Do you need to get a U.S. visa? Then you probably have lots of questions about how the visa process works.

Dealing with visas can be complicated and time-consuming. Altair Global, a global mobility services company, surveyed professionals around the globe about their international assignments. Altair asked survey participants about aspects of their overseas moves that affected their work productivity.

More than half (57%) said that the immigration process, including getting their visas, had a big impact on their productivity. (Note that this number is for professionals who moved to a variety of different countries for work, not just the U.S.)

As a corporate language training firm, we definitely see how the visa process can cause stress and lost productivity. We’re all about making international moves easier. So today we want to break down the process of getting a U.S. visa.

This guide on how to get a visa to enter the U.S. is based on information from the U.S. State Department. Not coming to the U.S. for work? Don’t worry. We’ll talk about other types of U.S. visas, too.

1. First of All, What is a U.S. Visa?

The U.S. requires foreign nationals to obtain a U.S. visa in order to enter the country. It’s a travel document that goes in your passport.

2. Is a Visa Always Required to Enter the U.S.?

Glad you asked! The answer is no. That’s thanks to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. The bad news is that this program won’t be useful to you if your job is taking you the U.S. for longer than 90 days. In fact, if you’ve accepted a long-term work assignment to the U.S., or you have other reasons for wanting to be in the U.S. for longer than 90 days, skip down to Question #6.

But the good news is that if you’re coming to the U.S. for 90 days or less, then you might be able to take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program. And that’s true whether you are visiting the U.S. for work or for tourism.

3. Am I Eligible for the U.s. Visa Waiver Program? 

Let’s figure that out now. First question: Are you a citizen or national of one of these countries?

  • Andorra
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Brunei
  • Chile
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • Liechtenstein
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Monaco
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • San Marino
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Taiwan
  • United Kingdom (Here’s some “fine print” from the State Department on the United Kingdom. “To be eligible to travel under the VWP, British citizens must have the unrestricted right of permanent abode in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man.”)

Did you find your country on this list? Then you are eligible for the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Proceed to the next question.

Is your country not on this list? Skip down to Question #6.

4. Is the Purpose of My Trip Allowed Under the U.S. Visa Waiver Program?

So now we’ve established that your country is part of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Now we have to look at the purpose of your trip.

If you enter the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program, you can engage in only certain activities while you’re here.

Some of those activities are related to business. Here are some examples:

  • Consulting with business associates.
  • Attending a convention or conference that is related to your work.
  • Taking part in short-term training (if you are not paid beyond incidental expenses by any source in the U.S.).
  • Negotiating a contract.

The Visa Waiver Program also permits some activities that are not business-related. Here are some examples:

  • Going on vacation or being a tourist.
  • Visiting friends or family members.
  • Receiving medical treatment.
  • Taking part in social events hosted by organizations that are not related to your work.
  • Competing as an amateur in music, sports, etc., contests. (In other words, you won’t get paid for participating.)
  • Taking a short course or class that doesn’t count toward a degree.

As you can see, the Visa Waiver Program allows you to engage in a variety of activities while you are in the U.S. But it doesn’t permit everything. Here are some examples of what you can’t do:

  • Study for credit.
  • Be employed.
  • Work as a media journalist.
  • Become a permanent resident of the U.S.

Is the purpose of your trip allowed under the Visa Waiver Program? Awesome! Then we have one more detail you need to know in the next question.

Is the purpose of your trip not covered? Then skip to Question #6.

5. What is ESTA? And Why is it Important?

ESTA stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization. U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses ESTA to determine who can use the Visa Waiver Program. You have to get ESTA approval before your trip. Follow this link to apply for ESTA.

That concludes our overview of the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Need additional information? Visit the State Department’s website on visa waivers.

6. I am Not Eligible for the U.S. Visa Waver Program. How Do I get a Visa to Enter the United States?

OK, so now we’ve established that you can’t use the waiver program, so you need a U.S. visa. The first step to applying for a U.S. visa is figuring out the type of visa that you need.

There are two broad types of U.S. visas:

  • You need a nonimmigrant visa (or visitor visa) if you will be in the U.S. temporarily.
  • If you want to live permanently in the U.S., then you need an immigrant visa.

Within each of those two groups, there are many specialized types of visas.

7. I Need a Nonimmigrant Visa. What Are the Various Categories?

Now you will need to figure out the category of nonimmigrant visa you should apply for. To do that, find the purpose of your travel on this list from the U.S. State Department. The visa category is listed with it.

  • Athlete, amateur or professional (competing for prize money only). B-1.
  • Au pair (exchange visitor). J.
  • Australian professional specialty. E-3.
  • Border Crossing Card: Mexico. BCC.
  • Business visitor. B-1.
  • CNMI-only transitional worker. CW-1.
  • Crewmember. D.
  • Diplomat or foreign government official. A.
  • Domestic employee or nanny – must be accompanying a foreign national employer. B-1.
  • Employee of a designated international organization or NATO. G1-G5, NATO.
  • Exchange visitor. J.
  • Foreign military personnel stationed in the United States. A2, NATO1-6.
  • Foreign national with extraordinary ability in sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. O.
  • Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Professional: Chile, Singapore. H-1B1-Chile, H-1B1-Singapore.
  • International cultural exchange visitor. Q.
  • Intra-company transferee. L.
  • Medical treatment, visitor for. B-2.
  • Media, journalist. I.
  • NAFTA professional worker: Mexico, Canada. TN/TD.
  • Nonimmigrant (V) visa for spouse and children of a lawful permanent resident (LPR). V.
  • Performing athlete, artist, entertainer. P.
  • Physician. J, H-1B.
  • Professor, scholar, teacher (exchange visitor). J.
  • Religious worker. R.
  • Specialty occupations in fields requiring highly specialized knowledge. H-1B.
  • Student: academic, vocational. F, M.
  • Temporary agricultural worker. H-2A.
  • Temporary worker performing other services or labor of a temporary or seasonal nature. H-2B.
  • Tourism, vacation, pleasure visitor. B-2.
  • Training in a program not primarily for employment. H-3.
  • Treaty trader/treaty investor. E.
  • Transiting the United States. C.
  • Victim of criminal activity. U.
  • Victim of human trafficking. T.

Need more information on the different kinds of nonimmigrant U.S. visas? Visit the visa categories page on the State Department website. On this page, you will also find links that will give you detailed information on applying for specific types of nonimmigrant U.S. visas.

8. How Can I Apply for a Nonimmigrant U.S. Visa (Visitor Visa)?

You can apply for a nonimmigrant U.S. visa at the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where you live. The exact steps of the process will vary according to the country where you are applying. But, in general, you can expect the following things to be required:

9. I Need an Immigrant Visa. What Are the Various Categories?

What kind of immigrant visa you should apply for? Find your purpose for immigrating on this list. The visa category is listed with it.

Immediate Relative and Family Sponsored
  • Spouse of a U.S. citizen. IR1, CR1.
  • Spouse of a U.S. citizen awaiting approval of an I-130 immigrant petition. K-3.
  • Fiancé(e) to marry U.S. citizen and live in U.S. K-1.
  • Intercountry adoption of orphan children by U.S. citizens. IR3, IH3, IR4, IH4.
  • Certain family members of U.S. citizens. IR2, CR2, IR5, F1, F3, F4.
  • Certain family members of lawful permanent residents. F2A, F2B.
Employer Sponsored – Employment
  • Employment-Based Immigrants, including (preference group):
    • Priority workers [First]. E1.
    • Professionals holding advanced degrees and persons of exceptional ability [Second]. E2.
    • Professionals and other workers [Third]. E3, EW3
    • Certain special Immigrants: [Fourth]. C5, T5, R5, I5.
    • Employment creation/investors [Fifth]. S (many).
  • Religious workers. SD, SR.
  • Iraqi and Afghan translators/interpreters. SI.
  • Iraqis and Afghans who worked for/on behalf of the U.S. government. SQ.
Other Immigrants
  • Diversity Immigrant Visa. DV.
  • Returning resident. SB.

For more information on U.S. visa categories for immigrants, visit the visa categories page on the State Department website. On this page, you will also find links that will give you detailed information on applying for specific types of immigrant U.S. visas.

10. Who Can I Apply for an Immigrant U.S. Visa?

The process of applying for an immigrant visa differs from the one used to apply for a nonimmigrant visa. To start with, you must have a sponsor.

11. Who Can Sponsor Me for an Immigrant U.S. Visa?

A U.S. citizen can file an immigrant visa petition for you if you are their:

  • Spouse
  • Son or daughter
  • Parent
  • Brother or sister

A U.S. lawful permanent resident (green-card holder) can file an immigrant visa petition for you if you are their:

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried son or daughter

A prospective employer can also sponsor you.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reviews visa petitions and either approves or rejects them.

12. What Else Should I Know About Employer-Sponsored Visas?

Since we work with employees who have relocated from other countries to the U.S., we want to pay special attention to this topic.

Let’s say your employer wants to offer you a permanent role in the U.S. So you need to become a permanent resident of the U.S.

Here’s how the process typically happens:

  • Your employer will get an Application for Permanent Labor Certification approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Next, your employer files Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker on your behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. You may be able to combine this form with a permanent resident application.

The goal of this process is for your employer to show two things:

1) That they have an employer-employee relationship with you.
2) That you have the necessary qualifications for the type of employer-sponsored visa that you are seeking. (See the category list above.)

You may also be interested in how long it will be before you can immigrate to the U.S. for your job. There’s no single answer to this question. Sometimes there’s no waiting period. But sometimes, due to restrictions on certain visas, the wait can be significant.

Another common question about employer-sponsored visas is how visas for your family will be handled. Your employer can file a petition only for you, not for your spouse and children. However, under your employer’s relocation package, your family members may receive assistance in applying for their own visas.

For more details on these topics, check out this PDF by the USCIS.

13. My Immigration U.S. Visa Petition Was Approved. What Happens Next?

The process of getting your immigrant visa is far from over. If the USCIS approves your petition, it then goes on to the State Department’s National Visa Center.

Even with an approved petition, things may still not move forward as rapidly as you would like them to. That’s because the U.S. places limits on certain visa categories each year.

When your visa case becomes current, or is likely to within the next year, you will hear from the National Visa Center about next steps. Those steps include paying fees, submitting documents and being interviewed. For more details, visit the State Department’s online guide to the immigrant visa process.

14. What Happens if my U.S. Visa Application is Denied?

According to the State Department, most U.S. visa applications are approved. But some are denied. Here are a few issues that can cause your visa application to be denied:

  • You didn’t fully complete the visa application and/or provide all required supporting documentation.
  • You failed to show that you are eligible for the visa category you were applying for.
  • You have been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude or a drug violation.
  • You have two or more criminal convictions for which the total sentence of confinement was five years or more.
  • You did not demonstrate proof of adequate financial support in the United States.
  • You misrepresented facts or committed fraud in trying to receive a visa.
  • You previously remained longer than authorized in the United States.

These aren’t the only reasons your visa application could be denied. To learn more, visit the State Department’s guide to visa ineligibilities.

We hate being bearers of bad news, but if your application for a U.S. visa is denied, you can’t get your application processing fee back. Because it covers the cost of processing your application, it’s nonrefundable.

But there’s also some good news. If you are found ineligible for a U.S. visa, you can (in most cases) reapply in the future. But you do have to submit a new application and pay that pesky fee again.

You may also be able to apply for a waiver of ineligibility. The consular officer at the U.S. embassy or consulate where you applied for you U.S. visa will give you more details on whether you can seek a waiver and how to do it.

15. I am from a Country the U.S. Has Declared a State Sponsor of Terrorism. How Does that Affect my Visa Application?

The U.S. considers North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria to be state sponsors of terrorism.

If you are from one of these countries, you can apply for a nonimmigrant U.S. visa at any U.S. embassy or consulate that issues them. In most cases, you cannot waive your visa interview by a consular officer.

To learn more, read the State Department’s full guide for visa applicants from state sponsors of terrorism countries.

Answers to Some Other Common Questions on U.S. Visas

  • What if my visa expires while I am in the U.S.? This isn’t a problem. Just be sure to keep your admission stamp or paper Form I-94 inside your passport.
  • Is my indefinite validity visa (Burroughs visa) still valid? Burroughs visas became void in 2004. So you will need to apply for a new U.S. visa.
  • How do I renew my nonimmigrant visa that expires soon? Sorry, but you’ll have to go through the visa application process again. In some situations, though, you may be able to skip the interview when renewing your visa.
  • Does my visa guarantee I can enter the U.S.? No. Customs and Border Protection officials have the authority to deny you admission to the U.S.
  • What should I do if my passport and visa are lost or stolen? It’s important to act quickly. Let authorities know and request replacement documents. Check out the State Department’s full guide to what to do in this situation.

We hope that this guide answered all of your questions about applying for a U.S. visa. Remember, all aspects of immigrating to another country — or even visiting there — are a lot easier the more familiar you are with the language.

If you need to build your English skills before coming to the U.S., contact us for a free consultation: [email protected] or (800) 401-3159.

Fluency Corp offers English language training with instructors who are native English speakers. All classes are live and interactive (not recorded), whether you are studying in person or online.

Are you an HR professional who helps international employees relocate to the U.S.? We want to hear from you, too. Contact us to learn more about onsite workplace English training from Fluency Corp, as well as online options. Other languages, like Spanish, French and Japanese, are offered as well.