition under this category. All E-type visa applications are $205.
  5. Special Notes about Canadian and Mexican Applicants (TN Visa)
    Due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), certain visa privileges are extended to the U.S.’ northern and southern neighbors. Of course, there are qualifications that need to be met including: being on the NAFTA list, being a citizen (not permanent resident) of Mexico or Canada, and meeting qualifications and educational requirements. Of distinction though, Mexicans need a TN Visa to enter the U.S., whereas Canadians do not. Canadians, can still apply for one upon request.

Application Process

The process for all four of the USCIS recognized nonimmigrant visa categories is essentially the same. Granted, there are some additional list items on certain subsets.

Each visa application type requires a completed Form DS-160 submitted directly to the Department of State Website. The information from your form and a successful interview will determine if you are granted a nonimmigrant visa. Thus, you should take both pieces of this process serious. The DS-160 can only be completed online at the Consular Electronic Application Center. This form will, of course, ask general biographic information. But, it will also take a look into your past travels if you have previously visited the United States, your work history, and any additional information deemed necessary. While completing the form online, petitioners will be asked to upload a current photo. Again, additional information may be requested depending on the subset under which you are applying. For example, E-type applicants must submit an additional form.

After submitting online applications, petitioners must contact the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate to set-up an interview. For the interview, all applicants should print out a copy of the DS-160 confirmation page because you will need it at your interview. More, the applicants must have a valid passport that doesn’t expire until 6 months after the United States visit, receipt of fee payment, and printed photo (if the online upload failed). These are all common to each visa type, but remember, that each nonimmigrant visa application also has specifications specific only to it.

Student Visas

The student visa falls under either the F-1 or M-1 categories. The F category includes university/college, high school, private elementary school, seminary, conservatory, and language training programs. The M category encompasses all other types vocational and nonacademic institutions. The process to obtain a student visa is very direct. First, you must apply and be accepted into the school of your choice. Note that the school must be SEVP approved. After your acceptance at an SEVP school, you will be enrolled in SEVIS. As the exchange student example listed above says, you must now pay the SEVIS fee. After the fee, you can proceed to complete your DS-160 application and pay the fee. The next and final step, as with the other visas, is to have your interview. If you successfully complete all steps, you will likely be granted a student visa. According to some estimates, there are over 1 million students studying in the United States on student visas. You can join them! The process is easy (although a little time consuming). In the end though, it is all worth it!

So, what is your pathway to the United States? Do you want a work permit or visa? Perhaps, you are a student that wants to explore studying and learning abroad. If any of these three categories sound like you, be comfortable in knowing that now you have the tools and knowledge necessary to successfully apply!

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