This SYW is not about credit cards. If you were under that impression, slap yourself, promise us you will never have children, and run along. This SYW explains the very basics of coming to America; if you are like the vast majority of immigrants, you will do so on a visa that allows you to work, to study, or simply to be a tourist in the United States.

If you are not an immigrant, but simply coming to visit America for 90 days or fewer, you may be able to avoid the hassles of obtaining a visa for your trip. In the past 18 months, the US government has instituted the Visa Waiver Pilot Program to facilitate the visits of citizens from certain countries. We discuss it further in step 4. The focus of this SYW is still on visas though, because if you're not from one of those eligible countries or you plan to stay for more than 90 days, you're definitely going to need the right documentation.

A word to the wise

Visas are issued by the American government for specific purposes and for finite periods. If you overstay your visa or use it for a purpose for which it was not issued - for instance, if you work while on a student visa - you may be deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (aka INS). Moreover, if you are caught "out of status" - which includes using your visa incorrectly or overstaying it - you can be prohibited from returning to America for up to three years. Do it again and you can be banned for a decade.

Obtaining the proper paperwork for your time in America is a pain in the ass. You should expect lengthy waits and hassles, as well as having to fork out big cash for your visa. Oh, and if the American government thinks you are coming to America to immigrate, without proper authorization, they may deny you admission altogether. All in all, navigating the rapidly changing laws that govern the rights of foreigners to live in this country is incredibly difficult, and you really shouldn't try to do it without an attorney. That said, however, you can read on to learn the basics to start you on your way to obtaining a visa.


If you want to come to America to live forever - that is, to become a "permanent resident" - you are going to have a hell of a time. The hoops through which you must jump to gain a Green Card - which is the proper governmental authorization for permanent residency and also known as an Employment Authorization Document - are numerous and onerous. (We won't be outlining those concerns here.) It is far easier to come to America for a finite stay, since the American government is less concerned about people whom they think will not be moving in permanently.

Which visa is for you?

There are three major types of short-term visas, and, as with most government documents, some of these have awkward numerical names. There is a "visitor's visa," which is intended to allow a foreign citizen to come to America for up to three months to visit Niagara Falls and to be fleeced at Disney World. If your intention is simply to take a vacation in America or to come out for a special occasion like a wedding or graduation, this is the visa you need. If, however, you intend to study in America, you will need to apply for a distinct visa: either an F-1 or a J-1. These visas will last as long as your degree program, e.g., up to four years for an undergraduate degree and two or three for a graduate program. While these student visas may allow you to work for a couple of months after you graduate, as part of "practical training" toward your overall education, they do not allow you to work full-time during the school year. If you want to come to America to work a full-time job, for only a finite period of years, you will need to apply for an H visa. Clearly, these visitor, student, and temporary work visas are all quite different from one another, so you should not have much difficulty determining which is the proper one for your purpose.

Go to Your United States Embassy

No matter which of the three visas you decide to apply for, you will need to pick up an application at a U.S. Embassy. Typically, there will be a U.S. Embassy or Consulate in the capital city of your home country. One of the benefits of having those damn Yanks meddling in everyone else's business is that they have conveniently set up bases for the CIA all over the world - these are the embassies.

Almost every U.S. Embassy in the world is divided into two main divisions: consular and "other." "Other" can mean anything from United States Information Agency, services for U.S. citizens, CIA, DEA, and all the other "business" generally conducted by the American diplomats in your country. The consular division is what you need. It is the place that handles applications for visas to America. More importantly for this stage in the process, it is where you can pick up precise information on the application process. Simply enter the embassy's consular division and ask for an application for the visa of your choice: either tourist, student, or temporary employment. Be sure to emphasize "temporary" - as we've hinted, the bean-counters get very nervous when they think you might be staying.