You’d hardly be going out on a limb by saying that the USA is the archetypical immigrant country. Throughout the centuries, immigrating to the USA has been associated with a sense of new opportunities and fresh beginnings in the New World, and the country’s popularity with expats from all over the globe is still immense.
Thus, it does not seem to be all that surprising that the country maintains some of the most comprehensive and, at first glimpse, overwhelmingly complex immigration legislations in the world. The massive annual stream of hopefuls from abroad looking to start a new life in the USA has necessitated tightening entry and immigration requirements. Generally speaking, there are two major visa categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, the latter of which will be explained below.
Obviously, not every expat on assignment in Houston will be there on a permanent basis. To cater to the special needs of these expatriates, the government offers various nonimmigrant visa categories, each tailored to best meet the specific requirements expats may have. Note that most of these categories also limit the range of options you have during your stay in Houston, be it the duration of your stay or the occupations you are permitted to fill. Below, we have detailed some of the most important ones. For a comprehensive list of all visa categories and their requirements, we strongly advise visiting the homepage of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
The USCIS defines a specialty occupation as a job requiring at minimum a bachelor’s degree, or a job for which special knowledge is a prerequisite. This includes acclaimed fashion models and international researchers associated with the Department of Defense. Each year, a maximum of 65,000 H-1B visas are awarded, and the initial duration of the stay is limited to three years.
For the L-1A visa, the name says it all: if you are going to be sent to an existing Houston-based subsidiary of your employer or are going to be entrusted with the task of establishing a new one, you should apply for this visa. You must have spent at least one year working for your company within the past three years, and your position in Houston must be of an executive or managerial nature.
The O-1 visa is tailored towards expats who have reached national or international acclaim, recognition, or distinction. If you truly excel in the field of science, education, business, sports, arts, or film, this might be the visa for you. The visa is initially valid for three years, but in some cases it can be extended by a year at a time.
The USA maintains a large number of trade treaties with other countries, and nationals of those countries can apply for an E-1 visa, provided they engage in principal and substantial trade with the US. Nationals of treaty countries who intend to substantially invest in a US company can apply for the E-2 visa. While initially limited to two years, both visas can be extended as long as you meet the qualifications.
If your time in Houston will be limited to the attendance of, for instance, a relevant conference or receiving training, or if you will only spend a few weeks consulting with business partners, the B-1 visa might be for you. Please note, however, that this category does not allow you to take up employment.
If you have already secured a work contract with a Houston-based employer, they will usually guide you through the initial steps of the application process. There are also a number of administrative issues only your company can take care of, such as obtaining a Labor Certification from the Department of Labor. Meanwhile, it is your responsibility to arrange for a personal interview at the nearest US consulate or embassy, a list of which can be seen on the website of the Department of State. The list of requirements can be viewed on the website of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
The topic of getting the right visa and taking care of other administrative issues is extensive. For this reason, we have devoted an entire subcategory of our USA Expat Guide to the topic of visa and administration. Recommended reading for every expat-to-be!
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