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Visas for relocating to the U.S.

Discover everything you need to know about visas and work permits for expats moving to the U.S.

The entry requirements to live and work in the U.S. are set out on the respective American embassy and consular websites. Official permission depends on your nationality and, the length of time you want to live and work in the U.S., or whether you are looking for immigrant or non-immigrant status. A useful tool for expats, issued by the U.S. State Department, is Visa Wizard, which sets out the different criteria for citizens of any country in the world.

Getting the right visa

The U.S. work visa system is complex and it’s important that you apply for the correct category. If you have extraordinary talents in the fields of the arts, science, education or sport, you should be looking for an employment-based visa, known as an EB-1. Once you have one of these, you can eventually apply for lawful residence in the U.S..

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website states that those wishing to work in the U.S. should have one of three official documents:

If you only intend working in the U.S. for a short while or have a fixed short-term contract, an L visa or an H-1B are the documents that you’ll need. H-1B is designated for those who work in specific occupations: models, defence workers or researchers come under this category. H-2 visas are for those who are classified as temporary workers. Your future employer must fill in their relevant documentation so that you’ll be able to successfully acquire one of these types of visa.

Many expats live and work in the U.S. through an ‘intercompany transfer.’ This visa is known as an L-1A and you’ll need to prove that you have worked for your employer for three years. If you can prove that you have unique skills and work in the arts, film, science or business, then the O-1 is the documentation you’ll need.

Anyone who is in business and lives in a country where the U.S. has an existing trade treaty may be eligible for an E1. This is a popular expat option as there is no limit to the number of extensions the visa holder can apply for.

Protecting American workers

There are a range of employment-based immigration documents with five preference categories, EB-1 through to EB-5. To show that you are not taking jobs away from American workers, your prospective U.S. employer will have to submit proof that there are insufficient qualified U.S. workers available or that these workers aren’t willing to fill the position that you are offered. Your employer will have to prove that by hiring you, this employment won’t have a negative impact on the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers who hold similar positions.

Your employer may have to complete a Non-Immigrant Worker application — a Form 1-129 petition — before you can apply for your own work visa. If you’re self-employed or can prove that you have exceptional talents, it’s best to check with the embassy to discover what type of visa you’ll need. Once all of the relevant documentation is in place, you’ll be able to apply online for a non-immigrant work visa.

Even though this documentation information sounds complex, you’ll be able to contact the, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) with ease and ask for their advice. Alternatively, get in touch with your local American embassy or consulate and ask for help.

Relocating your family

If you want to bring your spouse or partner and children on your American adventure, make sure that they too have the right documentation.

Children under 21 and your partner or spouse can apply for an immigrant or a non-immigrant visa once you’ve acquired your documentation. A medical examination will be required, and all the relevant fees will have to be paid. If you have an H visa, your spouse will be able to apply for an H4 visa and will be able to work. Be prepared to demonstrate that you have permission to work in the U.S. so your spouse can take along all applicable evidence (birth certificates, passports, proof that you are married or in a civil partnership), and then they can organise their visa application interview.

The families of those on a non-immigrant visa can also join them in the U.S. you must be prepared to demonstrate that you’ll be able to support your family once in the country. In general, proof will be required to demonstrate that the income earner has a salary of more than 125% of the current poverty level for the size of the household. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is the best resource for checking current statistics.

Required vaccinations

In common with many other countries, you’ll need a number of vaccinations before entering the U.S. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has recently revised its list of required vaccinations. You must have a medical examination as part of your visa application process, and during this exam you’ll have to show that you’ve been vaccinated against:

  • Mumps
  • Measles
  • Rubella
  • Tetanus
  • Diphtheria
  • Polio
  • Pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Hepatitis A and B
  • Rotavirus
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Varicella (chicken pox)
  • Pneumococcal disease
  • Seasonal influenza.

There are no travel restrictions to the U.S. for those with HIV or Hepatitis C, though you should always inform your health insurer if you have either of these conditions.

Entering the U.S. as a visitor

It’s best to apply for a job in the U.S. before you leave your home country. If you’ve dreamt of working in the country but aren’t sure what your prospects are, or whether you’ll even enjoy the American experience, you can always try out an exchange scheme under the J-1 programme. This is targeted at students and professionals and gives you a taster of what working life is like in the U.S.. One of the joys of the J-1 programme is that if you find a company that would like to hire you, they’ll most probably offer you visa sponsorship too. Internships are a popular way to try out working in the U.S., which also come under the umbrella of the J-1 visa. You have to be in full-time education or be a recent graduate.

Useful organisations for graduates and students looking to expand their horizons include:

Or, you could simply travel to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), which allows you to visit the country for a short holiday (under 90 days). You must have a valid Electronic System for Travel (ESTA) before applying for the VWP, and only citizens of the 38 designated countries can use this system.

You aren’t allowed to work if you’re traveling to the U.S. on a VWP — even voluntary work comes under this restriction. If you’re from a country that’s not included in the VWP programme, then you’ll have to apply for a visitor visa. These documents are called B1 -B2 or B2. Once you’ve applied for this tourist visa, you must attend an appointment at your nearest U.S. Consulate.

Citizens from seven countries are banned from entering the U.S. (up to date April 2019):

  • Iran
  • Syria
  • Somalia
  • Libya
  • Yemen
  • North Korea
  • Venezuela.

Once you’ve secured your all-important visa and work permit, you’ll need to apply for a Social Security number for tax and benefits purposes. You can apply for one of these in your home country when you apply for your visa, and your number will be sent to your home address within a few weeks of application.

If you’re moving to the U.S. for work, you can learn what jobs are popular and what else to expect in our article.

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