Which visa you’ll need depends on why you’re visiting or moving.
Planning ahead can help your visa application process run smoothly. But process, procedures and requirements can change — often without much warning — so you’ll want to confirm the exact documentation required for your circumstances before scheduling your mandatory interview with the US consulate.
What is a visa?
Visas are legal documents that allow those from another country to enter the US for a stated period of time and specific purpose.
There are over 150 different visas offered under US immigration law. But these visas fall under two main categories: nonimmigrant visas for temporary visits and immigrant visas for people ultimately intending to immigrate indefinitely.
Do I need a visa to visit the US?
It depends. If you’re a tourist or business traveler from one of the countries that participate in the Visa Waiver Program, you don’t need a visa. If you’re coming to the US for any other purpose or from any country not on the list, you’ll need a visa.
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 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-1 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.
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 completed your education and how you will pay for living, travel and education costs.
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 (SEVP)–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.
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.
Find out what type of visa you’ll need as early as possible to give yourself enough time to gather the forms and paperwork required to apply for your visa. Once you know what visa you need, learn more about how to apply and what the application process will entail.