Five Popular Visas for Non-Immigrants in America

Know what I love most about immigration lawyers and so-called visa “experts” on the internet?

Laughing at them.

Here’s why.

They lead you to think that getting visas to come to America is hard. But with their “expertise” to guide you along, it suddenly becomes easy.

In fact, some of these lawyers and visa experts group all visas together and tell you “these are the most popular U.S. visas.”

They don’t tell you that some visas are popular for a reason.

They don’t tell you why others aren’t as popular.

They don’t tell you that the popularity of a visa might be unrelated to YOUR specific situation.

Their biggest omission though is failing to tell potential clients about the difference between non-immigrant visas and immigrant visas. Sure, you’ll find out about that difference when you pay them a consultation fee. Then they’ll upsell you on their legal services to help you apply for a visa. They’ll tell you about what kind of visas they’ve helped clients apply for, but they won’t tell you about clients who failed to get their visas approved.

I’m not saying all immigration lawyers and visa experts are like that.  But let’s face it, they get paid whether their clients succeed in getting a visa or not.

However, with a little research about YOUR specific situation and reasons for wanting to move to America, you’ll be able to figure out for yourself which visa is right for you to give you the best chance to submit a successful visa application.

What is a non-immigrant visa?

First things first, what is a non-immigrant visa?

In America, a non-immigrant visa is needed for travel on a temporary basis. Someone who holds this visa – a non-immigrant – could have this temporary status for any number of days, months, or even years. If circumstances do not change for a non-immigrant, s/he can renew a non-immigrant visa at the discretion of the U.S. embassy or the U.S. Department of State depending on where the visa application is submitted.

What are the most popular non-immigrant visas in America?

There are many types of non-immigrant visas. Most people who need to apply for a non-immigrant visa go to a U.S. embassy or consulate in their home countries.

If you were issued a non-immigrant visa for America in 2016, you were one of more than 10.3 million people who received a visa either for the first time or as a renewal.

In 2015, more than 10.8 million of these visas were issued, again either for the first time or as a renewal – the highest number of non-immigrant visas issued since 2012.

Although millions of non-immigrant visas are issued every year, each visa is assigned a symbol or category. In each year from 2012-2016, there were 83 eligible visa symbols to be used for the millions of non-immigrant visas issued. Letters and numbers are the symbols used to indicate the reason for your non-immigrant plans, whether as a tourist, a student, or an employee, among many other possibilities.

Each year, USCIS gets millions of visa applications, and issues millions of visas. USCIS is the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Here are the five most popular visas issued to non-immigrants for travel to America from 2012-2016:

B-1/B-2 – Temporary Visitor for Business and Pleasure

The most popular non-immigrant visa in America? It’s the B-1/B-2 visa. More than 65 percent of non-immigrant visas issued in 2016 were the B-1/B-2 visa. This visa is issued to foreign nationals who require a visa to visit the United States for business or pleasure for any length of time, whether a few days, months, or years.

Another visa, the B-1/B-2/BCC, can be issued. Technically, this visa is the second most non-immigrant visa. The BCC stands for Border Crossing Card. The B-1-/B-2/BCC visa is issued to Mexican citizens to enter the US. More than 10 percent of non-immigrant visas issued in 2016 were the B-1/B-2/BCC type.

Overall, more than 75 percent of U.S. visas are issued for business or pleasure.

F-1 – Student Visa

The F-1 visa was my second American visa (and my third as well). This visa is the second most popular visa issued to foreign nationals in non-immigrant status. F-1 visas are issued to foreign nationals who want to study in America. For academic programs (which excludes vocational programs), a foreign national can apply for an F-1 visa with help from the college or university they plan to attend.  Each college and university in the U.S. which enrolls foreign nationals on F-1 visas has an international student office with advisers who help with the visa process.

When a foreign national graduates from a degree program, s/he can apply to USCIS for work authorization. The period of time that follows the work authorization is referred to as OPT (Optional Practical Training). Depending on the student’s degree, OPT may be granted for one year (12 months) without extension for non-STEM fields. For STEM fields, an extension may be granted for an additional two years (24 months). OPT is not granted without an F-1 visa having been issued to a foreign student in the past.

J-1 – Exchange Visitor

In 2016, more than 3 percent of non-immigrant visas issued were the J-1 type. This visa allows professors, researchers, and exchange visitors to participate in programs that help to promote cultural exchange between the U.S. and the foreign national’s home country. Participants are not limited to these three categories. There are tons of categories under which a foreign national is eligible to apply for a J-1 visa.

The J-1 visa requires foreign nationals to return to their home country for at least two years after completing their exchange program. However, a foreign national who has held a J-1 visa may obtain a waiver of this two-year requirement if eligible to receive one.


C-1/D – Transit/Crew Member

The C-1/D visa is a combination of two visas: the C-1; and the D-1 visa.

The C-1 visa is issued for transit purposes. The guidelines for this visa require immediate and continuous transit through the U.S. to another country.

The D-1 visa is issued to crewmembers who work on marine/sea vessels or for international airlines. When leaving America, these crewmembers exit on the same vessel on which they arrived to the U.S. If the crewmember will depart on a different vessel, then a D-2 visa is issued instead. 

A combination C-1/D visa is issued for a foreign national who needs to travel to the U.S. to join the vessel or airplane s/he will work on. More than 2.8 percent of non-immigrant visas issued in the U.S. in 2016 were of the C-1/D type which allow for legal transit and work.


H-1B – Temporary Worker of Distinguished Merit and Ability

The H-1B visa is one of the most popular visas that allows a foreign national to work legally in America in most jobs. These jobs are referred to as “specialty occupations” which require at least a bachelor’s degree. Nursing is one job where a foreign national is not allowed to hold an H-1B visa. Foreign nationals who hold this visa are limited to working only with the employer who sponsors their H-1B visa.

Each year, 65,000 new H-1B visas are issued for foreign nationals to work for private companies. These foreign nationals must hold a bachelor’s degree. An additional 20,000 new H-1B visas are issued each year to foreign nationals who hold a master’s degree (or higher degree) from U.S. colleges and universities. Applications for the H-1B visa are accepted from the first business day in April each year.

How does the USCIS decide who receives one of the 85,000 new H-1B visas?

A lottery

If a foreign national holds a master’s/higher degree, s/he has two chances to get an H-1B visa. First, s/he is eligible for the 20,000 H-1B visa lottery. If s/he is not selected, then the foreign national becomes eligible for the 65,000 H-1B visa lottery.

For foreign nationals who work at a college/university, or at a non-profit research organization, H-1B visa may be issued which is not included in either the 65,000 cap for bachelor’s degrees or the 20,000 cap for master’s/higher degrees. Foreign nationals, through their employers, can apply for the H-1B visa which is exempt from the cap at any time during the year.


These five visas account for almost 80 percent of all non-immigrant visas issued by the U.S. in 2016, whether in the country or at embassies and consulates worldwide. When Border Crossing Cards are included, the figure rises to slightly less than 90 percent of total non-immigrant visas issued. If none of these visas fits your needs for a non-immigrant visa to enter America, there are lots of other categories which would fit your non-immigrant visa needs.

Thanks for reading.


U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Consular Affairs. Visa Statistics. Report of the Visa Office 2016. Web. 10 June 2017.

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