Some visitors to the U.S. think that if they are working remotely online on their computer for an employer abroad that does not qualify as work and therefore, they are not breaking American immigration law. That is not necessarily the case. It could be argued that if a visitor in the USA is working on his or her computer doing work for a foreign employer who serves only foreign clients and not American ones, and if the visitor is paid abroad in foreign currency into a foreign bank account and does not deal with any Americans while in the USA, that would not amount to work in the USA and therefore would not require a work permit. But if discovered by U.S. immigration authorities, such a case could end up in court to decide whether or not it is working in the USA.
Few visitors could meet such a restricted standard of work anyway, so it is more likely than not that you do need a work permit if you are doing any kind of work, even remotely on a computer, in the United States.
Can a visitor to the USA get a work visa or permit?
That depends. There are some classic ways a visitor could qualify for a work visa, such as an inter-corporate transfer in the case of someone who has been a manager or executive abroad and now seeks to do similar work in the USA. As a classic example, think of a Toyota manager who is transferred from Tokyo to New York to manage a plant in the U.S. as a classic example.
Another way would be someone in the professions coming to work in the USA from Canada or Mexico under the USMCA trade agreement. For example, an engineer, accountant, computer systems analyst, dentist, lawyer, doctor, nurse, or various therapists and the like. Such individuals can get work permits. Canadians can even get work permits at the border. Others can change status in the USA to get work authorizations. People who buy a business or a franchise can sometimes change their status in the USA if their country of citizenship has a trade agreement with the USA and they qualify for an E work status.
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Extraordinary workers, such as tennis stars or professional golfers, for example, can sometimes get work visas in the USA by changing their status. But in many cases, especially for those with lesser education or skills, getting a work permit is much harder.
In those instances, individuals can only qualify when employers offer them work in situations where the employer has been unable to locate a local worker and is able to persuade the Department of Labor that there is a shortage of such workers in the location where the worker is needed. Usually, this entails a so-called PERM application for labor certification—an effort that takes a few years and is difficult to accomplish. A good way to think of this is that the more educated the individual is and the more skills that individual has, the more likely that individual will find a way to work in the USA.
Can I get a U.S. work visa without a job offer?
It is indeed possible to get permission to work without having a job offer. But it is rare. One way is to be an outstanding individual who is represented by an agent and has arranged to attend events where you are paid.
An example would be an O-1 visa runway model with bookings for showings in a variety of cities where she earns a fee for each attendance and where the agent takes say 10 percent of the fee for each booking for representing her.
Another would be where you buy a business, a hotel for example, and you are from a country such as Canada that has a trade agreement with the USA where you can apply for an E-2 work visa to run the hotel.
A third example would be to get an OPT work permit following graduation from a college which would entitle you to work anywhere. Even here, however, the work permit would only be for a year and thereafter you would need to apply for a different kind of work permit, probably an H1-B work visa. The easiest way to get a job offer is to invest in a business you will own, however.
Can I work in the U.S. as a spouse of a foreign worker with a work visa?
If you are the spouse of a foreign worker, such as someone with an L-1, H1-B, or E visa, you are entitled to get an employment authorization incident to your entry into the United States and are therefore immediately authorized to work upon arrival. Also, if you are adjusting your status in the USA after sponsorship by a close family member, you are entitled to apply for an employment authorization document and upon receiving one is eligible to work. However, not all spouses are entitled to work. For example, the spouse of a TN work visa holder is not entitled to work, nor are spouses of O-1 or P work visa holders. Such spouses need to establish their eligibility to work based on their credentials, as opposed to the mere fact that they are related to a person with a work permit.
For example, the spouse of a TN work visa holder may themselves be entitled to a TN visa. The spouse of a doctor who obtains a TN visa may be a nurse, for example, and therefore be eligible to receive a work visa on that basis in their own right. In this example, such a person would merely need to apply for the work visa in the same manner as the spouse did, or alternatively enter the U.S. as a visitor to start, and then apply to change their status once in the United States by applying with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services doing an in-land application.
How long does it take to get a work permit?
That depends on the work permit involved as well as where the applicant is from. For example, a Canadian can apply for a TN or L-1 work visa right at the border and get the work visa on entry to the USA. No waiting is involved. However, most applicants are required to apply for their work visas through U.S. consulates abroad and that can involve weeks if not months of waiting times due to the extra processing steps involved. Most work visas can be obtained within about a year and often within a matter of a few months even if an interview at a U.S. consulate abroad is required.
In most of the cases discussed in this article, it would be wise to engage a U.S. immigration attorney to help an applicant with their application. The requirements are complex and a thorough understanding of how the U.S immigration program operates is needed to maximize chances of success.
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