The ability to work in the USA is usually a privilege of the type of visa a person is staying on. While some visas are designed specifically to allow US companies to hire foreign workers others prohibit the visa holder from taking up paid employment during their stay (e.g. tourist visas).

Employer sponsored work permits

The majority of people moving to the United States will have already been hired by a US based company or will be transferring within a multinational corporation to a job based in the States. This can lead to both temporary or permanent visas.

Over the recent years this has become especially common in the financial services and technology sectors. But being brought over by an employer isn’t the only way to gain eligibility to work in the US.

Permanent Resident Card

A Permanent Resident Card, commonly know as a Green Card, entitles the holder (a Lawful Permanent Resident, or LPR) to live and work anywhere in the US on a permanent basis.

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The application process comprises three-steps and involves applying for a visa which leads to permanent resident status:

  • First a sponsoring relative or employer petitions the US Citizenship and Immigration Services for an application (if the applicant is an investor they can lodge the petition themselves);
  • Secondly, providing an immigrant visa number is available (i.e. the yearly quota hasn’t already been reached) the applicant will receive a number through the National Visa Center.
  • Thirdly, the applicant may apply for an immigrant visa at their US Embassy or Consulate, or, if they are already in the US on a non-immigrant visa, via the USCIS. Both avenues usually require an interview. The successful immigrant visa applicant will be processed for a Green Card at their port of entry on arrival in the US.

Non-immigrant visas

Many non-immigrant visas also grant the holder to work in the US during the duration of their stay.

Skilled workers visa

The H-1B visa is for professionally qualified or skilled workers who are sponsored by a US employer. It grants them the right to live and work in the US for three years (though it can be extended to six years).

The H-1B visa can lead to a Permanent Residency Visa. Spouses and children of H-1B holders are eligible for the H4 visa – one which doesn’t allow for paid employment.

Intra-company transfer work permits

L-1 visas are for people who are transferring within a multinational organisation to a US based position. The sponsoring company normally has to prove that the visa applicant has a specialised role or that they’re essential to the high-level operation of the business.

L-1 visas are valid for 5 or 7 years. The holder must remain in the employ of the sponsoring company in order for the visa to remain valid (though you could switch to an H-1B visa if changing employer).

Exchange program visas

J-1 visas are granted to people participating in exchange programs. Normally they will be sponsored by a participating organisation and will only be able to work for that organisation during their stay.

Student visas

F-1 visas are for full-time students at US institutions. They allow up to 20 hours of on-campus employment per week. They also permit application for OPT or CPT programs which allow up to 12 months of training through employment upon completion of studies.

Employment authorisation document

This is commonly referred to as a work permit and entitles the holder to legally take up employment in the US. They are required for anyone whose visa does not automatically grant this status (e.g. asylum seekers, spouses and dependents) and can be applied for via the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) by filing Form I-765.