THE BASICS – Immigration Breakdown: Visa Options for Architects, Engineers, and Designers

The diverse structural design integral to our lives is often the work of talented architects, engineers, and designers from foreign countries. However, to be employed by an architectural firm in the United States, these skilled employees must have visas.

So, what exactly are visa options for architects? Read on.

H-1B:  The H-1B visa is one of the most popular types of visas for architects and allows workers to be employed in a specialty occupation role. It is a great option for this profession, in particular, because it is difficult to dispute that an architect’s position requires at least a bachelor’s degree- the minimum educational requirement for the H-1B. Yet, this visa may prove difficult to obtain due to its annual numerical cap, or limit, which is often filled quickly. Additionally, it must be shown that the employer will pay the architect at least the actual or prevailing wage of the occupation. NOTE: If the employee is not a licensed architect, we often refer to him as an “architectural designer” or similar.

E-3 for Australians:  Just like the H-1B, the E-3 is for specialty occupation roles, but applies only to citizens of Australia. It, too, has a yearly cap, but it is almost never filled unlike with the H-1B visa. This makes it the ideal choice for Australian architects.

TN for Canadians or Mexicans: An architect is one of the professions included under law that can apply for a TN visa, but only if the individual is either Canadian or Mexican.  The TN visa falls under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which established special connections between Canada, Mexico, and the United States, and allows foreigners to enter the country as nonimmigrant NAFTA professionals.

O-1: The O-1 visa can apply to foreign workers with extraordinary abilities in the arts. An architect is certainly an artist, but the key in applying for this type visa is the term “extraordinary,” which is what makes it harder to obtain. To successfully receive an O-1 visa, a foreign architect must demonstrate distinction in the field, which the USCIS defines to mean “a high level of achievement in the field of the arts evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition substantially above that ordinarily encountered.” This visa is ideal for those who have established thriving careers in their countries, and can showcase their leadership, recognition by others in the field, and a critical role in the architecture industry.

However, a challenge with a obtaining an O-1  for architects today may include that credit is rarely given to a single architect for any one project. Moreover, a salary that is below or even in-line with the industry standard may affect a petition, making it more difficult to prove that a worker is “distinguished.”

O-2:  Some workers work closely with other architects who are in the United States as O-1 applicants. If this is the case, and the architect can demonstrate that they are an integral factor in the performance of the O-1 principal, he or she may be able to obtain an O-2 visa.

 J-1: While the J-1 visa offers a shorter duration of stay in the United States and is less flexible than other visa types, it may be the perfect choice for foreign students or graduates who want to gain experience working in the United States. Specifically, the visa is used to take part in some sort of internship or educational training program, and visa holders must have an intention to return home after the training has concluded.

E-2 visa for investors: Architects that want to come to the United States to start and manage an architecture business in the United States may be served well by the E-2 visa. The visa is for individuals who will invest substantial resources into managing their business. However, in order to qualify for the E-2 visa, the foreigner must be from a country that has a treaty of “friendship, commerce and navigation” (investor trade) with the United States.

L-1: In certain cases, architectural managers, executives, or specialized workers from foreign countries may want to continue employment in the United States with the same company or a subsidiary or affiliate thereof. Workers interested in the L-1 visa must have worked as managers, executives, or specialized workers for at least 1 of the last 3 years in the foreign office.

On architectural licenses:

It is important to note that while a license is not necessary in order to obtain a work visa in the United States, the absence of one will require working under the direct supervision of a licensed architect. Additionally, workers should keep in mind that architectural license laws vary by state, with New York requiring all those utilizing the title “architect” to have valid licenses.

Concluding Remarks

As they say, one size does not fit all.  The immigration lawyer you work with should be familiar with the industry and recognize that architects and designers vary in skill and specialization, and therefore, may qualify better for certain visa categories than others.   In the end, careful attention to the details of a case and the individual characteristics of the candidate and the job offered will determine the success of the immigration process.

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