For non-US citizens, landing a dream data science job in Silicon Valley starts with visa sponsorship. Yet, for those without a US passport or green card, getting visa sponsorship is a complicated process.
It’s become even more difficult due to recent immigration policies in the US, as more restrictions have been placed on how many non-US nationals can apply for data science and tech jobs.
But don’t fret. Visa sponsorship is possible for talented data scientists, but securing a visa does require careful planning. To help you start the process, we’ve highlighted common visa types for tech workers, like the H-1B visa or the L1-A visa, as well as useful strategies for getting sponsored.
Common Visa Types for Tech Professionals
Tech workers based outside the US have a number of visa options they can pursue, and often the type of visa they apply for is dependent on their career level. For example, students can pursue F visas for graduate or undergraduate data science programs, while data scientists employed by multinational corporations can try for an office transfer visa like the L-1A or L-1B. The six most common ways tech workers secure visa sponsorship include:
1. Get an office transfer (L-1A or L-1B)
The first option is to work for a company that will transfer you to another office. This often works better with larger, multinational companies (e.g. FAANG). There are two types of office transfer visas. The L-1A visa is for managers and executives to be transferred to an office in the US.
More relevant to most data scientists is the L-1B visa type, for workers with “specialized knowledge.” These workers can work in the US for up to five years incrementally, with an initial period of either one or three years, depending on whether they are establishing a new office in the US.
2. Go to school (F)
Going to school in the US grants individuals with an F visa (undergraduate or graduate). However, any students on an F visa have to leave within 60 days of the program end date unless they petition for an extension, so prospective data scientists should look for alternate sponsorship routes prior to their programs ending.
3. Try to get an H-1B Visa
The third option is to attempt to get an H-1B Visa (for specialized workers) through the lottery system. There is a cap of 65,000 visas per year, with 20,000 more reserved for graduates from US master’s programs. The employer must petition for your visa, and you must have an offer in place for this visa type. This visa type offers three years with increments of three years at a time up to six years.
4. Apply for an O-1 Visa
The O-1 visa is for individuals who have displayed “extraordinary ability or achievement.” This visa type allows for individuals to stay for three years initially, with an option of extending a year at a time. This could be a potential pathway, especially for those with a doctorate.
5. Apply for an Exchange Program (J-1 Visa)
The J-1 “exchange visitor” visa, intended for individuals wanting to participate in exchange programs, is also a potentially good option for short-term work positions, as it is less expensive for employers to sponsor. J-1 holders can live and work in the US for the duration of their program, but typically not more than seven years.
6. Apply for a Q Visa for Training
The Q “cultural exchange” visa is a lesser known visa type that allows individuals to come to the US for training and to participate in cultural exchanges. The period of stay for this visa is up to 15 months, with a “cooling off” period for a year before you can participate in another cultural exchange.
Takeaways for Tech Workers
Ultimately, it will often take creativity and resourcefulness to successfully navigate the US visa system. Working with immigration counsel at the company you received an offer from, being proactive, and potentially hiring an attorney yourself can all help to ease the process.
How One Silicon Valley Data Scientist Navigated the Visa Process
Data science is a field that opens geographical boundaries. As part of this series, we interviewed data professionals who reported back their experiences working abroad and getting visa sponsorship.
We interviewed Sam, a data scientist and European national who worked at a small company in Silicon Valley. Note that the perspectives in this article don’t apply to all data professionals, and identities have been changed for confidentiality reasons.
What was your approach to finding sponsorship in the US?
It’s really tough to get the right to work in the US. You may know about the H-1B system (a pathway for highly educated workers in “specialty occupations”). It’s incredibly hard because there’s something like 3 to 4 times more applications for spots than there are actual visas. It’s a lottery system where you may or may not get in, which is incredibly stressful. I’ve been through the process a number of times and was able to get through once.
When I was working in Silicon Valley a number of years ago, a lot of people in tech, especially at smaller companies and start-ups, were on more unusual visas, like the J-1 or the Q-1 (cultural exchange visas).
That sounds like a complicated process.
Absolutely. One of my friends was on the Q-1 visa as a software engineer and had to write up these reports about what he was learning about American culture to maintain his immigration status. It’s also tough because when you are working one of these jobs under these designations, it feels very unstable. Like, if you get laid off, you have to get out of the country in something like 8-10 days. There was a massive layoff at one of the companies I worked for, and it was hugely stressful to all the non-US workers there.
The J-1, the H-1B and the Q-1 visas that we are talking about are more temporary immigration statuses. What does it take to get a more stable situation?
People who have the right determination, resources, skills, etc. try to get the O-1 visa in my experience. This is a status for “exceptionally talented workers.”
What is your advice to readers who are hoping to work in the US?
Your experience will depend heavily on the company. Lawyers are an underutilized resource if you can possibly employ one. And I mean not just the company lawyers, but also using a personal lawyer. Often lawyers offer a free consultation and that can be a really useful resource for people. There are technicalities in the system and it’s important to be aware of them.
I would also say determination and persistence are huge. In getting over potential disappointment in the visa lottery, in making sure the employer gets your immigration paperwork through in time for the H1B lottery.
Another interesting tidbit is the Diversity Visa lottery. The US essentially “scatters green cards” in countries that don’t have a lot of immigration to the US. So that could be an interesting program to apply to if you are from one of those countries and in the right situation.
Finally, know your worth when you are starting at one of these companies. It’s easy to feel like you “owe something” to a company because they are sponsoring you. In terms of compensation, it’s also good to research what is fair compensation in Silicon Valley versus other cities that may have different rates. I definitely struggled with that at first.
What did you learn from working abroad in the US?
Americans are so enthusiastic! It was great when someone would say something I built was awesome, and they couldn’t wait to see it in production. Silicon Valley also felt a little like a place where people didn’t want to grow up. A “no parents, no rules” kind of vibe. It was definitely fun living there for a while and seeing the cultural contrast.
US Visa Types: Resources and Links
See below for more information about immigration and different visa types for tech workers:
- H-1B Visa Program: Fact Sheet (American Immigration Council)
- H-1B for Specialty Occupations: Overview (US Citizenship & Immigration Services)
J-1 (Exchange Visa):
- Exchange Visitor Visa: Overview (US Department of State)
- J-1 Visitor Visa: Programs (US Department of State)
- O-1 Visa Program Overview (US Citizenship & Immigration Services)
- O-1 Visa: Fact Sheet & Requirements (Harvard International Office)
- Q Cultural Exchange Visa: Overview (US Citizenship & Immigration Services)
Diversity Visa Lottery
- About Diversity Visa Lottery (US Department of State)
- Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (US Citizenship & Immigration Services)
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