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How to choose the right US work visa for Australians
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Your guide to getting boots on the ground in the US.

We back Aussie and Kiwi startups with global ambitions, so expanding into the US is a common feature in many of their stories. Getting boots on the ground, however, can be one of the trickiest parts. Between interpreting complex information about which visa is right for you and navigating the US visa application process from Australia, acquiring US visas for Australians can be a minefield. 

To help, we’ve rounded up a list of US employment visas most relevant to startups and tech companies to make it easier for you when applying for a US visa from Australia. Here’s an outline so you can skip to the visa most relevant to you:

Note: Bachelor's degrees in the US are 4 years, rather than the usual 3 in Australia and New Zealand. Any bachelor's degree requirements in this article refer to US bachelor degrees (i.e. 4 years of tertiary study). This means to satisfy the bachelor's degree requirements, you need 4 years of tertiary education. This can comprise of:

  • A 3-year bachelor’s degree + a 1-year honours degree
  • A 3-year bachelor's degree + other further study (e.g. master’s degree, PhD)
  • 3 years of work experience for each year of tertiary education required, e.g. 12 years of experience is equivalent to a 4-year bachelor's degree (only available for H-1B & E-3 visas)

As an example, for the final option of substituting experience for tertiary education, if you only have a 3-year bachelor's degree, you can apply for H-1B or E-3 visas once you have 3 years of work experience. L-1, EB-2A and EB-2C visas don’t have tertiary education requirements. EB-2 and EB-3B visas do not allow you to substitute work experience for tertiary education requirements. 

What's the right US visa for you?

H-1B Visa

H-1B visas are a common pathway for educated professionals to move to the US for a role in a speciality occupation. There’s an annual visa cap, and the number of visa applicants often greatly exceeds this number. Before you can apply for this visa, you have to register with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) during an annual two-week window; for the US fiscal year 2025 (which runs from October 2024 to September 2025), this window is from 12pm March 6 - 12pm March 22 2024 (Eastern Time). USCIS will randomly select registrations (sometimes referred to as the H-1B lottery) to proceed to the next stage of an H-1B petition and application.

Criteria

You’re eligible if:

  • You have a valid job offer from a US employer that requires speciality knowledge. Any US employer can sponsor an H-1B visa, provided they have an IRS tax number and follow all requirements for sponsorship.
  • You have a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience in your field.
  • Your employer can show that there’s a lack of qualified US applicants for your role.

Limitations

  • There’s a cap on H-1B visas for every US fiscal year (October-September). This cap means the visa application process is very competitive. While 85k visas are available annually (20k of which are only available for individuals with a master’s degree or higher), there were 780k registrations for the FY2024 H-1B lottery. Only 14.6% of these registrations were selected for the H-1B petition and application stage.

What do you get?

  • You can stay and work in the US for three years and extend your visa up to a total stay of six years.
  • H-1B visas are dual intent, giving the holder a clear path to permanent residency.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 may be able to accompany you through an H-4 visa.

L-1 visas

L-1 visas are a category of non-immigrant visas designed for intracompany transfers. These visas allow multinational corporations to transfer employees from foreign offices to work in the US temporarily. There are two sub-categories: managers & executives (L-1A) and employees with specialised knowledge (L-1B).

L-1A: Managers & Executives

Criteria for employees

You’re eligible if:

  • You’re coming to the US to work in a managerial or executive capacity, defined as: 

Managerial capacity: supervising the work of others, managing a department, function or component of the organisation, or managing an essential function without direct supervision.

Executive capacity: you make broad decisions without much oversight.

  • You’ve worked outside of the US for the foreign counterpart of your employer continuously for at least a year within the three years before you apply for an L-1A visa.

Criteria for employers

  • The US employer must be actively conducting business in the US and have a physical office or facility where the employee will work.
  • The US employer must have a qualifying relationship with the foreign entity employing the visa applicant, e.g. parent, subsidiary, affiliate or branch office.

What do you get?

  • If you’re entering the US to establish a new office, you’ll be granted a maximum initial stay of one year. All other applicants will be granted a maximum initial stay of three years. Requests for an extension of stay may be granted in increments of up to two years until you reach a maximum limit of seven years.
  • L-1A visas are dual intent, giving the holder a clear path to permanent residency.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 may be able to accompany you through an L-2 visa.

L-1B: Employees with specialised knowledge

Criteria for employees

You’re eligible if:

  • You’re coming to the US to provide services in a “specialised knowledge capacity”, defined as: 

Deep knowledge of your organisation’s product, service, research, equipment, techniques or management and its application in an international context OR an advanced level of expertise in the organisation’s processes and procedures.

  • You’ve worked outside of the US for the foreign counterpart of your employer continuously for at least a year within the three years before you apply for an L-1B visa.

Criteria for employers

  • The US employer must be actively conducting business in the US and have a physical office or facility where the employee will work.
  • The US employer must have a qualifying relationship with the foreign entity employing the visa applicant, e.g. parent, subsidiary, affiliate or branch office.

What do you get?

  • If you’re entering the US to establish a new office, you’ll be granted a maximum initial stay of one year. All other applicants will be granted a maximum initial stay of three years. Requests for an extension of stay may be granted in increments of up to two years until you reach a maximum limit of five years.
  • L-1B visas are dual intent, giving the holder a clear path to permanent residency.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 may be able to accompany you through an L-2 visa.

E-3 Visa

E-3 visas are often the best pathway for Australian citizens to move to the US because they’re less competitive than H-1B and EB visas. However, unlike H-1B visas, they aren’t dual intent, meaning you aren’t eligible to apply for permanent residence.

Criteria

You’re eligible if:

  • You’re an Australian citizen.
  • You have a letter of employment in the US.
  • You have the necessary academic or qualifying credentials for your role.
  • You’ll fill a position that qualifies as a specialty occupation. There’s no definitive list of occupations that qualify, but two requirements of any role are:
  1. A theoretical and practical application of specialised knowledge.
  2. A bachelor’s degree or higher in the relevant speciality. If you don’t have tertiary education, you need to have 3 years of experience per year of university study, i.e. 12 years of experience in your industry is a substitute for a 4-year bachelor's degree.

Limitations

  • If you change employers while in the US, your new employer must obtain a certified Labor Condition Application for your new role and file a Form I-129 petition. The Form I-129 petition must be approved before you’re authorised to work for the new employer.
  • There’s a cap of 10.5k E-3 visas per year, however, this cap is rarely reached.

What do you get?

  • You can stay and work in the US for two years and extend your visa in two-year increments. There’s no maximum number of extensions, pending exceptions.
  • You can enter and exit the US as much as you want.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 are entitled to a dependent E-3 classification. 

EB-2 Visa

EB-2 visas are available to non-US citizens who possess an “advanced degree or exceptional ability”—more on that later.

EB-2 visa holders have permanent resident status in the US. Before petitioning for this visa, a sponsor (usually your employer) must apply for a permanent employment certification (PERM) through the Department of Labor

It’s possible to skip this certification by petitioning for a National Interest Waiver (NIW), which is a request from the applicant to waive the need for a job offer (and related labour certification). While NIW petitions have a high approval rate (89.6% in Q3 2023), successful applications tend to rely on help from immigration attorneys. Aside from using NIW, there are two sub-categories of eligibility: for those with advanced degrees or exceptional ability. 

Criteria for advanced degrees

You’re eligible if:

  • You have a bachelor’s degree or higher (or foreign equivalent) and at least five years of work experience; your job must require that degree. You can’t substitute other education and experience for a bachelor’s degree for this sub-category.
  • You satisfy any other requirements on the PERM certification.

Criteria for exceptional ability

You’re eligible if:

  • You can show exceptional ability in science, arts or business. Exceptional ability is defined as “a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered”. You can find more information on how you can demonstrate this here.
  • You satisfy any other requirements on the PERM certification.

Requirements for National Interest Waiver

You may submit a petition for a National Interest Waiver without a sponsor and labour certification (PERM) if you can demonstrate that:

  • You have an advanced degree or exceptional ability as defined by the above criteria.
  • Waiving the labour certification would be beneficial for the US because:
  1. Your proposal is of “substantial merit and national importance”, and it would be in the US’ best interests to waive the requirement of a job offer and labour certification.
  2. Your ability to execute the application is clear.

Limitations

  • If you change employers while in the US, your new employer must obtain a certified Labor Condition Application for your new role and file a Form I-129 petition. The Form I-129 petition must be approved before you’re authorised to work for the new employer.
  • There’s a cap of 140k visas for all EB visa categories. Out of this total, 28.6% are allocated for EB-2 visas, as well as any excess left from the EB-1 quota that isn’t used; this totals approximately 40k visas per year. No country can receive more than 7% of the total EB-2 visas, so if your country has a high number of applicants, there can often be a long backlog.
  • All EB visas are notoriously slow to process, often taking 1-3 years (or even up to 6 years) to process.

What do you get?

  • You can stay and work in the US for two years and extend your visa in two-year increments. There's no maximum number of extensions, pending exceptions.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 can accompany you on an EB-2 visa and apply for derivative visas that allow them to live and work in the US during your immigration process.

EB-3 Visa

EB-3 visas have less strict requirements than the EB-2 visa and similarly give visa-holders permanent resident status in the US. There are three sub-categories of eligibility: skilled workers, professionals, and unskilled workers (other workers). The common requirement among all three categories is a full-time job offer.

EB-3A: Criteria for skilled workers

You’re eligible if:

  • You have at least two years of work experience, education or training that satisfies the requirements of your job offer.
  • You obtain an approved US labour certification.
  • There aren’t qualified US workers available for your job.

EB-3B: Criteria for professionals

You’re eligible if:

  • You have proof of a bachelor’s degree or foreign equivalent, plus your job must require that degree. You can’t substitute other education and experience for a bachelor’s degree for this sub-category.
  • You obtain an approved US labour certification.
  • There aren’t qualified US workers available for your job.

EB-3C: Criteria for unskilled workers (other workers)

You’re eligible if:

  • You can demonstrate the ability to perform “unskilled labour”, defined as work that requires less than two years of training or experience, and isn’t temporary or seasonal.
  • You obtain an approved US labour certification.
  • There aren’t qualified US workers available for your job.

Limitations

  • There’s a cap of 140k visas for all EB visa categories. Out of this total, 28.6% are allocated for EB-3 visas, totalling approximately 40k visas per year. No country can receive more than 7% of the total EB-3 visas, so if your country has a high number of applicants, there can often be a long backlog.
  • All EB visas are notoriously slow to process, often taking 1-3 years (or even up to 6 years) to process.

What do you get?

  • You can live and work in the US indefinitely as a permanent resident.
  • Your spouse and any unmarried children under 21 can accompany you on an EB-3 visa and apply for derivative visas that allow them to live and work in the US during your immigration process.

Helpful resources

Disclaimer: This article contains general information only, and does not constitute legal, financial or tax advice, nor does it take into account your personal circumstances. You should always seek independent professional advice before acting on any information in this article.

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