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Types of U.S. Nonimmigrant Visas

Nonimmigrant U.S. visas allow foreign nationals to temporarily enter the United States for tourism, education, or work. The type of visa a person needs depends on the purpose of his or her visit to the U.S.; each visa type carries different requirements and restrictions.

Following are the most common nonimmigrant visas and some basic details about each.

Visas for Business Visitors and Tourists

Foreign nationals seeking to visit the U.S. for business or tourism may do so on a B-1 or B-2 visa, respectively.

B-1 visas are for individuals traveling to the U.S. for business—to negotiate a contract, to meet with associates, to attend a conference, to settle an estate, etc.

B-2 visas are for individuals traveling to the U.S. for vacation, tourism, or for medical care.

Applying for a Business Visitor or Tourist Visa

To apply for a B-1 or B-2 visa, a foreign national must file Form DS-160, Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application, with the U.S. Department of State. An applicant must have a current photograph or digital image and valid passport. They will be interviewed at the U.S. embassy or consulate in their home nation and must establish nonimmigrant intent—in other words, the applicant must prove that he or she intends to return to his or her country of origin after visiting the United States.

The maximum allowed length of stay for these visas is generally six months.

Visa Waiver Program

Through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), foreign nationals from specific countries are permitted to enter the United States for business or tourism without B-1 or B-2 visas as long as their length of stay is no more than 90 days.

Currently, nationals from the following 38 countries are eligible for the VWP:

Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.

Visas for Students and Exchange Program Participants

Foreign nationals seeking to enter the United States as students or exchange program participants may do so on F-1, M-1, or J-1 visas.

F-1 visas are for individuals who want to study in the U.S. at qualified institutions. Such institutions include elementary and high schools, colleges, universities, seminaries, conservatories, and language training programs as long as the institution is authorized to accept international students. Those with F-1 visas must be full-time students and must demonstrate that they will return home upon completion of their programs. Ties to home that demonstrate intent to return include employment opportunities, membership in professional organizations, and family-owned property.

M-1 visas are for individuals who want to enter the U.S. to participate in vocational or nonacademic programs.

J-1 visas are for individuals who wish to participate in either an educational or cultural exchange program. J-1 exchange visitors may include students, trainees, interns, research assistants, teachers, professors or scholars, specialists, au pairs, and camp counselors.

Applying for a Student or Exchange Program Visa

Before a foreign national can apply for an F-1, M-1, or J-1 visa, he or she must be accepted into a qualified program. The individual must then enroll in the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a database used to track F-1, M-1, and J-1 visitors.

As with the B-1 and B-2 visa application process, an F-1, M-1, or J-1 visa applicant must file Form DS-160, provide a current photo or digital image and valid passport, be interviewed by the U.S. embassy or consulate in his or her home country, and establish nonimmigrant intent.

In addition to these requirements, an F-1, M-1, or J-1 visa applicant must provide any necessary eligibility forms related to the specific program in which he or she will participate (e.g., diploma, SAT score, etc.) and proof of sufficient funding for all costs that will be incurred throughout the duration of his or her stay in the United States.

Generally, the length of stay allowed by these nonimmigrant visas is limited to the duration of the program in which the individual is participating, but extensions may be requested.

Visas for Temporary Workers

Foreign nationals who desire to work in the United States may be eligible for nonimmigrant, temporary worker visas. Various work visas are available, and the specific visa an individual is eligible for is determined by a number of factors.

H-1B visas are for individuals working in specialty occupations that generally require at least a bachelor’s degree. Specialty occupations are diverse, and include computer programming, electronic component manufacturing, research and development in various scientific fields, and more.

O-1A visas are for individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (not including the arts, motion pictures, or television industry).

L-1 visas are for intracompany transferees—staff in the specialized knowledge, management, or executive categories who transfer to a U.S. office of the same employer.

E-1 visas are for individuals who wish to enter the United States to engage in international trade. These foreign nationals must be from countries with which the U.S. maintains treaties of commerce and navigation.

E-2 visas are for foreign nationals who wish to enter the United States to manage business ventures in which they have invested considerable funds.

E-1 and E-2 treaty countries are listed on the Department of State website.

Applying for a Temporary Worker Visa

The application forms and documents for these visas vary, but each generally follows the same process. Any U.S. employer seeking to hire foreign nationals as temporary workers must file Form I-129 with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for approval. A foreign national seeking temporary worker status must file Form DS-160 through the U.S. consulate or embassy in his or her home nation, and upon approval, will be interviewed before being granted a temporary worker visa.

Many of these visas require certification from the U.S. Department of Labor demonstrating the applicant will receive a prevailing wage (compensation equivalent to what a U.S. worker would receive for the same work). On one hand, the prevailing wage requirement helps ensure that temporary workers are paid fairly, and on the other, that foreign workers do not displace U.S. workers.

The length of stay granted by these temporary worker visas generally ranges from one to three years, but O and E type visas can be renewed an unlimited number of times as long as the applicant remains qualified.