The IBS Guide to Work Visas

guest blog by Sam Clements, IBS Recruiter

For many employers, the various types of visas and work statuses is nothing but a blur or acronyms, letters and numbers.

Let’s see if the Jackson Five can help:

Sing with me now….

O-P-T, it’s as easy as 1-2-3

As simple as do-re-mi

H-1-B, 1-2-3

Or an E-A-D

Alright, that didn’t help. The thing is, it’s not as easy as 1-2-3. For employers who only look to hire directly, there are only two statuses that seem to matter – the much-desired U.S. Citizen (USC) and not quite as desired but still very valuable Green Card (GC).

The problem lies in the fact that there are skillsets that are either in high-demand or a more obscure technology that is scarcer in the U.S. than employers would like. Even though it is ideal to find a USC or GC who can be hired on full time, even on a contract-to-hire basis, the reality is, finding that an affordable price is like finding a mythical unicorn. And if you can afford to spend the time and money required to find that mythical unicorn, we wish you the best of luck.

For those of you with limited budgets and desperate needs, the fact must be faced – you may not be able to find someone on a full-time basis. You may, *gasp* have to consider a contractor.

Sure, hire a contractor, you say. Maybe they’ll accept a full-time job down the line.

Guess what…that’s not likely to happen. The resource pool is too small, the demand is too great. You simply aren’t going to find a USC or GC-holder with the skillsets you need.

It may be likely that the contractor who suits your needs is not going to be U.S. born. And thus, it is time for you to enter the foggy, misty world of The United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS).

It is not a world into which employers need to dive too deeply. That’s one of the many advantages of hiring a contracting company such as IBS (shameless plug alert). However, it definitely helps to have at  basic understanding of the most common visas statuses in order to know who you’re hiring and what the logistics of keeping them long-term might be.

So, without further ado, here is a very basic guide to understanding visa statuses for employers.

The Easy Ones:

U.S. Citizen

Hopefully no explanation is needed. They’re citizens. They can work anywhere!

Green Card Holder

A U.S. Permanent resident. An Alien Registration number is issued, but a green card holder has almost all the same rights as a U.S. Citizen excepting voting privileges, serving on a jury or working for many government offices (among other things). They can work anywhere so long as they renew their Green Cards every ten years.

Note: There might be consultants that say they have a “green card EAD” or GC-EAD but, in reality, it’s still the same EAD. It just means they might have been approved for a green card and are just waiting to finalize it, but it’s still just a normal EAD. They can still be hired. It’s a roll of the dice but you just may find it’s a gamble worth taking!

Fun Fact: Green cards are not actually green anymore. When they were first issued after WWII, they were made out of a pale green paper. While today they look like a fancy driver’s license, the nickname has endured

The Slightly More Complicated Ones:


This visa allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations. This visa requires sponsorship in order for the visa-holder to remain legally working in the U.S. The sponsorship can come directly from the employer or from a contracting company. However, sponsorship must be maintained in order for the employee to work legally. It can be transferred so if an employer wants to assume the cost of sponsorship in order to retain the employee, this is possible. However, an H1-B holder cannot be hired full-time without sponsorship.

L1 Visa

The L1 is a visa document used to enter the US for the sole purpose of work.  It is a non-immigrant visa and is valid for a relatively short amount of time, from three months to five years based on a reciprocity schedule. With extensions, the maximum stay is seven years. So who, you ask, are these lucky folk? Usually, these visas are available to employees of an international company with offices in both the US and abroad. The visa is given to employees to relocate to the corporation’s US office after having worked abroad for the company for at least one year.

This doesn’t just apply to the main headquarters of a company but extends to the following: parent and subsidiary; branch and headquarters; sister companies owned by a mutual parent; or ‘affiliates’ owned by the same or people in approximately the same percentages. So, basically, if you’re an employer with an international presence, it’s likely you can ‘pilfer’ your international locations for talent, at least for a short time. There are differences for managers vs. regular employers, but if  you get the feeling this is an option that could work for you, you can explore that yourself!

The Much More Complicated Ones:

OPT (also known as an F1 visa)

OPT (F1) Visas are issued to undergrad and graduate students who have either finished a degree or have been pursuing a degree for more than nine months. This allows the student to work in the US for a year after graduation without sponsorship. Good news though! Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security published a rule for students pursuing technology degrees to apply for a 24 month extension on top of the initial year (so that makes 36 months for those of you who are bad at math). This is now 3 years that an OPT student can work without sponsorship after graduation.

H4 Visas

This is a tricky one. This visa is issued to the spouse of an H1-B visa holder. It allows the spouse to work in the U.S. without sponsorship for as long as the visa of the H1-B holder is valid It is one of the many ways of sharing the wealth in the partnership of marriage. The H1-B holder is responsible for a) getting sponsorship and b) keeping sponsorship. Meanwhile, his/her spouse can find a full-time job!

L2 Visas

Much like with the H4 visa, this is issued to a spouse of an L1 visa holder. It allows the spouse of the L1 to work in the U.S. for as long as the spouse is employed and working. I guess it’s actually not all that complicated, is it? It is spousal-dependent and as long as the L1-holding spouse doesn’t lose his/her job, the L2 spouse can work for anyone. However, as with the L1 and EAD visa, there is an expiration date and thus, full-time employment options might be limited to the duration of the spouse’s employment.

Okay, so, confession…there’s a lot more to it than that, but these are the most common ones you’ll deal with on a day-to-day basis. There are refugee visas, enforced-departure visas, temporary-protected status visas…etc.

So, the big question is why should you care to understand these visas? Isn’t this why you hired a consulting company like, say, IBS, to assist in finding candidates for a position? Well, here’s a scenario…IBS sends you a top-notch consultant for a requirement that requires a “mythical unicorn”. They tell you up front that he/she is an H1B candidate. You think…”Ok, fine. That’s nice. I’ll figure that out later. They’re great for the job!”

So you bring them on board. They’re great, aces, top-of-the-heap. When their contract is up, you think to yourself, “Hmm…why can’t I steal this ‘mythical unicorn’ and make him/her my own employee?” And so you reach out to the consulting company to find out if that’s possible. They patiently remind you that the consultant is an H1B and you think, “Huh?”.

And thus, this is why it’s helpful for you to grasp the basics of visas/work status. It’s tricky. It’s annoying. It’s complicated. Not all jobs are easy to fill. Not all jobs can wait six months for the “right” candidate. Not all jobs are going to be filled with hirable resources. That’s why it’s crucial that you understand the misty, murky, slightly-scary (but not actually once you learn the basics) world of work statuses.

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