All visitors to the United States must hold a valid passport that expires six months or more after the date you expect to leave the country.
The US Department of Sate website has a Visa Wizard that allows you to work out what visa you are eligible for based on your citizenship, purpose of the travel.
Visa Waiver Program
The US has a Visa Waiver Program (VWP) which is available for visits of up to 90 days for holiday or business purposes. In order to take advantage of this option you must be a citizen of one of the countries covered by this program.
When entering using the VWP you must have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval prior to travel, which can be arranged online in a few minutes. If you prefer to have a visa in your passport, you may still apply for a visitor (B) visa, but it is a much slower process. In order to take advantage of the VWP you must not have a criminal record and be clear of any contagious diseases. You must also have a return ticket or a ticket for onward travel outside the US (waived for those entering by land from Canada and Mexico).
You can enter the US using the VWP for business purposes, which includes consulting with business associates, negotiating a contract and attending business convention or conferences or short-term training. You may not be paid by any source in the US with the exception of expenses incidental to your stay and you cannot work or manage a busiess.
No extension of stay is permitted for anyone traveling under the VWP.
There are two main categories of visa available to people looking to spend time in the US: Immigrant and Non-immigrant visas.
You can apply for a non-immigrant visa by downloading the appropriate form from the Department of State website. Before you travel to the United States for employment purposes, you must obtain USCIS approval. You may also be required to file paperwork with the Department of Labor.
There are several subcategories of non-immigrant visas, depending upon the length of stay, multiple or single entries, and other factors. Consulates can advise you on the appropriate visa, which often can be processed and issued on the same day.
Business visa (B-1) is applied for by the employer, and must be approved by the Department of Homeland Security and the USCIS. Interviews are conducted by U.S. Embassies or Consulates abroad. It may take as long as 60 to 90 days for an open interview slot; the State Department website estimates the wait time, in each city, for an interview date.
Temporary Worker Visas
You can see a full list of Temporary Worker visas on the US Department of State website. The most common are as follows:
- H-1B: Person in Specialty Occupation – To work in a specialty occupation. Requires a higher education degree or its equivalent.
- L Intracompany Transferee Visa – To work at a branch, parent, affiliate, or subsidiary of the current employer in a managerial or executive capacity (or in a position requiring specialized knowledge). Individual must have been employed by the same employer abroad continuously for 1 year within the three preceding years.
- Individual with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement – For persons with extraordinary ability or achievement in business, the sciences, arts etc demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim, to work in their field of expertise. Includes persons providing essential services in support of the above individual.
Some temporary worker visa categories require your prospective employer to obtain a labor certification or other approval from the Department of Labor before filing the Petition for a Non-immigrant Worker, Form I-129, with USCIS.
For more information about the petition process, eligibility requirements by visa category, and numerical limits, if applicable, see Working in the U.S. and Temporary (Nonimmigrant) Workers on the USCIS website. Once the petition is approved, USCIS will send your prospective employer a Notice of Action, Form I-797.
After USCIS approves the Petition for a Non-immigrant Worker (Form I-129), you can apply for a visa at their local U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The visa application process may vary at the Embassy or Consulate where you apply. Please consult the instructions available on the embassy or consulate website where you will apply.
You can obtain Non-immigrant Visa Application, Form DS-160 online. You must complete the online visa application and then print the application form confirmation page to bring to your interview. You must schedule an appointment for your visa interview, generally, at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the country where you live. You may schedule your interview at any U.S. Embassy or Consulate, but be aware that it may be difficult to qualify for a visa outside of your place of permanent residence.
Wait times for interview appointments vary by location, season, and visa category, so you should apply for your visa early.
Your spouse and unmarried, minor children can apply for a visa to accompany you.
Recipients of immigration visas are issued a Permanent Resident Card (known as a “Green Card”). This enables the holder to live and work permanently in the US.
Immigrant visas are available due to family connections with US citizens and permanent residents or based on employment in the US.
Family-Based Immigrant Visas
There are two groups of family-based immigrant visa categories:
- Immediate Relatives
- Family Preference
Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas (Unlimited):
These visas are based on a close family relationship with a US citizen, ie an Immediate Relative (IR). The number of immigrants in these categories is not limited each fiscal year.
There are five IR visa types:
- IR-1 – Spouse of a U.S. Citizen – Learn More
- IR-2 – Unmarried Child Under 21 Years of Age of a U.S. Citizen
- IR-3 – Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen – Learn More
- IR-4 – Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen – Learn More
- IR-5 – Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old
Family Preference Immigrant Visas (Limited)
These visa types are for specific, more distant, family relationships with a US citizen and some specified relationships with a Green Card holder (LPR). There are limitations on the number of FP immigrants each year. The family preference categories are:
- FP1 – Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any.
- FP2 – Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of LPRs.
- FP3 – Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.
- FP4 – Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.
Note: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor a relative for immigration.
Employment Based Immigrant Visas
Employment based Green Cards allow migrants to gain the status of lawful permanent resident in the US to engage in skilled work. There are five employment based (EB) Green Cards categories:
- EB-1 – Multinational executives or managers, or for people with exceptional experience and ability in science, art, education, business, or sport.
- EB-2 – Certain professions such as medicine, science, and teaching who have a Master’s degree or higher.
- EB-3 – Skilled workers with at least 2 years experience, Master’s degree and PhD holders (not covered by the EB-2 visa) and for low skilled workers to take a permanent US job.
- EB-4 – Certain migrants who do not fit into other visa categories: some religious workers, US Foreign service employees and others.
- EB-5 – Investors who invest a minimum of $500,000 or $1,000,000 in a US business with at least 10 employees. (see separate article – Investor Visas in the US)