legal barriers for employment in the United States
Travel topics > Reasons to travel > Working abroad > Working in the United States

The United States of America, as the biggest economy in the world, entices foreigners with employment opportunities across the full range of skill levels and economic sectors. Like most countries, through, the U.S. has adopted immigration and visa laws designed to give preference to U.S. residents. Make sure you understand what legal barriers you face to getting a job in the U.S.

Visa requirements


Citizens of U.S. overseas territories are considered to be U.S. nationals and may work unrestricted in the United States. Citizens of Palau, Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed to live and work indefinitely in the United States with only a valid passport. For citizens of all other countries, including Canadians and Bermudians, unless you are a permanent resident of the United States (i.e. green card holder), you will need a work visa to be allowed to work in the United States. Paid work is not allowed on a B-1/B-2 visitor visa or the visa-waiver program. Volunteer work is allowed provided the position taken up is a legitimate volunteer position (i.e. it would ordinarily be done unpaid by a local). Working unlawfully in the United States runs the very real risk of arrest, deportation, and ineligibility to re-enter the country. Illegal immigrants also run the risk of dangerous work conditions.

Taxes and payments


Most employers deposit their employees' salaries directly into their bank accounts, so it is advisable to open a bank account as soon as you arrive in the U.S.

Once you have received work authorization, you will have to apply for a Social Security Number (SSN) for your employer to report your wages to the government for tax purposes. You can start working before you receive your number, but you must provide your employer with a receipt from the Social Security Administration indicating that you have applied for one, and you will need to provide the number to your employer once you have received it.

Provide your SSN to your bank once you obtain it, as your bank will need to use it to report any interest you accrue to the government for tax purposes. Similarly, your credit history is tied to your SSN in the U.S., so you will need it to apply for credit cards, loans, and the like. Make sure to keep this number private, as it can easily be used for identity theft, if it falls into the wrong hands.

The American tax year runs from January 1 to December 31, and tax returns for the previous year are due on April 15 (or the next working day, if it falls on a weekend or public holiday) every year. Income tax in the United States is notoriously complicated, with taxpayers generally having to file separate federal, state and sometimes city income tax returns. Most Americans simplify things for themselves by paying a tax preparer or using tax preparation software such as H&R Block, TaxAct, or TurboTax. (Non-residents who need to use form 1040NR can use Sprintax as TurboTax doesn't support it.) If you don't want to pay for these services, you can also use Free File for your federal tax returns, which requires doing more of the math yourself but is, you guessed it, free. Some community organizations also provide tax preparation assistance for non-citizens living in the country. Top earners can pay surprisingly low taxes by hiring a tax accountant to take advantage of complicated deductions and a lower tax rate for capital gains; American multibillionaire Warren Buffett famously announced that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary.

This type of tax avoidance is very common and socially accepted. Illegal tax evasion is a different story: the U.S. has one of the highest voluntary tax compliance rates in the world. Tax evasion carries social disapproval, as well as fines and jail time if you're caught. Do not evade taxes.

Work rights on student visas

Main article: Studying in the United States#Working while studying

Unless you have applied for and received special permission in advance, international students are not allowed to work off-campus in the United States. For on-campus jobs, international students may work for up to 20 hours a week during the school term, and full time during the school holidays.

Types of work visas


It is better to arrange your work and work visa before you enter the United States. Young people who are full-time students of certain nationalities can apply for a J-1 "Exchange Visitor" visa[dead link] which permits paid work as a nanny or summer work for up to 4 months in virtually any type of job. The United States Department of State has full information on applying for this type of visa including the precise categories that qualify.

The H-1B visa allows a limited number of skilled and certain unskilled employees to temporarily work in the United States. It usually requires at least a bachelor's degree and is based on a petition filed by an American employer. The job you wish to apply for should be related to your degree. The most common careers of hard-to-get H-1B visa holders are nurses, mathematics teachers, and computer science professionals. There is also the L-1 visa which allow individuals who are employees of multinational companies to be transferred to the U.S. office, provided you are employed in an executive or managerial position, or as a worker with "specialized knowledge". The O-1 and P-1 visas exist for performing artistes and sportspeople to perform their respective trades in the U.S., though in practice you will need to be of celebrity status for it to be approved. Individuals who hold a PhD in scientific or engineering fields may work for an educational institution in a research position on a J-1 visa for up to 5 years. Dependents of L-1 and J-1 visa holders may apply for permission to work in the U.S., while dependents of H-1B, O-1 and P-1 visa holders are not allowed to work in the U.S. under any circumstances. Before an employer can arrange any work visa, he must ensure that nobody within his locale is willing or qualified to do the job before considering you.

Canadian citizens who have secured job offers in certain skilled professions (those outlined in the USMCA trade agreement as professionals under its labor mobility provisions) are eligible to apply for TN status on arrival without much of the difficulty that comes with applying for an H-1B visa. You will only need documentation of your job offer from your employer, proof of your own qualifications, and your Canadian passport or other proof of Canadian citizenship. Once admitted, this status is valid for three years and can be renewed provided you continue to work for the same employer. Mexican citizens who have secured qualifying employment, along with Canadians with non-Canadian spouses or children that they wish to bring into the US on dependent status, must instead apply in advance for a TN visa at a US consulate or embassy, but as with Canadians applying for TN status on arrival, applicants for TN visas are not subject to hard limits or any requirement that the employer must have been unable to find a local hire.

If you are seeking to adjust visa status or to enter the U.S. on a working visa you should first check the official government websites of the U.S. Department of State, which issues visas abroad, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services which administers immigration programs within the United States. Unfortunately, con artists both in the U.S. and overseas often prey on people's desire to travel or work in the U.S. Keep in mind that visa applications do not usually require an attorney or other intermediary, so you should be wary of and verify any "advice" offered by third parties, especially non-lawyers. If in doubt about properly applying for such visas then it is recommended to use a licensed immigration attorney.

No-one entering under the Visa Waiver Program is permitted to adjust their status for any reason. For detailed immigration rules related to working in the U.S., visit the web-site of the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Permanent residency


As the H-1B, L-1, O-1 and P-1 visas are considered to be dual-intent visas, foreigners working on those visas may apply for permanent residency, which if granted, allows them to stay in the U.S. indefinitely and change jobs freely. On the other hand, the J-1 visa and TN visa are strict non-immigrant visas, meaning that applying for a green card could potentially be viewed as immigrant intent, and lead to you being deported from the U.S. for breaching your visa conditions. Applying for permanent residency will automatically make you ineligible to receive most non-immigrant visas in the future, the exception being visas that specifically allow for dual-intent.

The easiest way to obtain permanent residency is to be sponsored by your employer. You may also file an immigrant petition for yourself, though you will generally have to be exceptional, and demonstrate that granting you permanent residency is beneficial to the U.S. in order for it to be granted. Permanent residency can also be granted by being married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for at least 2 years. If you have a lot of money, permanent residency can also be obtained by investing at least $1,000,000 in a local business, provided your investment leads to the creation of at least 10 new jobs for U.S. citizens. Once you have been living in the U.S. as a permanent resident for 5 years (3 years if you are married to a U.S. citizen) or more, you are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Worker protections and time off


Compared to many other middle- and upper-income countries, U.S. labor laws tend to favor the employer; protections for workers are relatively weak. This means you will need to read your employment agreement carefully, as legal requirements that you might take for granted back home (for working hours, time off, termination of employment, and so on) may be limited or nonexistent in the United States.

There is no legal requirement for American employers to provide paid leave to their employees, be it medical, maternity or annual leave. However, these are typically provided by most large companies and universities in their employment contracts. Ensure that any leave your employer agrees to give you is explicitly stated in your employment agreement, as you will have no legal recourse otherwise. While government bodies and banks are required to observe public holidays, private businesses may freely choose whether or not to do so.

Many jobs in the US don't use formal contracts, but instead "offer letters", which may be legally binding but are typically less comprehensive than employment contracts in many other countries. Conditions such as non-disclosure clauses and paid leave may be covered in separate documents. There may not be a formal notice period for resignation, but unless otherwise specified, two weeks' notice is considered standard.



The United States is the only Western country that does not have a taxpayer-funded universal free healthcare system that covers all citizens. Most middle-to-upper-class Americans have private health insurance, the cost of which is usually borne by their employer; whether poorer Americans are adequately covered varies wildly between states. Healthcare costs in the United States are the highest in the world, so ensure that your employment contract comes with health insurance, as the cost of medical treatment while uninsured is prohibitively expensive for most people (with medical bills being the leading cause of bankruptcy among Americans). Drug prices are also the highest in the world, which can be a major problem for people with chronic illnesses; the price of insulin for diabetics, for instance, is almost 10 times that in Canada. That said, if you are very rich, the United States is by far the world's leading nation in medical research, and you have at your disposal the most cutting edge treatments that are often not available anywhere else.

Workplace culture


When it comes to clothing, business casual (slacks, understated collared shirts without a tie, and non-athletic shoes) is now the default at many companies. More traditional industries (e.g. finance, legal, and insurance) still require suits and ties, and three-piece suits may be required in some formal settings (e.g. if you need to go to court). Other industries (e.g. computer software) are even more casual, allowing a T-shirt and jeans and even shorts for everyday wear; as a business visitor, a safe choice would be business casual, or jeans and a collared shirt. If you're starting a new job in an office environment, it's fine to ask how people at the company usually dress.

See also

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