An Alphabet Soup of Temporary Visas

What Is A “Visa”?

When people hear that word, they think it is a person’s permit to be in a country.

Under U.S. immigration law, “visa” is a technical term that refers to a record stamped into a person’s passport that allows the individual to seek entrance into the United States for a specific purpose.

Visas are acquired through the Department of State (DOS) at the various embassies, consulates, and missions all over the globe. There is no U.S. Consulate inside U.S. borders, so a visa application can only be submitted outside the United States.

An individual who holds a valid visa to the United States will offer that visa at a U.S. land, sea or airport of entry to an official of the Customs and Border Protection agency under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and lawfully request admission to the United States.

The visa type establishes for what purpose the visa holder may seek admission to the United States. If the person is admitted to the United States, the inspecting officer provides the visa holder with “status” to remain in the United States for an established purpose and typically for a certain time frame.

Once the person has been accepted to the United States, the visa no longer matters as it is only an entry document– the status given at inspection governs the person’s authorization to be in the United States.

There are many types of visas for a person intending to come to the United States to consider. The options can be found at 8 USC § 1101(a)(15), codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act § 101(a)(15).

The most common visa is the B classification visa, which is for visiting the United States. A person can seek a B-1 visa for business purposes, or a B-2 visa for tourism or pleasure travel to the United States.

Another common visa is the F-1 visa for an individual to attend a post-high school educational institution.

J-1 visas are provided for foreign exchange programs, such as students wanting to study in the United States as part of their high school experience, medical school graduates seeking to enter a residency program in the United States, and international au pairs seeking placement with U.S. families.

If the person belongs to a cultural exchange program, the Q-1 visa might serve for that purpose.

A person hoping to study in trade school– such as for flight school– can apply for an M-1 visa.

Those in transit through the United States or who work as crew members on cruise ships or airlines apply for C and D visas.

Government and diplomatic employees from other countries can come to the United States on A and G visas.

Professional athletes and performing artists with a specific itinerary for performances or competitions can request P visas, while individuals with spectacular ability in the arts, sciences, athletics, business or education can seek an O visa.

Some visas are petition based, meaning U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under DHS must first approve a petition filed by a sponsor or employer for the visa type before the potential employee can request the visa with DOS.

H visas are for employers to hire foreign workers, whether for professional positions (H-1B), registered nurses (H-1C), or for agricultural (H-2A) or other seasonal work (i.e., construction, landscaping– H-2B).

L visas allow managers (L-1A), executives (L-1A) and highly skilled employees (L-1B) of an international company to get transferred to the United States to assume similar duties in a U.S. office.

Ministers and other religious professional and vocational occupation employees can be sponsored by their religious establishments to perform religious duties in the United States (R-1).

Other visa types are treaty-based, meaning the United States must have a treaty with the person’s country of nationality that enables the specific visa type.

Visa hopefuls engaged or intending to pursue international trade between the United States and their country of nationality may apply for an E-1 treaty trader visa. Those who hope to invest a substantial amount into the U.S. economy for business development purposes may make an application for an E-2 investor visa.

Potential employees from Mexico and Canada in certain occupations may apply for a TN visa to assume employment in the United States under the NAFTA.

Victims of crime also have visa options potentially available. The U visa is given to those who are victims of serious crime in the United States who are assisting in the law enforcement efforts against the criminal of the offense.

The T visa is similarly provided to victims of trafficking.

And the S visa is available to those who offer valuable information to law enforcement officers as informants.

There are more, but these are the most commonly used visas to enter the United States.


Garry L. Davis, managing attorney for Davis & Associates, an immigration law firm, graduated from the University of Texas School of Law and Brigham Young University. Board certified in immigration and nationality law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, he has been selected as a Texas Super Lawyer and for Best Lawyers in America. He served the American Immigration Lawyers Association as the Dallas immigration court liaison and as program co-director for a Texas chapter CLE conference held in Mexico. He has frequently spoken on immigration issues by various organizations.

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