A visa type is determined by the applicant's purpose. Immigrant visas are issued to aliens who pursue permanent living in the United States, while nonimmigrant visas are required of aliens to temporarily stay in the United States for study, work, tourism, business, medical care and so on. Once issued, the visa is placed in the traveler’s passport. There are different types of nonimmigrant visas, which are determined by the purpose of travel.
The main visa categories are given letter designations:
- A – Diplomats and foreign government officials
- B – Temporary visitors for business and pleasure
- C – Foreigners in transit
- D – Crew members of airlines companies
- E – Treaty traders and investors
- F & M – Students
- G – Employees of designated international organizations
- H – Temporary workers
- I – Foreign journalists
- J – Exchange visitors
- O – aliens with extraordinary abilities
- P – Performing athletes, artists, entertainers
- Q – Cultural exchange program participants
- R – Religious workers
- T – Victims of humans trafficking
- TN/TD – NAFTA professionals
- U – Victims of criminal activity
- V – Spouse and children of a lawful permanent resident
Depending on the purpose of entry, immigration law has divided nonimmigrant visas into more than 30 categories:
Diplomats or government officials:
A-1, A-2, A-3
Diplomats and other government officials and their immediate families on behalf of their national governments to work or attend activities in the United States must obtain A-1 or A-2 visas. “Personal employees, attendants, or domestic workers” for them may be issued A-3 visas.
B-1, B-2, VWP
The most applied visas are temporary visitors for business visa (B-1) and temporary visitors for pleasure/tourism (B-2) visa. Depending on the purpose of the trip, the visiting length varies from several days to 1 year and visiting times can be one or many times.
The foreigners from a nation under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) can receive a visa waiver to travel to the United States for less than 90 days if they visit for business or tourism regulated under B-2 or B-1.
C-1, C-2, C-3
For those who are “traveling in immediate and continuous transit through the United States en route to another country.” If the they have a valid B visa or are a national of a VWP (Visa Waiver Program), they may travel the United States without applying for a C visa.
For crewmembers, who “work on board commercial sea vessels or international airlines” in the United States as normal operation requires, and “intend to depart the United States within 29 days” should apply D visas. If the crewmember will remain with the same vessel, a D-1 visa is applied. If they change and work on another vessel, then it's a D-2 visa.
Treaty traders or investors:
Foreigners who are citizens from countries that engage in commerce and navigation with the United States can work, invest, and engage in trade in the United States once they obtain E visas.
TN, H-1B1, E-3
Some nations have special treaties with the United States and their citizens can apply for special visas that allow foreign nationals to work in the United States. These nations include United States-Canada-Mexico (TN), United States-Singapore-Chile (H-1B1) and United States-Australia (E-3).
Students, scholars, trainees, or exchange visitors:
The course of study and school type will determine whether foreign students need F, J or M visas. Students who attend academic institutions (e.g., private elementary school, high school, university or college) in the United States can apply for F-1 student visas. Aliens with student visas are admitted for duration of status (D/S), which permits them to legally stay in the United States as long as they maintain their status as a student. For instance, a student keeps their status by enrolling in a degree-granting program. Once they do not attend school, or no longer satisfy the minimum course time requirement, they may lose their status and may be deported.
After graduation, foreign students can search for temporary employment to extend their legal stay by applying Optional Practical Training (OPT) visa via the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The student's major area of study decides the length of the OPT. It’s usually 12 months after the completion of an academic program. However, some students who earned degrees in certain science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) may hold an OPT status for up to 36 months.
Special education visitors or trainees who cannot receive training in their home country or are admitted to practical training programs “in the education of children with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities” can apply for H-3 visas.
Aliens approved to participate in exchange visitor programs in the United States are qualified to apply for J visas. This includes short-term scholars, exchange students, interns, specialists, government visitors and so on.
Vocational or nonacademic students should apply for M visas. They do not have OPT and are not permitted to work in the United States.
Workers in specialty occupations with high education degrees or the equivalent working experiences can apply for H-1B visas. The H-1B visa is the most frequently used nonimmigrant visa for the employment of foreigners.
Temporary or seasonal agricultural workers from designated countries can work in the United States with H-2A visas.
Non-agricultural workers from designated countries use H-2B visas.
Intracompany Transferees who have continuously worked “at a branch, parent, affiliate, or subsidiary of the multinational organizations” aboard for 1 year “in a managerial or executive capacity, or in a position requiring specialized knowledge” can obtain L visas to work for the same employer in the United States. Workers in managerial or executive positions should apply for L-1A visas, and L-1B visas are for workers with specialized knowledge. The L visa allows multinational companies to transfer their key personnel into the United States. It has no academic degree requirements like H-1B.
O-1A, O-1B, O-2, O-3
Individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in the “sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics” can obtain O-1A visas. Individuals who have “a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry” can obtain O-1B visas. Individuals who will accompany these O-1 workers to assist them can apply for O-2 visas. The spouses and children of O-1 and O-B can get O-3 visas.
P-1A, P-1B, P-2, P-3
Athletes who attend “an internationally recognized level of sustained performance” in the United States can apply for P-1A visas. Members of internationally recognized entertainment groups can apply for P-1B visas. Artists and entertainers can apply for P-2 or P-3 visas.Foreigners who “provide essential services in support of above individuals” can apply for the same visas.
International cultural exchange program participants can temporarily work or practice in the United States with Q visas to share culture.
The prerequisites of all the above temporary worker visas are the prospective employer filing the petition with the United States USCIS, and getting the visa petition approved.
Workers in special fields:
G-1, G-2, G-3, G-4, G-5 and NATO-1, NATO-2, NATO-3, NATO-4 NATO-5, NATO-6, NATO-7
Foreign journalists who represent the foreign information media come to the United States for their profession can apply for I visas.
Religious workers who are employed by religious organizations in the United States and “have been a member of that religious denomination for at least two years preceding their application for admission to the United States” can get R visas.
Other special visa types:
Victims of criminal activities (e.g., domestic violence) who have “suffered substantial mental or physical abuse” may be eligible to petition for U visas to enter into the United States. The U visa is a result of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which aims to protect women and children from abuse and trafficking.
Victims of human trafficking who are already physically present in the United States as a result of human trafficking can get T-1 visas to stay in the United States legally. Thus, T-1 visas are not issued by United States Embassies and Consulates abroad like other visa types.
For more information about nonimmigrant visas, please see the United States department of state website: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/visa-information-resources/all-visa-categories.html.
See also: Bureau of Consular Affairs
[Last updated in April of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]