How to get U.S. Work Visa for Architects

Although the basic economics of architecture are the same everywhere / the business cycle is about 5-10 years between recessions no matter where you work/, there are some significant differences between architecture job markets across the globe. While new grads are struggling everywhere in the Western and Eastern world, it seems a bit easier for experienced architects seeking to migrate to find better job opportunities. Among the countries being recognized as the best destinations for architects worldwide, the US is still at the top of the list. Well, at least the top of the destinations wish list as immigration bureaucracy barriers and the difficulties of getting US work visa turn off most of the people. That’s right, if you’re an architect wishing to take advantage of the US architectural job market but you don’t have that privilege of being an American, you have to struggle to obtain one of US work visas.

For those of you who consider moving to the United States as the next big step for your career, below we outline the most common types of visa foreign architects typically hold.

H-1B Visa /for specialty occupation workers/

Probably the most common first-choice visa type for architects. The US H-1B specialty occupation visa is a non-immigrant visa that allows US companies to employ graduate level workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or technical expertise in specialized fields, including architecture. As any professional level job in architecture usually requires you to have a bachelor’s degree or higher, H-1B may be the logical first choice for you. Moreover, if you do not have a bachelors degree or higher you may be able to show degree equivalence through work experience and/or other qualifications.

Sounds good? Not exactly…

In fact, with the number restriction of this visa type (so-called visa cap)it is actually unlikely that your H-1B visa petition will be successful. Current immigration law allows for a total of 85,000 new H-1B visas to be made available each year (to all countries and all disciplines), including 65,000 new H-1B visas available for overseas workers in specialty (professional) level occupations with at least a bachelors degree, and additional 20,000 visas available for those specialty workers with an advanced degree from a US academic institution.

Due to above-mentioned limitations, in recent years the H-1B visa cap has been heavily oversubscribed, with the number of more than 100,000 applications being registered the same day submission opened and the cap reached within few hours. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services /USCIS/, authority relevant for visa procedure, then holds a lottery for the H-1B visas available. There are, however, special exemptions to the cap number as well as H-1B-like visa options for certain foreign nationals, namely those whose country of citizenship is Australia, Canada, Mexico, Chile, or Singapore (see below).

Further disadvantages are that you can only apply for an H1-B visa on April 1st (for the 2018 cap on April 2nd, 2017) but, if approved, you’ll be only able to start working on October 1st. The H-1B is also employer specific, meaning that you can only work for the employer who has filed your H-1B application.

Another problem is the six year time cap. After your H-1B visa application is approved for three years you can request extensions up to three additional years, but this will exhausted your eligibility under that visa status.

Additionally, this type of visa involves high commitment for the Company as the employer must sponsor the international covering of related expenses and must agree for the 3 years commitment with the employee. All of that makes American companies unwilling to sponsor foreign architects through H-1B Visa.

The subclass of H-1B Visa is the H-1B1 Visa for Chilean and Singaporean nationals, which is basically identical to the H-1B, except that it is exclusively for citizens of Chile and Singapore.  Although it is limited to annual cap of 1,400 for Chile and 5,400 for Singapore, it has never been filled.

Applying for a non-immigrant visa is generally quicker than applying for a US Green Card, therefore the H-1B visa is popular for companies wishing to bring in staff for long-term assignment in the US.  However, because of the lack of available visas, foreign architects frequently have to look at applying for other visa categories such as the O-1 visa for individuals of extraordinary ability, L-1B for specialized workers, L-1A for managers and executives, E-2 Treaty Investor visa, E-3 for Australians or J-1 visa for trainees or interns.

O-1 Visa /for individuals of extraordinary ability/

As an alternative to an H-1B visa, a foreign architect who wishes to work for a US architecture studio may want to submit an O-1 visa application, as long as he or she demonstrates extraordinary talent and aptitude in the arts. This type of visa is therefore dedicated for those architects whose designs are truly artistic and exceptional and for those who have become distinguished in their career. If you have established a career abroad before considering a move to the US or have worked for a number of years in the US on other visa types, your visa petition based on your distinction in the arts could be considered.

There are several advantages of an O-1 visa:

  • No yearly quota – the O-1 does not have a yearly quota, which means it remains available to anyone who satisfies the criteria. If you have the necessary qualifications you may choose to apply for the 0-1 visa to avoid the H-1B numerical limits.
  • Lack of time limitations – as the H-1B visa, the O-1 is also initially granted for three years, but it can be extended indefinitely as long as you continue to pursue your primary purpose. Therefore, there is technically no limit to how long you can stay and work under the O-1.
  • Flexibility – in contrast to the H-1B which is employer specific, the O-1 may allow you to work for many different companies throughout the duration of your visa if you wish so.
  • Residency for J-1 Exchange Visitors – if you are a J-1 Exchange Visitor, in some cases you can apply for O-1 status to bypass the two year foreign residency requirement prior to applying for L or H status.

Containing so many advantages, the O-1 visa is unfortunately more difficult to obtain. For your visa petition to be considered you have to demonstrate:

  • extraordinary abilities by national and international acclaim
  • significant recognition from renowned members of the field (e.g. you have been nominated or received architectural awards)
  • activity in the academic and professional publishing (e.g. articles in relevant media and professional journals)
  • high salary or other substantial remuneration you have received as an architect performing a critical role for distinguished architectural organizations

O-2 Visa /for essential support personnel/

Behind many leading foreign architects holding O-1 visa in the US, there is often an individual or team of qualified, experienced, and essential support personnel who may obtain the O-2 status if have worked extensively with the O-1 beneficiary over the years. If you have worked closely with another architect who is in the US as an O-1, than there’s a chance you can come to the US as an essential part of his or her team.

As the O-2 status is for essential support personnel of an O-1 artist, to be eligible for this visa you must prove that you are “an integral part of such actual performance” and have the “critical skills and experience with the O-1 that are not of general nature and which cannot be performed by other individuals.”

There is no official list of qualified positions, but generally architect’s assistant or members of a graphic design team may qualify for the O-2 visa. It’s also possible that more than one support personnel member can become a O-2 beneficiary with the same O-1 artist.

J-1 visa /for trainees or interns/

The J-1 visa is a visa status that allows you to engage in an internship or training program in the United States. Internship programs are designed to allow foreign college and university students or recent graduates to come to US to gain exposure to local culture and to receive hands-on experience in US architecture firms.

Unlike the H1B visa, neither annual quota for the J-1 Visa nor particular start date or filing date for applications is required.

Interns must be foreign nationals:

  • Who are currently enrolled in and pursuing studies at a foreign degree- or certificate-granting post-secondary academic institution outside the United States; or
  • Who have graduated from such an institution no more than 12 months prior to their exchange visitor program start date

Due to the thorough screening procedure requirement for the trainee and intern programs, sponsors or third parties acting on their behalf must interview the potential trainee/intern in person, which typically takes place by videoconference.

As the J-1 visa is dedicated for trainees and interns, it is not as flexible as H1B or O-1 visa in terms of work. In fact, J-1 applicants cannot perform productive work unless it’s incidental to training.

This type of visa is also shorter in duration than previously mentioned work visas. While training programs have a maximum duration of 18 months and intern programs have a maximum duration of 12 months, the J-1 duration for other programs vary. Typically, short term scholars are given 6 months and post-doctoral students are given the time it takes to complete their degree plus up to 36 months. In some cases, an extension may be possible.

Generally, after your internship/training under the supervision of the US architecture firm has ended, you would have to intend to return to your home country. However, it is possible to change your status from J-1 status to the H-1B visa status as long as you are not subject to the 2-year home residency requirement which can be done if you are maintaining J-1 status and there are H-1B visa numbers available.

Although shorter in duration and less flexible than H1B visa or O-1 visa, J-1 is a good option for recent graduates or current students from foreign universities who want to come and temporarily intern or train at a US architectural firm.

E-3 Visa /for Australians/

Like the H-1B1 for Chilean and Singaporean nationals, the E-3 visa for Australians is an example of special exemptions to the cap number of H-1B visa.

The E-3 visa is for specialty occupation roles and it’s very similar to H-1B, except that it is only for citizens of Australia. Like the H-1B and H-1B1, there is an annual cap, but, similar to the H-1B1, it has never filled.

As the E-3 Visa process is generally faster and cheaper than traditional H-1B Visas, for citizens of Australia, E-3 visas are a great alternative to H-1B option.

TN Visa /for Canadians or Mexicans/

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canadian and Mexican architects may work in the US on a TN Visa.

To qualify for a TN as an architect you must demonstrate business activity at a professional level in Architecture and have a Bachelor’s or Licentiate’s Degree. Typically, a state or provincial architectural license is also required, however, in certain circumstances, there may be duties within the occupation that do not require licensing.

While the TN visa may be obtained for a maximum period of 3 years upon each application, in some cases this period is limited to less than 3 years. It happens typically if it is clear from the application that the applicant’s services are needed for less time. In any case, to qualify for a TN status there must be a job offer in place from a United States employer.

E-2 Investor Visa

The E-2 Investor Visa is a visa typically used by individuals who want to manage and direct a business in the United States. If you’re an Architect from a country that has a treaty with the US and you’re willing to invest a substantial amount of capital into a US business, you could possibly come to the US under this visa option.

Generally, the E-2 visa is the best way to come to develop and direct the operations of your US-based architecture firm, to work in an executive or supervisory role or work as an essential employee.

Major requirement of the E-2 visa is that there must be a treaty of trade between the United States and the country of your citizenship.  If there is one in your case, and all other requirements are met, the E-2 can be a great visa for you to use to start your own architecture related business in the United States. Additionally, the E-2 visa may also be used to employ employees of the same nationality as yours.

L-1 Visa  / Company Transferee Visa /

The L-1 non-immigrant visa enables a US employer to transfer managers, executives or specialized employees from one of its affiliated foreign offices to one of its offices in the United States.  This classification also enables a foreign company which does not yet have an affiliated US office to send an executive or manager to the United States with the purpose of establishing one.

If the foreign branch of the architectural firm wants to transfer architects to work for the US branch of its company, an L-1 visa could be a feasible visa option. In order to qualify as L-1A transfer, you must have worked abroad at least 1 of the previous 3 years as a manager, executive or specialized employee for a foreign company, and must you be coming to work in the US to work in the same role for the foreign company’s parent, affiliate, subsidiary, or branch. Alternatively, to qualify for an L-1B visa type, you must have specialized knowledge contributing to the special or advanced knowledge of a company.

Although it’s not a common visa for an architect, L-1 can be a great alternative to a H1B visas. Unlike the H1B visa, there are no education requirements, quotas, or prevailing wage issues.

As you can see, there are numerous visa options available for foreign architects in the US. While there are many issues that can come up in submitting the petitions to USCIS, with careful strategizing and presentation they can be successfully overcome. It’s indeed not easy getting employed in the US as a foreign architect, but that does not mean it’s not possible. Hopefully you’ll find this article helpful on your way to build your American dream.

If this article inspired you to seek for job opportunities in the United States, you can explore the latest US architecture job offers at | USA jobs

I hope this post gives you a clearer sense of the US work visa procedure, and a better look at best visa options for architects. If you have any experience or stories about application process, please share them in the comments!

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