Around the world, people call the United States of America the Land of Opportunity. From the Statue of Liberty to the Constitution, the country's symbols signify that anyone can become anything on U.S. soil. With that in mind, millions of people come to the United States in search of job opportunities each year. Each of these people needs a particular document, often called a "work visa," to chase their dreams. While the immigration system may be complicated, there are several tools available to help visitors and immigrants find the right visa in a timely fashion.

What Is a Work Visa?

People come to the United States for many reasons. For example, people may cross the border to visit family, see the incredible sights or work. Those who come with the intention of being paid for any labor of any kind must show one of three types of documentation: Permanent Resident status, work permit or work visa. In popular culture, having Permanent Resident status is called having your "Green Card." These immigrants have many of the same rights as citizens of the country and are legal residents.

While many people use "work permit" and "work visa" interchangeably, these two categories have essential differences. Furthermore, there are different types of permits and visas for many kinds of workers who come to the United States. The government often issues these to legal immigrants such as asylees, refugees and people waiting for Green Card authorization as proof of work authorization.

Both immigrants and temporary visitors can obtain work visas, which allow a non-citizen to work in the country. There are several different types of visas, each for a specific kind of worker. It's crucial for you or your employee to apply for the right work visa. Otherwise, you could be stuck waiting for longer than you planned.

Why You'd Need a Work Visa

Anyone who wants to work in the United States for any length of time must show identification that proves authorization. U.S. citizens, for example, may provide their Social Security numbers or other identifying documentation. Likewise, immigrants with Green Cards may present this identification.

However, without either of these statuses, you must obtain a work permit. Non-residents who come to the United States to pick fruit seasonally, work on an international flight, get a permanent job in the country or start a business need one type of work visa or another.

Of course, plenty of people come to the United States to conduct business, even when they remain with their employers in their home countries. For example, teams from a foreign company might come to the United States to meet with business partners. Depending on their country of origin and length of the trip, this team could need visas as well.

Types of Work Visas for Non-Immigrants

Non-immigrant visas make up a significant amount of all visas that the United States issues. These visas are for people who the government authorizes to come to the country and work for a specified amount of time. You can obtain a non-immigrant visa for tourism, studying, being an exchange visitor, working as part of a transit crew or performing specialty work. Only the latter three allow a person to work for wages in the United States.

J-1 visas are for those in a private exchange program. Unlike exchange students, these visitors work in the private sector. They can be interns, teachers, seasonal employees or other temporary professionals. This designation is also the type of visa you might get if you only come to the United States for training.

The government issues C1-D visas to transit workers when their work requires brief stops in the United States. For example, cruise ship employees and international flight crews based in other countries need these visas to operate legally.

Finally, the H1-B visa covers specialty workers who have expertise in a specific field. For example, a technology company may hire a highly-trained engineer from another country to work in the United States on a project. This new employee would need an H1-B visa to work in the country.

Work Visas for Immigrants

In addition to visas for temporary workers, the United States government issues visas to non-residents who want to make the country their home. These visas require sponsorship from someone who is in the country, called a sponsor.

Some visas cover family members of current citizens. In this case, the family member who is a citizen sponsors his loved one. The EB-class visas require an employer to sponsor the immigrant. Companies may use these visas to hire specially trained and highly-qualified individuals.

EB-1 visas are for people with "extraordinary ability" in their fields. For example, a talented musician may use an EB-1 visa to perform in a symphony in the United States. People who have advanced degrees can apply for EB-2 visas. Professionals with a bachelor's degree or foreign equivalent are welcome to apply for an EB-3 visa. While the first two levels don't always require a job offer, EB-3 applicants may need to provide proof of an offer.

EB-4 visas are for religious workers and people who have worked for the United States government in another country. Entrepreneur immigrants are welcome to start businesses in the United States under an EB-5 visa. This designation generally requires an investment of at least $500,000.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Work Visa?

Exactly how long you may wait to receive your visa may depend on many different factors, including the type for which you applied, the accuracy of the information you provide and factors outside your control. Generally speaking, the more limited your visa will be, the shorter you will wait.

For example, a non-immigrant visa may come to your doorstep within a few weeks of applying. However, it can take someone years to obtain a Green Card. The USCIS website offers a few tools that can help you calculate your wait time. However, it's best to allow up to a 60-day grace period on top of that estimate, if possible.

The Visa Waiver Program

The United States has agreements with 38 countries that allow for people to cross borders without worrying about getting visas. Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), you can come into the country for tourism or business meetings without a visa. However, you cannot conduct all types of business under this program. It is strictly for meetings, conferences and things of that nature – not employment.

The VWP allows travelers to use their passports to come into the United States. To take advantage of this program, you need to ensure that your home country participates, you have an e-Passport and the nature of your visit qualifies for this program. If approved, you will have 90 days to stay in the country without a visa.

How to Apply for a Work Visa

Obtaining a work visa for the United States can be a long and confusing process. It's important to get started as soon as possible. The first step is to check and see if you need a visa. If you qualify for the VWP, you may be able to skip the visa process and expedite your arrival in the United States.

If you're sure you need a visa, the next step is to determine which type will best suit your needs. Be sure to review all the visa options carefully. If you have a job offer, you may ask your employer for guidance. If you're still not sure, you can try the visa wizard on the website for the U.S. Department of State.

Next, you may need to set up an appointment with your local U.S. Embassy or Consulate to begin your application. Each Embassy and Consulate has a system for dealing with applications. However, you should come to your appointment with all the relevant documents, including your identification, credentials or job offer.

You must also complete the DS-160 form on the U.S. Department of State website, which serves as the application for a non-immigrant visa. Immigrant visa applicants must fill out the appropriate form for the type of visa they seek as well.

Generally, visa applicants also pay a fee. The size of the fee depends on the type of visa and the home country. Furthermore, applicants must schedule and complete an interview. Finally, you will need an official photo for your visa.

Some of these steps can take longer than many people imagine. It's important to give yourself as much time as possible for this process.

How to Get a Work Visa for Your Employees

If you're an employer who has found a great employee from another country, you may wish to sponsor her for a work visa. Helping your new employee navigate this complicated system can be a great way to show how excited you are to have her on board.

Most of the time, you will use a non-immigrant visa for your employee. The most common types are L-1, E-2 and H1-B. However, you may need a different kind of visa for your new worker. You should consider hiring an immigration lawyer to help you through the process. He can help you determine which type of visa is right and ensure you get your employee cleared in time.

Some employers may wish to take advantage of the Known Employer Pilot program, which expedites the visa and hiring process for some workers. Under this program, you and the employee can complete less paperwork and get to working together sooner.

To apply for this program, the employer should apply with USCIS. Not all businesses can participate. However, if you can prove that your company meets the qualifications, you can have an easier time hiring foreign nationals with great talent from here on out.

If you want to sponsor your employee for permanent residency, you can do so. However, this will require more paperwork. You must prove to the government that there was a shortage of qualified workers for the position and that sponsoring someone for this position will not negatively impact U.S. citizens in the workforce.

Considerations for Employers

Hiring someone from another country can have many benefits. However, it's important to be aware of the legal and tax implications. Staying on top of this information can ensure that you remain above board and keep your new employee.

First, it's important to remember that all workers in the United States require some form of authorization. While you may be excited to get your newest employee started, don't have him do any labor before you have the appropriate documentation. Waiting like this can legally cover you and him.

You must also remember that different tax law than you may be used to, govern non-resident employees. Furthermore, non-immigrant workers and new immigrants operate under different tax laws as well. Be sure to consult a tax or payroll professional before you start paying your foreign employee.