While the process of obtaining a US work visa has remained relatively unchanged over the years, the US, like many other countries, has updated its policies in accordance with increased national security measures. Therefore, it's best to include extra time for processing in your plans; while some work visas are approved in a matter of weeks, others may take significantly longer. Factors contributing to the time it takes to receive your US work visa include the class of work visa you're applying for, whom you'll be working for and your country of origin.
Types of US Work Visas
There are several types of US work visas. Some require your US employer to file a Petition of Employment Form (Form I-129) with the US Department of Homeland Security; others do not. The Form I-129 petition requests permission for you to begin the work visa application process.
US work visa classes that don't require Form I-129 are work visa classes:
- E (investment and treaty trading)
- R (religious work)
- TN (professionals from Mexico and Canada)
The US work visa classes that require your US employer to file a Form I-129 are U.S. work visa classes:
- H (general, temporary workers)
- L (intra-company transfers)
- O (professional with unique or extraordinary talents/skills)
- P (entertainers and athletes)
- Q (corporate cultural exchange programs)
The third group of US work visas--most notably the B-1 class--is designed for people who are coming to the US for business reasons that will not produce an immediate exchange of money. For example, professionals traveling to the United States for a business conference or seminar, to negotiate a contract with a business associate, or who are involved in US litigation require a B-1 class work visa. In order to qualify for this type of US work visa, the applicant cannot receive or earn any monies during their trip.
Pre-Approval Form I-129
The most common US work visas fall into the H class for general, temporary work in the United States. If you are applying for an H class US work visa or any other class that requires your U.S. employer to file Form I-129, the first step in obtaining your US work visa is for your employer to complete and submit the form. The Form I-129 is a form of pre-approval that grants permission for you to apply for your US work visa. Once your Form I-128 is approved, your US employer will receive the Form I-797 Notice of Action.
If you have been denied a US visa in the past, then you will also need to complete and submit a Visa Ineligibility Waiver as part of the pre-approval process.
Documents You Need
While you're waiting for Form I-129 approval, you should obtain and complete your actual US work visa application forms. If your relevant US work visa class doesn't require the Form I-129, you'll still need to obtain, complete and submit the following documents.
Form DS-156 is standard for every US work visa applicant and is the primary application. If you are a male between the ages of 16 and 45 or a person over the age of 16 whose country of origin is classified as a nation that supports terrorism, you'll also need to complete the Form DS-157.
In addition to these completed forms, you'll need:
- A valid passport at least six months old that allows you travel to the United States
- A 2"x2" color photograph of your full face looking straight ahead
- Finally, you'll need to attach this 2"x2" photograph to the designated location on your DS-156 form.
The Application Process
Once you're approved to apply for your US work visa, have completed your application form(s) and gathered the other necessary documents, contact the US Embassy or Consulate in your country of permanent residence to schedule an interview and apply for your US work visa. If you were required to obtain Form I-129 pre-approval, you will need to provide the receipt number from your Form I-129 in order to schedule your appointment.
Be sure to ask what processing fees are required and how they may be paid. Processing fees for US work visas are non-refundable and due prior to your appointment. Bring all of your completed paperwork with you to your interview and be sure to include any proof of payment for processing fees.
During your interview at the US Embassy or Consulate, you'll submit all of your completed paperwork and have your fingerprints scanned digitally. Then, you'll undergo the actual interview, which, like the fingerprint scans, was added to the process after September 11, 2001 to increase security. During your interview, you'll be asked why you're going to the United States, along other questions intended to help form a general judgment about your character. In most cases, if you're 13 years old or younger, or 80 years old or older, the interview itself will be waived.
Then you wait. The time it takes to process and approve (or deny) your application will vary based on several factors, including the work you do, the country you're from and the current number of US work visas waiting to be processed. If your application is approved, you'll be notified and issued US work visa papers; if denied, you'll receive a written explanation for the decision.