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USA: Visa Categories for Expats

Attracted by the abundance of possibilities and the incredible vastness of the United States of America, international migrants are moving to the USA in droves. The InterNations Guide on the United States provides you with information on visa categories, residence permits, and more.
There are numerous different types of visas and residence permits for the USA.

According to recent news reports, people from various countries, including those with a valid visa and residence permit, have encountered difficulties when entering the United States. Unfortunately, the full extent of those issues seems to be unclear. Before you decide to move or travel there, or leave the country temporarily if already living in the USA, please consult a US embassy and an immigration lawyer if you fear you might be affected.


For visa purposes, US authorities distinguish between two main groups of people moving to the USA: immigrants and nonimmigrants. Both groups are divided into several categories, the most important of which will be described below.

Nonimmigrant Visa Categories: Which Is the One for You?

Everyone who comes to the USA for a specified, limited period of time with no intention of settling permanently is considered a nonimmigrant for visa purposes. The various visas correspond to the different reasons for moving to the USA.

Specialty Occupations (H-1B)

This visa is for people who wish to work in a specialty occupation, are involved in Department of Defense research or development projects, or are fashion models of international prominence. See the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for a definition of specialty occupations.

As a general requirement (except for fashion models), applicants need to have a Bachelor’s degree or an international equivalent (usually four years of study at an institution of higher education). The number of visas available in this category is capped at 65,000 per year, and the period of stay is initially limited to three years.

Intracompany Transfers (L-1A)

To apply for this visa, you must have continuously worked for your employer in a management or executive position for one year within the three years prior to your transfer.

You can initially be transferred for one year in order to set up an office in the US or for three years in order to work in an already established office.

Expats with Special Abilities or Achievements (O-1)

This visa is intended for those who have attained national or international acclaim, recognition, or distinction and who are coming temporarily to the US to continue working in the area of extraordinary ability. This applies especially to the fields of science, education, business, sports, arts, motion pictures, and television. Initially, the O-1 visa is valid for three years, but it can be extended by up to a year at a time if deemed necessary by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Treaty Traders (and Employees) (E-1)

Applicants for the E-1 visa need to be nationals of a country with which the United States maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation and must carry on principal and substantial trade with the US. Employees of applicants or a qualifying organization may also be eligible for an E-1 visa.

This visa is very popular with companies and independent businesses, as there is no limit to the number of extensions granted after the initial period of two years has passed.

Regardless of whether they have the same nationality as the applicant, family members can apply for E-1 visas too, and spouses are even able to apply for a work authorization. Please refer to the Bureau of Consular Affairs for a list of treaty countries.

For more information on your visa options as a nonimmigrant, please also see our in-depth guide to nonimmigrant US visas.

Immigrant Visa Categories: Are You Ready for the Green Card Yet?

The most well-known immigrant visa is most likely the much sought-after Green Card, or, as it is officially called, the Diversity Visa Program. If you wish to learn more about this, check the website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

As for employment-based immigration, there are five preference categories, EB-1 through EB-5. Your prospective US employer will have to submit proof that there are insufficient qualified US workers available and/or willing to fill the position. Your employer also must prove that hiring you, a foreign employee, will not have a negative impact on the wages and working conditions of US workers in similar positions.

Applicants for EB-1, EB-4, and EB-5 visas are exempt from this rule, however.

For a complete overview of your immigrant visa options, read our extended guide article on US immigration and citizenship.

Temporary Business Visitors

If your business in the USA will take no more than six months, you can make do with a B-1 Temporary Business Visitor visa.

Nationals of countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) are exempt from this if their stay does not exceed 90 days. More information on the VWP and a complete list of participating countries can be found with the Bureau of Consular Affairs. If you plan to enter the United States under the VWP, you will need to visit the website of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization and apply for what is commonly known as an ESTA. In order to qualify for entry under the VWP, every traveler (including children) must present a valid, machine-readable passport, or, for nationals of some countries, an electronic passport.

Planning to bring your family? For more information on visa options for expatriates and their family members, take a look at our extended guide article, US Visas for Your Spouse and Children.


We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete.


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