What type of US visa is right for your situation?

Choose a US visa that’s right for your situation

Narrow down the visa you’ll need to work or study in the US.

Visas are legal documents that allow those from another country to enter the US for a stated period of time and specific purpose.

With an overwhelming 150 different visas offered under US immigration law, it can feel like there’s a visa for any reason you can imagine. But these visas fall under two main categories: nonimmigrant visas for temporary visits and immigrant visas for people ultimately intending to immigrate indefinitely.

We’ll go over the most common types of American visas issued for temporary work or study. However, because process, procedures and requirements can change — often without much warning — you’ll want to confirm the exact documentation required for your circumstances before scheduling your mandatory interview with the US Consulate.

Choosing a visa that’s right for your situation

To make an informed decision about which visa you should apply for, consider these key elements:

  • The purpose of your visit. You can apply for a visa to work, travel, study or conduct business in the US.
  • Length of stay. Determine if you want a temporary or permanent visa.
  • Sponsorship. Depending on the visa, you may need someone to vouch for your visit, whether a university, job or family member.

Temporary visitor visas — Category B-1 or B-2

Visitor visas are the most common type of visa you’ll come across when visiting the US. These are nonimmigrant visas to enter the country temporarily for business or tourism.

To temporarily work in the US, you’re required to complete either Form I-129 — Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker or Form I-797 — Petition for a Notice of Action. You submit these forms to the US Citizen and Immigrant Services.

Some employers — especially multinational companies — are able to petition for its employees to be brought over from countries outside of the US. These petitions are referred to as L-1 Blanket Petitions. If you’re included in an L-Blanket Petition, you’ll need to also complete Form I-129S.

Be aware that you may be asked to produce evidence of compelling ties to your home country to prove that you have strong motivation to return.

Student visas — F-1 and M-1 Visas

New student visas can be issued up to 120 days before your course study date begins. But you won’t be able to enter the US until 30 days before you’re due to begin your studies. Once you’re in the US, you can renew your visa for continuing studies at any time as long you’ve maintained your student status and have a current SEVIS record.

What is SEVIS?

SEVIS is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information Service, an online record of F-1 and M-1 students registered to study in the United States. It also includes the names of each Student and Exchange Visitor Program–certified schools in the country.

Your school will typically help you enroll your information in SEVIS, which is required before you can be approved for a student visa.

For a student visa, you’ll need to complete a few forms beyond those required for a standard visitor visa, including a specific Form I-20 — Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status based on your situation. Your school should send you a SEVIS-generated Form I-20 that requires your signature and that of your school official.

Like all visas, extra documentation may be required for approval. This documentation can include school transcripts, diplomas and degrees from schools you attended and standardized test scores required by the school you plan to attend. You may also need to prove your intent to leave the United States once you’ve complete your education and how you will pay for living, travel and education costs.

Other types of visas

Media visas — Media (I) Visa

If you’re a member of the media or otherwise eligible to apply for a media visa, you’ll complete all forms typical for a general visitor visa. However, the US Consulate officer might ask for documentation to establish qualification for this visa, such as a contract in the United States or some other type of credential given by a professional media organization in your home country

Exchange visitor visas — J-1 Visa

If you’re an au pair, summer worker, intern or exchange student, you may be eligible for an exchange visitor visa.

In addition to the visitor visa forms, you’ll need to complete Form DS-2019 — Certificate of Eligibility for Exchange Visitor Status provided by a sponsor that’s already registered you in the US Student and Exchange Visitor Information System. If you’re married or have children, your spouse or children must be registered separately and receive their own DS-2019.

Those involved in internships or training programs also require a completed Form DS-7002 — Training/Internship Placement Plan.

Transit, medical and other travel visas

Other reasons for traveling to the states that may require a visa include travel for medical treatment, official government travel, religious work, humanitarian situations, ship or aircraft crew status and extended stopovers while traveling. Consider using the US State Department’s Visa Wizard to narrow down the exact visa you require.

Bottom line

Once you’ve accepted that well-deserved offer to study under your program of choice, landed that job you’ve been pursuing in your field or agreed to join your family in the States, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to gather the forms and paperwork required to apply for your visa.

Learn more about what you can expect from the application process itself, including finding a sponsor or agent and potential documentation required.

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