Getting a Visa to Work or Study in the U.S.

Understand the visa you need to work or study in the U.S.

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 26, 2023

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If you are planning to come to the United States for temporary work or study, you will need a work or student visa.  

There are different types of visas depending on the kind of work or study you are planning to do, as well as your experience, skills, and education. 

U.S. visa applications are handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Applicants also work closely with their school or employer throughout the visa application process. 

This article will explain the different types of visas for work and study and the general process for obtaining them. Once you understand the options, Philadelphia immigration lawyer W. John Yahya Vandenberg advises to “get a lawyer” since the process can be complicated. 

Working in the United States 

Individuals who seek to work in the United States must get a temporary nonimmigrant work visa. These visas (or work permits) authorize individuals to live and work in the United States for a limited period of time. 

Once a person has a work visa, they can seek to adjust their status to permanent residency by filing a document called Form I-485. A permanent residency card (or green card) allows an individual to permanently live and work in the United States.  

Temporary Nonimmigrant Work Visas 

Temporary nonimmigrant work visas are for individuals who plan to work in the United States for a set period of time.   

Depending on the visa, the timeframe ranges from a few months to several years. Some work visas can be renewed indefinitely, depending on the work’s nature and the employer’s needs. 

Temporary visas are designated by letters and numbers: 

  • H-1B visas. This visa is for individuals with expertise in professional or academic fields whom employers want to hire to perform specialized jobs. For example, perhaps a technology company needs a particular software engineer to complete a project. 
  • H-2A visas. This visa allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. for temporary agricultural work. 
  • H-2B visas. This visa allows foreign workers to enter the U.S. for temporary non-agricultural work (for example, at amusement parks, restaurants, and hotels during peak season). 
  • H-3 visas. This visa allows individuals to come to the U.S. for specialized training programs for their jobs or career. 
  • I visas. This visa is for foreign media members, such as editors or reporters for media companies, newspapers, etc. 
  • L visas. This visa allows companies to temporarily transfer executives/managers or individuals with specialized knowledge from a company branch in another country to a similar branch in the U.S. 
  • O visas. This visa is for individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in their field (athletic, artistic, scientific, academic, business). It allows these individuals to come to the U.S. to work on a project, event, etc. For example, perhaps an internationally acclaimed architect has been hired to design a house in the U.S.—they could potentially use this visa to come to the U.S. to complete the project. 
  • P visas. P visas apply to athletes/teams with an “internationally recognized level of performance.” 
  • R visas. This visa is for individuals who come to the U.S. for temporary work for a religious non-profit organization. 

Employment-Based Permanent Residency 

Employment-based green cards, unlike temporary visas, allow individuals to take up permanent residency in the United States.  

Like temporary work visas, there are several categories of employment-based green cards, ranked by preference

  • First Preference EB-1: Priority workers. Individuals with extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, academia, athletics, or business. 
  • Second Preference EB-2: Professionals. Individuals with advanced degrees or skills. 
  • Third Preference EB-3: Skilled and unskilled workers. Individuals with professional degrees or skill/training 
  • Fourth Preference EB-4: Special immigrant workers. A catch-all category that includes religious workers, foreign employees who worked for the U.S. government, etc. 
  • Fifth Preference EB-5: Investors. Individuals who have invested significantly in a U.S. company. 

Read this article to learn more about obtaining a green card. 

Visas for Studying in the United States 

Student visas allow individuals to study in the United States. There are three main types of student visas: 

F-1 Student Visa 

F-1 student visas allow international students to study at any school approved by the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).  

This includes students who pursue a bachelor’s degree or graduate studies at an accredited U.S. college or institute of higher education and attend high schools/private schools, seminaries, and consortiums.  

F-1 visa holders can generally do on-campus work. They can also work off-campus on either a part-time or full-time basis after their first academic year. 

“Generally, [students] are allowed to work on campus for up to 20 hours per week, for example, in a library or doing research for a professor. In cases where there has been an unforeseen hardship, as happened a lot during the Covid-19 pandemic—when a student’s parents may have lost their jobs or sometimes their lives—immigration officers can authorize that student to work,” says Vandenberg.  

“In addition,” he says, “a student can do curricular practical training (CPT) when they’re authorized to do so while in school.” CPT is for internships, externships, or other work experiences related to the student’s study. 

“After they graduate,” says Vandenberg, “they’re eligible for optional practical training (OPT).” OPT is for off-campus temporary work related to the student’s field of study. 

OPT is “generally for a year. If it’s in a STEM field, [students] can get up to three years of work authorization after graduation,” he says.  

Additionally, “students can get OPT after each successive degree level,” says Vandenberg, including after their bachelor’s, after their master’s, and after their Ph.D. However, students can’t get double OPT if they obtain two of the same degree (for example, two bachelor’s degrees). 

To work as a student on an F-1, individuals must receive their Employment Authorization Document (EAD) from USCIS and authorization from their school’s Designated School Official (DSO) for off-campus OPT work.  

The DSO is the person who works with international students at a school and keeps track of F-1 students through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). 

M-1 Student Visa 

The M-1 visa allows individuals to temporarily come to the U.S. for training at a vocational or technical school. 

Individuals studying under an M-1 can work, but only if the work is included in their vocational training. 

J-1 Student Visa 

These visas are for individuals who come to the U.S. temporarily for study or cultural exchange programs for study, research, or teaching. 

General Steps in Getting a Student Visa 

Here are the general steps to the student visa application process: 

  • Apply and get accepted to the school where you wish to study 
  • Pay the required filing fees with SEVIS 
  • Your school will send you Form I-20 
  • You will complete Form I-20 and use it to apply for the student visa through the U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country 
  • Complete Form DS-160 for nonimmigrant visas and pay your application fees 
  • Schedule and attend a visa interview at the U.S. embassy/consulate 
  • Wait for your visa (the period will vary, and you can estimate it using this tool on the Department of State website) 

Once an individual has a student visa, they can file to adjust status to a permanent resident. “The general guideline is that if you are in status, then you can change or adjust status,” says Vandenberg.  

What does it mean to be “in status”? For students, it means “as long as they are maintaining their F-1 visa status by completing classes and making satisfactory progress toward their degree,” they are in status and can therefore adjust their status to permanent residency, says Vandenberg.  

Questions for an Immigration Attorney 

Coming to the U.S. to work or study may be the first step toward permanent residency or citizenship. The process can be complicated.  

“If there is any complication, a good attorney can advise as to the level of risk, and the client can make their own decision as to how much risk they’re willing to take,” says Vandenberg.  

Many immigration attorneys provide free consultations, allowing you to get legal advice and decide if the attorney or law firm meets your needs. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • Which kind of employment/student visa should I apply for? 
  • How much money will it cost to complete the visa application process? 
  • How long will it take to complete the process? 
  • How long will my visa be good for?  
  • Can I renew my visa? 
  • When can I adjust my status? 

Once you have met with a lawyer and gotten your questions answered, you can begin an attorney-client relationship. 

Look for an immigration law attorney in the Super Lawyers directory for help becoming a U.S. citizen. 

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