How long can I work in the U.S. on a temporary visa and nine other common visa questions

Each year the United States admits millions of foreigners under various work visas, and at least in 2020, more than 2 million were temporary workers and their families, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But what are these visas and how to get these types of jobs?

Here, we answer some of the most common questions about temporary work visas in the U.S.

How do I get a temporary work visa for the United States?

Among the millions of temporary workers who are admitted to the U.S., visas for agricultural work (H-2A), temporary workers under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), skilled workers (H-1B), and intra-company transferees are the most common.

And while some steps in the application process may be similar, there are many requirements that vary depending on the type of visa you want to apply for.

What is required to apply for a temporary work visa?

In addition to having the indispensable documents - such as establishing that the visit will be temporary, agreeing to leave at the end of the authorized stay, having a valid passport and maintaining a residence abroad - the foreign worker must also be eligible to receive a visa. Sounds easy, but in 2020, nearly 1.7 million applications were rejected as ineligible.

This considering that there are certain conditions and activities outlined by the U.S. Government that can make a person ineligible to receive a visa. For example, overstaying a visa, committing certain crimes or submitting false documents during the visa application.

But before applying for a visa to work temporarily in the U.S., the prospective U.S. employer must obtain a labor certification or other approval from the Department of Labor on behalf of the applicant and file a Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker (Form I-129) on behalf of the foreign worker, which must be approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Once USCIS approves the petition (Form I-129), a visa can be applied for. The first step for the foreign worker is to complete the online Form DS-160 application. This form is the same form used to apply for a U.S. tourist visa.

After completing the Form DS-160 and paying the indicated fee, the applicant must schedule an appointment at the U.S. embassy or consulate.

It is important to note that in most cases - to temporarily work legally in the U.S. - the prospective employer must file a nonimmigrant petition on behalf of the foreign national, according to USCIS.

However, there are a few classifications that allow a foreign national to work in the U.S. without an employer having filed a petition on his or her behalf. This is the case for the E-1, E-2, E-3 and TN classifications, as well as, in certain cases, the F-1 and M-1 student and J-1 exchange visitor classifications.

How much does a temporary work visa cost?

The visa application fee varies depending on your classification, but these are some temporary worker visa application fees:

NAFTA Professionals (TN): $160.

Temporary Workers/Temporary Employment or Trainee (H-1B, H-2A and H-2B): US$ 190

Persons of Extraordinary Ability (O-1): US$ 190

Intercompany Transfers (L-1A and L-1B): US$ 190

Religious Worker (R): US$ 190

However, to this may be added additional fees for processing an immigrant visa application, required medical examinations or vaccinations, fees for obtaining necessary documentation, and the cost of going to the U.S. embassy or consulate for the interview.

How long does it take to process a temporary work visa?

The administrative process can vary depending on each person's individual circumstances.

In addition, the process may be affected by the availability of interview appointments at the U.S. embassy or consulate in the applicant's home country. For example, at the time of this writing, the waiting time to schedule an appointment in Mexico City is approximately 44 days, 21 days for Bogotá and 10 days for Buenos Aires.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) offers a tool to check the current waiting time for an interview.

How long can I work in the U.S. on a temporary work visa?

The authorized length of stay varies by visa category, for example:

NAFTA Professionals (TN): up to 3 years. However, there is no specific limit on the total length of time a foreign national may stay under the TN visa as long as he/she continues his/her employment relationship.

Workers in a specialty occupation (H-1B): up to three years. However, their stay may be extended, but generally no more than six years.

Temporary Workers/Temporary Employment (H-2): the maximum period of stay for both visas is 3 years. They are granted for a term of one year, although two extensions of up to one year each may be requested. The application for extension must be filed before its expiration and workers may remain in the U.S. during the extension process.

After a 3-year stay, H-2 visa beneficiaries must leave the U.S. for a period of 3 continuous months before applying for readmission under the same visa type.

Persons of Extraordinary Ability (O-1): USCIS will determine the time necessary to complete the activity for which the beneficiary was petitioned. However, "new petitions involving new events or an event to be individually determined to be materially different from the event included in the initial petition may be approved for up to 3 years," the Service states.

Intercompany Transfers (L-1A and L-1B): Employees entering the U.S. to open a new office will be allowed a maximum initial stay of one year. All other workers will be allowed a maximum initial stay of three years.

L-1A visa extensions are granted for up to two years, until the total maximum limit of seven years is reached.

Religious Worker (R): up to 30 months and subsequent extensions may be granted up to a maximum of 30 months, so the total period of stay in the U.S. cannot exceed 5 years (60 months).

Can I bring my family to the U.S. if I obtain a temporary work visa?

Spouses and children of a temporary worker may file an application directly with a U.S. consulate or embassy to obtain a visa to legally enter the U.S. and remain in the country for the same period of the employee's stay. These are the specifications according to the type of visa:

Relatives of workers (H-1B, H-2A and H-2B): spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 may apply for admission to the U.S. through the H-4 visa classification. However, family members may not work under H-4 status.

Relatives of Workers (TN): Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 may apply for admission to the U.S. under the TD visa classification. However, family members may not work under TD status, but are allowed to study.

Relatives of Workers (O-1): Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 may apply for admission to the U.S. under the O-3 visa classification. However, family members may not work under O-3 status, but are allowed to study.

Relatives of workers (L-1A and L-1B): Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 may apply for admission to the U.S. under the L-2 visa classification. Relatives under this classification may work in the U.S., according to USCIS.

How much does a foreign-born worker earn in the U.S.?

On average, weekly earnings for foreign-born workers - a definition that includes lawfully admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants - were $898 in 2021, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Among men, the median weekly earnings of the foreign-born were $957, while the median weekly earnings of foreign-born women were $804.

Among major racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic full-time wage and salary workers who were foreign-born earned 84.3% more than their native-born counterparts in 2021.

How to find a temporary job (H-2A/H-2B) in the U.S.?

On the DOL website you can view available temporary jobs in the U.S., as well as their description, duration, location, pay and contact. However, the website is only available in English.

Once they have a job offer from the employer, prospective workers outside the U.S. must apply for an H-2A or H-2B visa (after USCIS approves their Form I-129) with the Department of State at a U.S. embassy or consulate. Finally, they must apply for admission to the U.S. at a U.S. port of entry.

Here are the details on how to find and apply for a temporary job in the H-2 visa category.

How to work in the U.S. as a refugee or asylee?

According to DHS figures, in 2020 the country admitted a total of 11,840 people under refugee status and granted asylum to 31,429 people. However, these are two different processes for both application and work authorization.

Refugee: In order to be granted asylum or refugee status, a person must meet the definition of refugee set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), which states that a refugee is a person "who is unable or unwilling to return [to his or her home country] and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion".

A person seeking refugee status must apply from outside the U.S. and once admitted may work immediately upon arrival in the country.

Asylee: A person may seek asylum in the U.S. when they are persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group.

A person seeking asylum status may apply from the U.S. or upon arrival at a port of entry, whether it is a border crossing, airport or seaport.

Asylees are protected from being returned to their country of origin and, once granted asylum, may begin working immediately. However, a person with a pending application cannot work immediately, unless the applicant is eligible, according to the requirements outlined by USCIS.