If you’ve got your heart set on a new life in the States then you’ll need to set your mind on acquiring a visa first. America offers some of the best urban and natural spaces in the world, from the skyscrapers of New York City to the volcanoes of Yellowstone, but you’ve got to get through customs to see them. There are loads of different visa types – 185, in fact – but fortunately there is only a handful that you need to know about.

Let us guide you through the essentials, from duration periods and fees to key requirements. It really is as exciting as it sounds.

Visa Waiver Program

America made a deal with a bunch of countries around the world and luckily Australia was involved. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows Aussies to visit the USA for up to 90 days without a visa. You are free to do as much tourism and business as you want, just make sure you’ve cleared off before the 90 day period is up. To use the VWP you need to a) be Australian and b) get authorized by the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). The fees are fairly negligible for the VWP, with a processing charge and a further authorization charge. Applications for an ESTA must be made online at least 72 hours before you fly to the States – just make sure you have an e-passport!

If you’re investigating living and working in America, it’d also be wise to think about what medical cover you’ll have when you’re over there.

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Nonimmigrant visas

There are two main categories of visa for the US; immigrant and nonimmigrant (in other words: permanent and temporary). Nonimmigrant visas are best for tourists (who wish to visit for longer than 90 days), students and short-term work placements. Here are the types of nonimmigrant visa you should know about.

B1/B2 Visitor Visa

The B-1 Business Visa and B-2 Tourist Visa are officially separate things, but they’re often issued as one visa. That’s because there’s actually not much difference between them; they both run for the same period of time and have the same fees. The B-1 visa is for business-related stuff (eg. long consultations or negotiations with associates) while the B-2 visa is used for travel, tourism and medical treatments.

Requirements

Most importantly, for both visas you must be able to show that you only intend to remain in the USA for a limited period of time. There isn’t actually any official list of documents that will help you prove this, but your embassy interviewer will normally look at things like proof of property, family ties and your bank account. The second big requirement is that you are able to support yourself financially while you are in America, either through savings or the help of someone else. As these visas are temporary, certain things are not allowed unless you get yourself a permanent immigrant visa, such as running a business or ‘gainful employment’.

Duration

The B1/B2 visa lasts for 6 months, although it is possible to acquire a 6-month extension once you are in the USA. The maximum stay is 1 year.

Fees

The application fee is

Dependents

You can’t bring family members as dependents on the B1/B2 visa – your spouse and/or children will have to get their own B1/B2 visa if you want them to accompany you.

E3 Australian Professional Specialty Visa

America has made a visa especially for Australians! All you need is professional knowledge of a speciality occupation. There’s no definitive list of specialty occupations, but it’s generally one that requires a bachelor’s degree (or higher) in the specific field and the application of a body of specialized knowledge. For example, lawyer, doctor, accountant, journalist and secondary school teacher are all specialty occupations. There is only a limited number of E3 visas available each year, with 10,500 released at the beginning of every October.

Requirements

If you’re an Australian citizen and you can perform a specialty occupation (firstly, well done) then you’re almost there, but you also need a solid job offer from a US employer. The employer will then act as your sponsor when it comes to applying for the E3 visa. If you really need to, you can go to the US on a B1 visa to look for a job, but you need to go back to Australia before you apply for the visa. As with all temporary visas, you need to prove your intention to leave America once your stay is over.

Duration

E3 visas last for a maximum of two years, although the visa can be renewed indefinitely. In fact, there isn’t actually a limit to the number of times you can renew the E3 visa. You can arrive in the US up to ten days before you start your new job and you have ten days to leave once your employment is over.

Fees

The application fee for the E3 visa is 

Dependents

You can bring family members (spouses and unmarried children aged under 21) with you as dependents on the E3 visa, and there is no requirement for any of them to be Australian. Just you. All dependents need to go through a very similar procedure, completing the application form, paying the fee and having the embassy interview.

L1 Intra-Company Transfer Visa

This is the visa for you if your company is moving you to America. It’s been specifically created for employee transfers within international corporations. In theory, it applies to companies of any size, although smaller businesses find it more difficult to secure the visa for their employees. There’s the L1A visa for managers/executives and the L1B visa for employees with specialized knowledge. That should give you a hint about one of the key requirements.

Requirements

Yes, you can only get the L1 visa if you are either an executive, a manager or a specialized knowledge employee. Basically, you’ve got to be someone’s boss or possess some mega in-depth knowledge of your company’s products or services. Additionally, you must have been working for your employer for at least one year within the three years preceding your move to the States. Get all of this right and the L1 is (probably) yours.

Duration

The visa lengths vary, but the absolute maximum stay is seven years on the L1A visa and five years on the L1B visa. You can apply for two-year extensions but, again, the overall time spent in the USA cannot exceed the aforementioned maximum stays.

Fees

Applications costs 

Dependents

Family members (spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21) are able to accompany any L1 visa holder as dependents. They can enter the US on the derivative L2 visa, although they must also go through a similar application process.

Select the size of your move to get free quotes

F1 and M1 Student Visas

With many of the globe’s top universities located in the United States, it’s no surprise that so many international students want in on the fun. The American world of premium education, frat parties and plastic red cups is like no other. Two separate categories make up the Student Visa: the F1, which applies to academic studies in colleges, universities and private secondary schools, and the M1, which is for non-academic or vocational studies. You can actually use the F1 visa for public schools too, but only between grades 9-12 and only for one year. And you have to pay for the education. So it’s not a great deal.

Requirements

Obviously the most important requirement is that you have an offer from the school or college you wish to attend. You won’t get the visa without one. Along with this, your proposed academic/vocational course must be full time and you must be proficient in English. Additionally, you also need enough savings to support yourself financially during your time in the US, although F1 students are allowed to participate in some on-campus part-time employment for up to 20 hours per week.

Duration

There is no specific maximum stay associated with the F1 and M1 visas. Instead, the length of time is usually referred to as ‘Duration of Status’ (or ‘D/S’), which means that you are free to live in America until your course is completed. Once it’s finished, you’ve got 60 days to say your goodbyes and hop on a flight back home. Students on either visa type can arrive in the US up to 30 days before their course begins. That little bit of time to settle in before things properly kick off is essential.

Fees

There are two separate fees involved here. Firstly, you need to pay a fee in order to obtain your l-20 form. With this, you can then make your US visa application, which comes with an additional fee of

Dependents

Family members (spouses or unmarried children under the age of 21) are allowed to come with you as dependents, although if any of them wish to work while in America then they will need a proper work visa.

If you’re about to move to the US, you’ll probably need to convert some of your savings into dollars. 

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Immigrant visas (AKA green cards)

The other main category is the immigrant visa. This is permanent, so it doesn’t involve any worrying about maximum stays or when you need to leave the States. The immigrant visa is more popularly known as the ‘green card’, which is a bit more fun and colourful. However, in the mid-1960s the visa actually changed to a pale blue colour, and since 2002 it’s been more of a light pink, so the name really needs an update. A green card gives you permanent residence in the USA, so it’s a much coveted thing amongst internationals in America. Most people usually acquire it after working for several years on a temporary visa in the US, so don’t expect to secure one if you’re applying from outside America. While there are several subcategories of immigrant visa, by far the most popular types are employment-based and family-based.

Employment-based visas

About 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas are released every year at the start of October. This sounds like a lot, but they go like hot cakes and it can regularly cause a pretty long waiting list. You can have your immigrant visa application approved but still have to wait until the following year (or even longer) to get to the front of the list. For most immigrant visas you are required to have a job offer from an American employer before you can get the visa. Before they can offer you a job, the employer needs to prove two things to the US Department of Labor (DOL): one, that there are no qualified and willing US workers available for the role and, two, that the hiring of a foreign person will not negatively affect the salary of US workers in similar positions. Secure the job offer, get the visa and you can be a proper Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) of America! The employment-based visa is divided into four tiers of descending priority.

E1 Priority Workers

Priority workers sound like a wonderful group of people, consisting of ‘outstanding professors and researchers’, ‘multinational managers’ and ‘persons with extraordinary ability’. It’s no surprise they’re such a priority. Everyone in this category needs job offers before they come to the US – except the persons with extraordinary ability. They’re allowed to enter the US without a job offer as long as they carry on in the same field in which they possess their amazing abilities. You can’t arrive as an athletics superstar and go take up a  career in law.

E2 Persons of Exceptional Ability

So it turns out that ‘exceptional ability’ is a tier below ‘outstanding ability’. But it’s still very good. The E2 visa is reserved for these exceptional people who have a level of expertise in a certain field that is significantly above the usual standard. The other subgroup in this category is ‘professionals holding an advanced degree’ (ie. higher than a baccalaureate). Applicants of both type must have a job offer before they can get the visa.

E3 Skilled Workers, Professionals and Unskilled Workers

Although this is the third tier down, people in this category generally receive nearly 30% of the annual employment-based green card allowance. The quick definitions are as follows: skilled workers do jobs that require at least two years of training, professionals do jobs that require a degree of at least baccalaureate level, and unskilled workers do jobs that require less than two years of training. Everyone going for the E3 visa needs a confirmed US job offer before they apply.

E4 Certain Special Immigrants

This is extremely niche and it’s highly likely that it isn’t relevant to you. ‘Certain special immigrants’ include people such as retired NATO-6 civilians and employees of the Panama Canal Zone. You probably can just forget that the E4 visa even exists.

E5 Immigrant Investors

Again, this is fairly specific. If you are a foreign person looking to invest in a new job-creating commercial enterprise in the US then you’re in luck; America want you.

Dependents

Family members (spouses and unmarried children aged under 21) may come with you as dependents, although they must also undergo the same application process and pay the same fees. A 2013 judgement also allowed same-sex spouses to join immigrants as dependents.

Fees

The application fee for the vast majority of employment-based immigration visas is . There is also an Affidavit of Support fee of which is explained in the application process breakdown below.

Family-based visas

If you’re lucky enough to have family living in America then they can file a petition for you to join them over there. A Lawful Permanent Resident in the US can apply for their spouse or child to join them, while a bona fide US citizen can also apply for a parent or a sibling. You’ll be surprised to know that the family-based visa is divided into two types.

Type 1

Type 1 visas are reserved for ‘immediate relatives’ of US citizens, which includes spouses, children (unmarried and under 21) and parents. There is an unlimited number of Type 1 visas.

Type 2

Type 2 visas are made up of four subcategories (it’s getting a bit silly now).

F1 Family First Preference: for the unmarried sons and daughters (plus their minor children) of US citizens.

F2 Family Second Preference: for the spouses, minor children and unmarried children (aged over 21) of Lawful Permanent Residents (ie. immigrants with green cards). There are 114,200 of these visas released each year, and nearly 80% of them are taken up by spouses and minor children.

F3 Family Third Preference: for the married sons and daughters (plus their spouses and minor children) of US citizens.

F4 Family Fourth Preference: for the siblings (plus their spouses and minor children) of US citizens aged 21 and over.

Fees

The application fee for any of these visas is .

How to apply for a US visa

The process of actually applying for an American visa is pretty lengthy and involves a number of different steps, so here’s a breakdown of all the key stages. The application procedure described below applies to pretty much all US visas, immigrant and nonimmigrant.

1. Submit your ‘petition’ to the USCIS. This is essentially asking for permission to submit an application for a visa. Some people self-petition, but most rely on employers in America. Once your US employer has obtained their Department of Labor certificate, they can petition for you. Understandably, petitions from American companies usually carry a lot more weight than self-petitions from foreign countries.

2. Choose an agent.  After your petition is accepted by the USCIS, you need to get yourself an agent. Very confident people might choose to be their own agent (wow), but the majority normally elect an attorney or immigration professional. Your agent will formally represent you for visa processing and receive all communication from the National Visa Center (NVC) in America.

3. Pay your fees and submit your visa application form. You’re getting pretty close now. The standard application form for nonimmigrant visas is the DS-160, while those looking for permanent residency must complete the DS-260. Any family members planning to come with you as a dependent must also submit the same form. For some visa types you will need to pay an additional Affidavit of Support fee, which is USD$120 (AUD$152).

4. Attend an interview and medical examination. There can be up to an 11-week wait between submitting your application form and being invited for interview, so sit tight. Your interview will take place at the American embassy that’s nearest to your home, and you need to bring lots of important documents with you (such as birth certificates, bank account records, marriage certificates etc). Before the interview you also must have had a medical examination by an embassy-approved doctor in your country. You can always find a list of approved doctors on the embassy’s website. The medical results are meant to be seen by the embassy official first, so if the doctor gives you a sealed envelope then you musn’t open it. You find out at the end of the interview whether your visa application has been approved or rejected, so luckily there isn’t much waiting.

5. Go to America. If your application is accepted then you can start planning your big move to the land of the free! However, we really must urge that you don’t sell your house or book any flights until after you’ve had your visa confirmed. The US Department of State warn this too, so it must happen a lot.

US citizenship

There’s one more step up after a green card; full citizenship. Green card holders generally receive most of the same rights and benefits as a US citizen, but there are still some pretty good reasons to upgrade if you can. To name a few: you can vote, you get full access to public benefits, you can bring over family members more easily and it makes deportation much less likely. Not that we’re suggesting you’d ever be deported. The main requirement before you can secure US citizenship for yourself is that you must have held a green card for a minimum of five years. Along with this, you also need to be at least 18 years old, possess a decent standard of English and have ‘good moral character’. The application itself involves completing the N-400 form, having an interview and taking the US Naturalization Test. You can read about the test on the USCIS website here.

Next steps

We hope this page has made moving to America seem a little easier. The US immigration system can be a bit daunting but there are lots of visa options and loads of online resources to help with the applications. If you need some face-to-face assistance then one of the American embassies in Australia is a great place to start. Here are their locations:

  • US Embassy (Moonah Place, Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 2600)
  • US Consulate (Level 10, MLC Centre, 19-29 Martin Place, Sydney, NSW 2000)
  • US Consulate (553 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, VIC 3004)
  • US Consulate (4th Floor, 16 St George’s Terrace, Perth, WA 6000)

Once your visa is sorted, take a look at our list of the things you need to know before you move to America. Good luck!