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Visas and Temporary Residency

United States of America (USA) - Visas and Temporary Residency

Secure Borders: Open Door – This is the current policy of the United States government towards visitation by foreigners.

To enter the USA you need a (1) valid passport from your home nation and (2) a visa.

Your passport must be valid, meaning it must be up to date (they expire after a while), and, of course, it has to be yours. It may take you two months or so to get a passport, so plan ahead. In addition, if you are entering the USA via the Visa Waiver Program you will be required to have an e-passport or biometric passport (see below).

A visa is permission to apply to enter the United States. Foreign citizens desiring to travel to the United States must apply for a visa at a US Embassy or Consulate abroad. A Consular Officer will decide whether you are qualified for a visa. Citizens of certain countries may be able to travel without a visa on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) if they meet certain conditions. They must be traveling to the US for business or tourism for a period of not more than 90 days, have a round trip ticket, fly on certain air carriers, and meet other requirements.

The visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to a port-of-entry in the United States, such as an international airport, a seaport, or a land border crossing. At the port-of-entry, an officer of the Department of Homeland Security decides whether to allow you to enter and how long you can stay.

The Visa Waiver Program

Countries able to participate in the Visa Waiver Program are shown below:

San Marino
Czech Republic
South Korea
The Netherlands
United Kingdom
New Zealand

Eligible nationals of these countries are able to travel without a visa for tourist and business travel of 90 days or less provided they possess an e-passport and an approved authorization through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA).

Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)

Effective August 1, 2008 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented the Electronic System for Travel Authorization system (ESTA) is a free, automated system used to determine the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the VWP. It collects the same information as the paper I-94W form that VWP travelers previously filled out en route to the United States. ESTA applications may be completed online at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/. ESTA applications may be submitted at any time prior to travel. An ESTA authorization generally will be valid for up to two years. Authorizations will be valid for multiple entries into the United States. DHS recommends that ESTA applications be submitted as soon as an applicant begins making travel plans.


Families seeking to enter the United States under the VWP need to obtain an individual machine-readable passport for each traveler, including infants. A machine-readable passport typically has biographic data for only one traveler in the machine-readable zone. Because of the October 26, 2004 requirement that passport data be presented in machine-readable format, children included in family or parents' passports may be denied visa-free entry into the United States since only the primary traveler's biographic data is included in the machine-readable zone of the passport.

An e-Passport incorporates data related to an individual's identity; current ICAO guidelines call for e-Passports to include facial recognition data. The contours of individuals' faces are digitally mapped and stored on the chip so that a comparison of facial data for the bearer of the passport and the facial data of the person to whom the passport was issued can be made. You can readily identify an e-Passport, because it has a unique international symbol on the cover.


A visa means that a consular officer has reviewed your application to travel to the country you have the visa for. Only an immigration officer at a port of entry has the authority to grant or to deny entry into the country. Normally, you would apply for a visa while you are within your home nation. Allow as much time as possible; the time it takes can vary greatly. If your native language is not English, then you may have to find a translator. Even though there is a good chance that someone at the Embassy will fluently speak your language, the forms you have to fill out for the visa will be in English.

Types of Residency Visas

Residency permits fall into two main categories: temporary or permanent, otherwise known as non-immigrant and immigrant visas. Non-immigrant residency is designed to allow you to live for a number of years within the USA and to have a job or career and to have your children educated here (if you have children). You may also bring your spouse.


A “non-immigrant” visa is for those coming to the US on a temporary basis and usually for a fixed period of time. The length of time will vary and should be considered when planning which visa category may be appropriate.

The application process for non-immigrant visas is generally shorter (three weeks to six months) than the process for immigrant visas (from a few months to several years). Processing times vary significantly by Embassy or Consulate. London is renowned for being slow and more difficult to deal with than others.

In general, non-immigrant visas must be obtained abroad at a US Embassy or Consulate, although in some cases certain visas may be re-validated in the US

In addition to other requirements, non-immigrant visa applicants must have a passport valid for at least the duration of the requested stay and generally for six months beyond the time requested.

The following identifies the non-immigrant classifications for which business and professional persons may qualify:

Visitor Visas

B-1 Business Visitor Visa

A B-1 visa allows an alien to engage in legitimate activities of a commercial or professional character, so long as the alien does not engage in “local” employment or receive a salary or other remuneration from a US source.

Business or professional persons typically use this type of visa to come to the US for business trips (e.g., to engage in commercial transactions which do not involve gainful employment in the US, to negotiate contracts, to consult with business associates, to participate in conventions or conferences, or to undertake independent research).

This authorisation may be issued as “multiple entry visas,” meaning that the visa can be used to request entry to the US for an unlimited number of times during the period that the visa remains valid.

Entries under this visa may be available for up to 12 months. The visa stamp is obtained at a US Embassy or Consulate abroad. In order to assist the Consular Officer in evaluating the alien's visa application, it is helpful to submit a letter from the alien's employer (on company letterhead) explaining the necessity for the trip.

Upon arrival at the US border, a CIS inspector will question the alien regarding his or her intended length of stay in the US (the company letter may be helpful during this interview also). Assuming a valid reason is offered, the entry should be permitted for up to one year at a time, but usually not more than six months are granted upon entry. The business visa is also sometimes combined with a tourist visa, which is evidenced as a “B-1/B-2” visa stamp in the passport.

Citizens of certain countries (including Japan and many European countries) do not need a B-1 (or B-2) visa for visits of 90 days or less. This “visa waiver” authorisation is subject to certain restrictions (e.g., no extension or change of status allowed; required round-trip ticket if traveling by air or sea).

There are limitations on certain types of activities that were once permissible under the B-1 category. Foreign nationals may no longer enter the US in B-1 status for the purpose of rendering services in the construction or building trades. However, workers are allowed to enter the US in B-1 status for the sole purpose of training or supervising US workers who are carrying out construction or building services.

An alien who seeks to invest in an enterprise in the United States may be issued a B-1 visa in order to qualify later for an E-2 Treaty Investor visa (discussed below), but until the E-2 visa is issued the alien will not be permitted to actively manage the business.

B-2 Tourist Visitor Visa

For vacation or recreational activities, including visits with friends and relatives, permission is normally granted on entry for six months. Thereafter, extensions of six months each, up to a total period of 12 consecutive months, may be granted.

H Visas (Temporary Employees)

“H” visas are issued to aliens who have a residence in a foreign country which they have no intention of abandoning and who are seeking to enter the US on a temporary basis to perform temporary labour or services or to receive training.


This visa is available to persons coming to the US temporarily to perform certain specific services or receive training from a US employer. This category has been further broken down into the H-1A category (registered nurses) and the H-1B category [specialty occupations (H-1B1), Department of Defense projects (H-1B2), or distinguished fashion modeling (H-1B3)].

Extensions of the H-1 period may be requested and authorised in increments of up to three years (one year for nationals of Chile and Singapore). A maximum of 6 years stay in the US in H-1B1 visa status (5 years for H-1A) has now been imposed.

Extensions beyond the 6 years in H-1B1 visa status are available in certain limited circumstances.


Available to an alien “... who is coming temporarily to the United States to perform temporary services or labour, if unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labour cannot be found” in the US


Available to an alien “... who is coming temporarily to the United States as a trainee, other than to receive graduate medical education or training, or training provided by an academic or vocational school.”


For the alien spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of an alien specified as an H-1, H-2 or H-3 alien if the spouse and/or unmarried children under 21 years are accompanying or following to join the primary visa holder. H-4 aliens are not authorised to work in the US

J Exchange Visitor Visa

The “J” Exchange Visitor visa is a relatively infrequently used status. Students, corporate trainees, teachers, professors, scholars, special international visitors and medical trainees under the sponsorship of an organisation authorised by the Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs may qualify for the J visa.

L Intra-Company Transferee Visa

An intra-company transferee is defined as an alien who has been employed continuously for one year abroad during the three year period immediately preceding the filing of the petition for US employment by a firm or corporation and who seeks to enter temporarily in order to continue to render his services to the employer in a managerial or executive capacity or one that involves specialised knowledge.


To qualify, the employer and employee must demonstrate employment for at least one year abroad during the preceding three-year period by a foreign corporation in a managerial/executive (or “specialised knowledge”) capacity and an offer of employment from the US subsidiary/affiliate to work as a manager/executive or in a position requiring specialised knowledge.


The L-2 classification is accorded to the principal alien's spouse and unmarried children under 21 years accompanying or following to join the L-1 alien. The spouse of an L-1 visa holder is authorised to be employed in the US under L-2 status upon obtaining an employment authorisation document from CIS. Children under 21 years may not accept employment in the L-2 classification.

O Extraordinary Ability Visas

The O-1 visa may be awarded in the following two categories for a specific event or performance (an event may last for up to three years): an individual alien who has extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim, or an alien who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in motion pictures and/or television productions, who is coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary achievement.

Family members (spouse and unmarried children under 21 years) of O-1 and O-2 may receive the O-3 visa.

P Visas (Athletes/Entertainers)

The P-1 visa is available to individual or group athletes who are coming temporarily to the US to perform at an internationally-recognized level of performance or to members of an entertainment group that has been recognised internationally as being outstanding for a sustained and substantial period of time and whose members have had a substantial relationship with the group (ordinarily for at least one year) and have provided functions integral to the performance of the group.

The P-2 visa applies to an artist or entertainer (individually or as a group) performing under a reciprocal exchange programme between organisations in the US and foreign country.

The P-3 visa applies to an artist or entertainer coming individually or as part of a group (or integral part) to perform, teach or coach under a programme that is culturally unique.

The P-4 applies to family members of aliens with P-1, P-2, or P-3 visas.

Q International Cultural Exchange Visas

This visa is issued on a limited basis only to aliens participating in CIS-approved international cultural exchange programmes designed to provide the American public with an opportunity to learn about foreign cultures. Only a school, museum or business involved in public activities with structured instructional activities and a component of work or training designed to achieve the cultural objectives will be allowed to file Q visa petitions.

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