Moving to the United States legally always requires a visa, even if you’re not planning to work.

It’s important to know which visa is the right one for your situation, as the United States Immigration and Nationality Act has 75 different non-immigrant visa categories, including 21 for temporary workers.

VISAS 101

Filling out the various documents and paperwork needed for your visa petition can be incredibly laborious, but with the right preparation you can fend off any unpleasant surprises when it comes to living legally in the U.S.

Immigration attorneys can also help applicants speed up the process, navigate any changes in legislation, and ensure they aren’t missing important supporting evidence or forms. They are mandatory for certain kinds of visas like the H1-B, and many multinational corporations will hire an immigration lawyer to complete visa forms.

Immigration lawyers are expensive, though, and some applicants choose to apply for their visas without one to try to save a significant amount of money. But this path can also increase stress, lengthen the process, and put an applicant at greater risk of errors, an additional request for evidence, or rejection.

The most important thing is to start early, do as much research as possible, and meticulously check everything, including the necessary documents, fees, any further changes in the immigration application process, and if your country is subject to exemptions or further scrutiny.

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  • 12 months

    A year can feel like a long time, but for many visas, like the O-1 extraordinary ability visa, the K-1 fiancé(e) visa, and the marriage-based immigrant permanent residency visa (also known as the “green card through marriage”), can require a lot of time based on the lengthy and complicated application and review process.

    If you are moving to the U.S. for work, you aren’t limited to just the O-1 visa. There are several others with their own requirements and limitations. Before you apply, you should check if your company will pay for your work visa and any legal fees.

    For those planning to go the path of the H1-B visa for specialty occupations, the process can start more than nine or 10 months in advance. That’s especially true in competitive markets like Seattle, New York, or San Francisco, where there’s a large concentration of individuals with desirable and specialized skill sets. Begin with searching for a job with a company willing to file the application for work authorization. The visa applicant also has to have a bachelor’s degree, a job offer from a company, and collect a significant number of documents which need to be submitted to an immigration attorney by early to mid-March to be considered.

    The annual cap on H1-B visas is 65,000, chosen from a pool of nearly 200,000 applicants. They’re awarded by lottery each year during the first few days in April, but successful applicants don’t get to start using them until October 1. However, H-1B workers who are petitioned for or employed at higher education institutions, non-profits, or government research organizations are exempt from this limit.

    There’s also the L-1 intercompany transfer visa, which requires a potential visa applicant to have at least a year’s experience in a company’s non-U.S. office before applying to work in an office located in the U.S..

    If you or your company are planning to apply for the O-1 extraordinary ability visa, it can take several months to compile a thorough report of all of your accomplishments, international prizes, press coverage, as well as getting eight-to-twelve prestigious people in your field to sign and approve letters of recommendation. Your application may also require a detailed itinerary of the projects you plan to complete (up to three years in advance) as well as letters from collaborators or potential employers confirming their work relationship with you.

    Those planning to move to the U.S. for school also need to start researching university application requirements at least a year in advance of the program’s start date.

  • 6 months

    Continue to talk to other people who have gone through the same visa process. They can offer advice, recommend immigration lawyers, and also point you towards books and other resources.

  • 3 months

    If you are moving to the United States to study and have confirmed acceptance at an educational institution, you will need an F-1 or J-1 student visa. Most students get an F-1. This requires a Certificate of Eligibility (COE) through your school. F-1 students will need to request an I-20, while J-1 students will need an DS-2019. You may also need to submit a copy of your admission letter, the identification page of your passport, a copy of your I-94 arrival record, as well as proof of pre-payment of processing and shipping fees.

    Unless you are transferring from another U.S. school with an unexpired entry visa, you will need to apply for your actual student visa with the U.S. State Department. (Citizens of Canada and Bermuda are exempt from this, but still need a COE.)

    After completing the Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application (DS-160), book the visa appointment at your local embassy or consulate. Make sure to look up any procedures or requirements specific to the location you have chosen.

  • 1 MONTH

    Make sure all the information on your visa is correct so you don’t have any trouble at the American border.

HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC.