Work Visas 101

In 2021, 2.8 million people were granted U.S. work visas. What is the application process like, and what exactly does a visa entail?

portrait of Meredith Schneider
by Meredith Schneider

Published August 10, 2022

Edited by Giselle M. Cancio
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Work Visas 101
Image Credit: Halfpoint Images / Moment / Getty Images


In 2021, 2.8 million nonimmigrant work visas were issued, according to the Migration Policy Institute. While that statistic shows a sharp decline from years past — 2020 alone boasted 4 million, many of which were accepted before the pandemic set in — it is still a significant number of people.

You may have encountered someone who is here on a work visa at some point in your life. So, what exactly does that mean? Who can get a work visa, and how can they register for the opportunity? Keep reading to learn more about work visas and how to get one.

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What Is a Work Visa?

For starters, a work permit visa — or work visa — is a stamp applied to your passport. This stamp officially authorizes you to study, travel, or work in a specific country that you are not originally from or have citizenship in. Each stamp grants access to that country for a predetermined time, and different types of permits vary in length.

A work visa allows an immigrant or temporary international resident to get work and housing during their stay in another country. It is granted in cooperation with a potential employer who has already done the legwork to recruit international talent.

Different Types of U.S. Work Visas

The U.S. has a disciplined, tier-based work visa solution in place.

Temporary Employment Visas

Temporary employment visas are required for people entering the United States for a fixed period of employment. These workers are not filing for permanent residence. Prospective employers must procure an approved petition through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for this visa to be approved.

Exchange Visitor Visas

Exchange visitor visas are assigned for international visitors who are studying, teaching, or completing work travel through an exchange program. Pre-approved study programs can help streamline the application process.

Media Visas

Media visas are granted exclusively to members of the press and media from abroad. They must be operating on behalf of a news organization and have proof that they have been reporting on current events during their stay.

Trade Treaty & Investor Visas

Trade treaty & investor visas are granted in special cases. People who work for qualified companies can engage in treaty-based trade or investment with America.

U.S. Work Visa Requirements

You must first be eligible to obtain a work visa in your country. Do you fit into one of the aforementioned categories? You may be deemed ineligible if your history involves criminal activities. Fraud and misrepresentation will also disqualify you from any visa program.

Citizens of Bermuda and Canada do not need visas to work in America. However, they do still need to get temporary work petition approval. Spouses and children can file alongside applicants to accompany them. It can take 5-7 months to officially obtain a work visa, so plan accordingly.

To get started, update your resume and reach out to potential employers in the United States. Your prospective employer will submit a Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129) to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Student applicants need to fill out an I-20 and line up their stay through the Student and Exchange Visitor System database.

How To Apply For a Work Visa

In most cases, the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (Form DS-160) is the next step. When you apply, make sure you have a high-resolution photograph to attach and send with your paperwork. These JPEG color files must be square and between 600 x 600 and 1200 x 1200 pixels. Sometimes, you will also pay your fees at this time.

Most people between the ages of 14 and 79 must schedule an interview at the U.S. Embassy in their native country. Bring your valid passport, a copy of your Form DS-160, application fee payment receipt (or payment if you haven't paid), and a physical copy of your photo as a backup. You will also need a receipt number for your approved petition (Form I-129).

The interview requires proof of residency or other compelling ties to ensure you will return to your country once the U.S. work visa expires. This could include contracts or long-term plans, proof of economic standing, or familial ties to your country.

Check for common wait times in advance. Your embassy's website may outline more instructions to the material above, so make sure to read the fine print.

Companies That Sponsor Work Visas

Popular companies that sponsor work visas include the following.

Frequently Asked Questions About Work Visas

How long do work visas last?

Work visas vary by type, but typically last between 1-6 years. The common H-1B visa classification has a set term of three years. You can request to extend your stay with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But you must depart the United States on or before the date printed on your admission stamp or Form I-94.

Once H-1B visa holders are in the U.S. for six years, they must leave the country for at least one year to obtain eligibility for a second application of up to six years. This option is available through a work visa lottery.

How long does it usually take to get a work visa?

A work visa typically takes between 2-7 months to procure through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. This number fluctuates depending on what type of work visa you are interested in pursuing.

COVID-19 restrictions have created a long waiting process, so the average wait time is about 5-7 months. In the wake of the pandemic, in-person interviews may no longer be available at your Embassy or application location. Be sure to check the guidelines on all in-person filing options and meetings in advance and prepare accordingly.

How much does a work visa cost?

If you file a petition for a work visa in America, you must pay a consular fee. The average cost is $190 U.S. Dollars. This is currently true for H, L, O, and P visa applicants.

However, the visa fee varies based on the classification you belong to. B, C-1D, F (students), I (media), J (exchange visitors), M, and TN/TD visa-holders should expect to pay $160. E visa applicants (trader/investor) are subject to a $205 fee, while K visas will pay $265 or higher.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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