The United States offers many nonimmigrant visa options. In fact, most foreign nationals can qualify for three or more nonimmigrant visa options. However, the type of visa you initially choose may have a direct impact on your ability to subsequently immigrate to the United States.
All people who enter the United States on nonimmigrant visas are considered to be here temporarily. It is presumed that foreign nationals intend to return to their home countries at the end of their stay in the United States. If you are in the U.S. on a temporary nonimmigrant visa and you start the permanent resident («green card») process, under the current U.S. law (as it applies to most nonimmigrant categories) you are believed to have «lost» your intent to stay here temporarily because you now wish to immigrate (i.e., stay permanently in the U.S.). Normally, if you remain inside the United States and do not renew your temporary visa, this change of intent will not be a problem. However, if you must travel internationally or you must apply for an extension of your present stay, you could face some problems.
There are a few nonimmigrant categories that allow a person to have dual intent, that is, to intend to be here temporarily now while eventually intending to immigrate. In these categories, international travel and extensions of stay are not a problem. However, they do have limitations, which means that you have to do some planning. The most common dual-intent visas are the E, L, and H visas. E visas are available to citizens of certain countries with whom the United States has treaty agreements. If you or your family owns a business in your home county, or if you wish to purchase an existing U.S. company or open a new a business in the U.S., this may be the option for you. There is no limit as to how long you can remain in the U.S. in E status, so long as you renew your status about every two years.
L visas are available to employees of multinational companies who: (1) have specialized knowledge of the company; or (2) are executives or managers of that company. L visas permit a maximum five year stay in the specialized knowledge category and a maximum seven year stay in the executive or manager category. At the end of that stay, the person must leave the United States for one year before he can return on an L or H visa.
The most common dual-intent visa is an H visa. The H visa is available if you have a U.S. bachelor’s degree or its equivalent and the job you are applying for requires a bachelor’s degree in order to perform it. H visas permit a maximum six year stay. As with the L visa, an individual must leave the U.S. for one year before he can be readmitted in H visa status. The H visa is a cumulative visa; in other words, you cannot change employers and get a new six-year period with each employer. Also, there is an annual cap on the number of H visas issued. In the past, there have been periods of several months where all H visas were used up for the year.
Other visa options, which may allow you to work, include: F-1 practical training, J-1 exchange visitor programs (note: be very careful that you are not subject to the two-year home residence requirement), O visas for individuals of outstanding abilities, and, if you are a citizen of Mexico or Canada, TN visas. These visas have their problems as well. The qualifications for some of them are more difficult than for the H visa, and they are all temporary intent visas. However, they offer you the flexibility to work without using up the time limits that exist with the H-1B or L dual-intent visas.
As with most things in this world, there is no perfect solution. The option that works best for you depends on your set of circumstances. I know that the U.S. immigration laws are confusing and appear to be somewhat contradictory. I hope that my explanation clarified some things for you. Please keep in mind that my comments here are general in nature and should not be taken as specific legal advice. I strongly recommend that you consult with an experienced immigration attorney after you have had a chance to think about your nonimmigrant options.