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guide to U.S. visas

Are you confused by the different types of work and student visas? Check out our guide to U.S. visas.

Whether you are a prospective student or soon-to-be graduate of a U.S. college or university, understanding your different options and how U.S. visas work is important. The United States government offers an alphabet soup of categories that visitors may qualify for depending on the purpose of their stay in the country. Our guide to U.S. visas will help you untangle all those letters and numbers, and determine the one you need.

Broadly speaking, there are two main types of visas: non-immigrant and immigrant visas. Unless you’re engaged to marry a U.S. citizen or have a U.S. employer willing to sponsor you for a green card, the initial options available are in the non-immigrant visa category. With non-immigrant visas the assumption is you will return home after your program is complete.

3 Types of Visas for Students

If you’re coming to the United States for studies, there are three student visa categories.

  • F-1 academic student The F-1 student visa is the most common visa type for students. More than 90% of international students who study at academic colleges and universities in the United States are issued an F-1 visa.
  • M-1 vocational student The M-1 visa is for full-time study at a vocational or other nonacademic institution.
  • J-1 exchange student visitor The J-1 visa is for exchange students studying abroad for a semester or two, as part of an agreement between a student’s home country university and a U.S. university.

3 Types of Post-Study Work Options

Many international students nearing the end of their degree studies are eager to explore work opportunities in the U.S. Each student visa type mentioned above has its own work experience options available as a benefit of their visa status.

  • F-1 Optional Practical Training An OPT visa for graduating F-1 students offers the opportunity to work in the U.S. for 1-3 years, depending on your major, per completed degree level (bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral). Check out this guide to the OPT process for a detailed look.
  • M-1 Practical Training A post-graduation visa for M-1 students that offers the opportunity to work in the U.S. for a maximum of 6 months.
  • J-1 Academic Training Offers up to 18 months maximum for J-1 students who complete bachelor’s or master’s degree. Doctoral graduates can receive an extra 18 months of employment authorization. Exchange students who are in the U.S. without earning a U.S. degree must complete any academic training within their initial program length.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides a complete listing of different visa options for students to work in the United States.

2 Most Common Work Visa Categories

After authorized work experience tied to a student’s initial visa status ends, there are two main types of non-immigrant visas that students can apply to, through their employers, to continue work.

  • H-1B for specialty occupations
    – Requires a higher education degree or its equivalent and theoretical or technical expertise in a certain field, such as science, engineering or computer programming
    – Initial authorization is 3 years
    – Can be renewed for an additional 3 years
  • L-1A or B for intracompany transfer
    – Must have been employed for at least a year at a subsidiary or the parent company
    – Length of visa would be either 5 years (L-1B) or 7 years (L-1A)

Students who transition to H-1B visas after they finish their practical training may wish to stay in the U.S. longer, particularly if their job is going well. If you find yourself in that situation, it will be time to speak with an immigration attorney and your employer about switching to either an immigrant work visa and/or applying for a green card/permanent residency.

Other Work Visa Types

While you may have athletic, artistic or spiritual talents, you would need to be a world-class athlete, artist or entertainer (P visa) or religious worker (R visa). Otherwise, you likely find yourself applying for one of the above visa categories for students.

Additional Resources

The U.S. visa process can be complicated, and your country of origin may affect the visa guidelines outlined above. As part of our guide to U.S. visas, we gathered some more resources for you to explore.