The United States of America is home to the world’s largest corporations. US big fish, along with small- and mid-sized companies, including IT companies and startups, are constantly looking for talent and doing everything they can to transfer the best workers to their headquarters in the US.
American companies have multiple options for hiring a foreign workforce — be it highly skilled, mid-level or unskilled workers. In most cases, they seek professionals and highly skilled workers who can make a difference to their bottom line. It is no wonder that H-1B, a nonimmigrant visa for trained specialists, has remained the most popular visa for years.
Yet, if you are a highly skilled worker, you may be eligible to receive other work-related visas as well. The L-1 nonimmigrant intracompany transferee visa is a desirable option, especially if you are already employed at a US company that is willing to move you to the mainland.
In this guide, I will provide you with all the details you need to apply for, get, renew, extend, and upgrade the L-1 visa. Let’s jump in!
What is an L-1 Visa?
The L-1 nonimmigrant worker visa is issued for intracompany transferees in managerial, executive or specialized knowledge positions; employees of companies that have offices both in the United States and abroad. When issued, the L-1 visa allows its holder to temporarily work and live in the US under L-1 Status.
The L-1 visa is fairly easy to get, renew and extend (provided all eligibility requirements are met). The downside is that the initial visa is granted for quite a short period of time — from just several months to up to three years. The maximum period of stay ranges from five to seven years, based on the L-1 visa subcategory.
L-1 visa holders are subject to dual intent and can potentially adjust their status to seek permanent residence and citizenship. Spouses and immediate dependents of L-1 visa holders are eligible to get an L-2 visa, which enables L-1’s spouse to legally work in the United States once they receive an employment authorization document (EAD).
L-1 Visa Types and Subcategories
There are two types of L-1 visas:
The L-1A visa is granted to employees of international companies who hold executive or managerial positions and can prove their executive and managerial capacity. The L-1A initial visa is granted for three years and can be extended twice for two years, allowing its holder to remain in the US in L-1A status for up to seven years. In the case where an applicant plans to open a new office, the maximum period of stay for the initial L-1A visa is one year, although extensions are allowed.
Note: Only those whose duties are related to highly skilled executive work and policy management meet the eligibility requirements for the L-1A visa. Supervisors, managers and executives whose role is related to supervising lower-level employees are not eligible. Generally, small business owners do not qualify either. For example, a lawyer who opens a new office in the US and hires support staff does not qualify as executive or manager, even though they may hold this title.
The L-1B visa is issued for specialized knowledge workers, which makes it pretty similar to the H-1B visa. Here is how USCIS defines specialized knowledge:
Specialized knowledge means either special knowledge possessed by an individual of the petitioning organization’s product, service, research, equipment, techniques, management, or other interests and its application in international markets, or an advanced level of knowledge or expertise in the organization’s processes and procedures.
The primary difference between L-1B and H-1B visas is that a highly skilled worker is not hired, but rather transferred to a US-based office of the international company. Their knowledge and expertise should be essential to a company’s ability to successfully operate in the US.
The initial L-1B visa is granted for up to three years, and can be extended only once for two years. The maximum period of stay is five years.
Note: It is fairly difficult to determine who can be considered a specialized worker. An applicant’s skills must be considered special in the industry. Under the last USCIS Policy Memo on this issue from Aug, 2015, Special knowledge is knowledge which is "distinct or uncommon in comparison to that generally found in the particular industry". However, industries and companies differ, and what is “enough skill” for one company can easily be “too low standard” for another. Thus, an initial petition must include evidence that an applicant (a) is highly skilled; (b) is a key employee whose knowledge is directly related to an employer’s interests; (c) possesses expertise that influences an employer’s economic performance.
Pros and Cons of the L-1 Visa
The L-1 is often considered a preferred nonimmigrant worker visa type because of its multiple benefits, such as:
- It can be renewed and extended up to five or seven years (a foreign national can apply for the L-1 visa again after having worked a year abroad for the petitioning company).
- Its holder must be legally employed in the US full-time, but can still work part-time. Their position in the US-based company must be their primary employment position.
- The spouse of an L-1 visa holder may receive an L-2 visa and can legally work and study in the US (provided they receive an EAD by filing Form I-765). Dependents can go to school in the US but are not allowed to hold a paid job.
- There are no specific eligibility requirements for nationality. Nationals of any country can apply for the L-1 visa (although the allowed duration of stay differs from one nationality to the next).
- Free travel outside of the US is allowed. L-1 visa holders can petition to recapture the time spent overseas.
- Dual intent is allowed. The L-1 visa is a legal pathway to a Green Card and citizenship
- The L-1 visa can be issued for transferees in small companies and startups. (Multinational corporations have an advantage, however. If they meet certain criteria, their transferees may be given preference under the Blanket L-1 petition.)
- The approval rate for the L-1 visa is higher than that of other nonimmigrant worker visas.
Unfortunately, when applying for the L-1 visa, you need to consider the following disadvantages:
- A US and non-US company must have legitimate offices in the US and must be related to each other. They can be one single, mutually-owned company, subsidiary, affiliate, branch, etc. The two must meet eligibility criteria to be able to transfer an employee to the US.
- Only “one company” transferees can get the visa. An applicant should be employed for at least one continuous year within the last three years before transferring to the US-based office.
- An initial visa is issued based on the reciprocity schedule. This means that nationals of some countries are eligible to stay in the US for longer periods of time. For example, Iranian transferees can stay in the US for only three months.
- Though L-1 visa holders are allowed to work part-time, they have to dedicate a significant portion of their time to their job in the US, and they must be employed full-time in the US-based company.
- Most L-1 visa holders, unless they enjoy Blanket L-1 status, cannot transfer their visas between employers. An applicant has to be employed only by the petitioning company. Even with Blanket L-1 status, visa transfer is available only between companies featured under the blanket.
- The L-1 visa requires a detailed petition on the employer’s part. It must include evidence that both the employer and the transferee are eligible to receive the visa. Moreover, the petitioning company must pay a considerable fee.
L-1 Visa Qualifications
To qualify for the L-1 visa, the first thing you need to consider is which subcategory you fall under: L-1A or L-1B.
L-1A Visa: Executives and Managers
The petitioning employer must meet the following eligibility criteria:
- Be related to a foreign-based company, which is called the qualifying organization. A US-based employer should own a foreign company,or be its subsidiary, branch or affiliate, or vise versa.
- Be actively doing business in the United States now and for the duration of an applicant’s stay in the country.
- Be ready to employ an applicant under US laws and based on L-1 visa requirements.
The employee needs to satisfy certain requirements as well:
- Be employed by a petitioning company for at least one continuous year within the last three years before entering the United States.
- Hold an executive or managerial position with the petitioning company recognized as the qualifying organization.
- Be transferred to the U.S. to open a new office of the qualifying organization as its immediate executive or manager.
Note: Qualifying organizations can petition for their employees, even if they are not physically located in the US, to open a new company office. Yet, such applicants must meet additional eligibility criteria: (a) be employed as executives or managers at the petitioning company for at least one continuous year within the last three years before filing the petition; (b) be able to prove that the petitioning company will continue to employ them in the executive or managerial position during the approval process. Moreover, the qualifying organization must provide evidence that it is able to rent or has already rented an office space for its new branch in the US.
L-1B Visa: Specialized Knowledge Workers
While most qualifications are similar for both employers and employees, there are some minor differences for the L-1B visa:
- A prospective L-1B visa holder can be transferred to the US to work in specialized knowledge capacity. This means that they must possess knowledge and skills that are vital to a qualifying organization's ability to perform in the United States.
- An employer must prove that they will hire an applicant full-time, and that an applicant will not perform any type of service for non-affiliated companies.
- If an L-1B visa applicant is being transferred in the US to open a new company office, an employer must provide evidence that the premises are rented, and that they will compensate a transferee’s services for their period of stay in the US.
Blanket L-1 Petitions
There are two types of L-1 visa procedures:
- Regular L-1
- Blanket L-1
The Regular L-1 visa procedure is for the overwhelming majority of employers and applicants. They must apply for and file their petitions immediately to the USCIS.
Meanwhile, certain companies are already pre-approved by the USCIS as qualifying organizations, and enjoy certain preferences for their transferees. To qualify as a Blanket L-1 company, it is necessary to provide evidence that:
- A petition company and its parent, branches, subsidiaries, and affiliates are engage in commercial trade or services (nonprofit organization cannot file blanket petition).
- A petition company has an office in the U.S. that has been doing business for one year or more.
- A petition company has at least three branches, subsidiaries or affiliates that may be located in the U.S. and abroad.
- A petitioner and the other qualifying organizations have successfully transferred at least ten employees under L-1 status from abroad within the year prior to filing the Blanket L-1 petition; OR have U.S. subsidiaries or affiliates with combined annual sales of at least $25 million; OR have a U.S. work force of at least 1,000 employees. (CFR §214(4)(i)).
Note: To qualify under the Blanket L-1, an employee needs to be eligible, too. They must offer corroborative evidence of “specialized knowledge” as defined in § Sec. 214.2(l) Intracompany Transferees.
How to Apply for an L-1 Visa
Foreign citizens cannot apply for the L-1 visa on their own. They need to have an employer willing to sponsor their visa. The process for Regular L-1 consists of two steps:
#1 The employer files an L-1 petition to USCIS
Basically, the L-1 petition includes two forms — Form I-129 and Form I-129L supplement. In both forms, a petitioning employer must provide all required evidence concerning the foreign company and its connection to a company or branch, the beneficiary’s status within the company, and the beneficiary’s knowledge or skills. Evidence must verify:
- A relationship between a US-based company and the foreign company;
- The petitioning company’s capital and organizational structure;
- The company’s financial stability and ability to support a transferee in the US (applicable for both companies);
- The company’s need to transfer an applicant to the US (e.g. a job offer with a list of job requirement will do);
- The US-based company’s ability to legally operate in the United States: registration, tax return papers, licenses, permits, etc.;
- The beneficiary’s status within both companies: position, employment period, unique skills in executive, managerial or specialized knowledge position.
#2 The beneficiary’s visa interview at the US Embassy or Consulate
When the L-1 petition is approved, USCIS will send the Notice of Action, Form I-797B, to the petitioning employer. The employer should send the original approval notice or its copy to the beneficiary.
In addition to Form I-797B, Approval Notice, the beneficiary must bring the following documents to the visa interview:
- A valid passport
- Two color photos
- Copy of the L-1 petition
If both a petitioner and the beneficiary meet all eligibility requirements, the beneficiary will be mailed a passport with a stamped visa, granting the right to travel to the U.S. port of entry.
The visa application process for Blanket L-1 is pretty similar to Regular L-1. There are a couple of differences, though.
- Not only the USCIS but also the Department of State is responsible for issuance of a Blanket L-1 visa.
- An employer files Form I-129S with all required evidence of its qualifying status to the USCIS, once every three years. As the initial petition expires, an employer needs to extend it with USCIS.
- The beneficiary attends the visa interview at US Embassy or Consulate after submitting an approved Form I-129S, rather than Form I-129 and Form I-129L. The remainder of the required evidence and documentation procedures are similar.
How to Extend and Renew an L-1 Visa
The L-1 nonimmigrant visa is fairly simple to extend and renew.
An L-1 visa extension depends on the type of visa originally issued. L-1A visa can be extended twice for two years. The maximum duration of stay is seven years. To extend the L-1A visa, the following documents are necessary:
- A support letter from the petitioning company that includes a detailed description of the beneficiary’s position, duties, schedule, salary, etc.
- Evidence that the beneficiary has been employed full-time with the petitioning company since entry to the United States.
- Evidence that the beneficiary holds an executive or managerial position, and that their knowledge and skills are still relevant to an employer’s economic performance and financial stability.
- Form I-129 and Form I-129L.
An L-1B visa can be extended only once for two years. The maximum duration of stay is five years. The majority of supporting documents are similar. The only difference is that the petitioning company needs to provide evidence of the beneficiary’s status as a specialized worker.
The extension process depends on the visa petition type as well. If the initial visa was a Blanket L-1 visa, the petitioner needs to fill out and provide Form I-129S, copies of Form I-797, and the original Form I-129S.
The dependents of L-1 visa holders are also eligible to extend their visas. L-1 and L-2 visa holders file for extension separately, The L-2 holder needs to file Form I-539. Children under 21 years of age are included in L-2 visa extension application.
L-2 visa extension can be filed along with the L-1 extension as well. The L-2 visa holder has to file a copy of their own Form I-129, along with copies of Form I-94 and Form I-797 of the L-1 visa holder. Moreover, the two parties should provide corroborative evidence of their relationship — marriage certificates, birth certificates, etc.
To renew the L-1A and L-1B visas after the 5/7 years limitation period has reached, the visa holder should leave the United States and work for the petitioning company abroad for one continuous year. After that, the company can reapply for transfer again. In the case of L-1 visa renewal, both employer and beneficiary should submit all the documents required for the initial petition.
To extend or renew the L-1 nonimmigrant visa, it is necessary to pay a filing fee.
L-1 Visa and Dual Intent
The greatest benefit of the L-1 visa is that it allows for dual intent. The beneficiary can get a visa even if he/she demonstrates intent to remain permanently in the United States during the visa interview.
To change status from L-1A to EB-1C (aka be granted a Green Card), a petitioning employer must file a Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-140) to USCIS. Then, the beneficiary files for the adjustment of status. If a beneficiary resides in the US, they will be granted a Green Card once the adjustment of status procedure is completed. If the beneficiary is not physically present in the country, it is necessary to wait while Form I-140 is approved and then proceed through the consular proceeding.
To change status from L-1B to EB-1C, a beneficiary first needs to pass the PERM Labor Certification. Only when specialized worker status is approved, then the beneficiary can file for change of status under either EB-2 or EB-3 immigration category.
Implications of L-1 Visa Termination
If you are fired while under L-1 status, you must leave the United States immediately. By law, you have zero days to legally remain in the country. Thus, if you need to stay in the US after your L-1 visa is terminated, change your status to B-2 as soon as possible.
The bad news is that petitioning companies are not obligated to compensate for a fired employee’s return trip to the country of origin. However, in most cases they choose to pay to avoid lawsuits.
The L-1 nonimmigrant visa is clearly one of the simplest paths to legal immigration to the United States. Thanks to dual intent, it allows its holders to seek permanent residence status from day one on American soil.
Though the immigrant petition must be filed by a petitioning employer, in most cases this is not a problem. Moreover, dependents of L-1 visa holders are eligible to get Green Cards as well.
If you work for a multinational company, applying for the L-1 visa is definitely worth the effort. I hope this guide will help you become a permanent resident, or enjoy your amazing job in the US for the allowed duration of stay.