Despite popular notions of the United States of America being a nation of immigrants, the latter account for only 13 % of the country’s population, which roughly corresponds to the percentage of foreign-born residents in Germany and Sweden. A tightening of the visa requirements in the aftermath of September 11th has naturally reflected on the number of applicants, though figures are still relatively high. Being a democratic country that encourages individual choice in education, career and place of residence makes the USA an attractive destination to live and work people around the world.
The requirements to enter the US are quite demanding, considering the broad range of visas and the scrutiny with which each application is being processed. For the sake of simplicity, we will divide those visa types into two categories: immigrant (permanent resident) and non-immigrant (temporary resident).
An immigrant visa enables you to travel to the United States for the purposes of living and working in the country, with the possibility of qualifying for US citizenship after five years’ residence. Obtaining such visa might prove a bit challenging as you need to be sponsored by an employer or to apply independently for a working visa. The administrative process is less cumbersome for highly qualified people (those with advanced degrees, ‘exceptional abilities’ or a certain number of years of professional experience). An alternative would be to apply for a green card, provided that you meet the formal requirements. Yes, even green card holders are subject to stringent rules!
To be able to travel to the US on a temporary basis, you need a non-immigrant visa that grants you the right to reside in the country for a limited period (e.g. from six months to five years), and in special circumstances to accept employment.
If you are an IT specialist, an engineer or a professional in any other specialist industry, you may be able to apply to work temporarily in the States, provided that you meet the general eligibility criteria.
Take note that a visa does not give you the right to enter the US, only to travel there for a specified purpose since visas are issued by the Consular section of the Department of State, which is only authorized to pre-approve foreigners for travel.
Curious fact: The Consular services issue approximately 4 million visas per year.
As the USA boasts some of the most successful educational institutes in the world (Harvard and Yale being just two of the most prominent examples), the country attracts students from all over the world. Beware though that some universities charge notoriously high tuition fees. The latter range from $5,000 to $30,000. Scholarships and grants are largely available in the US, but competition tends to be tough.
If you aspire to study as a full-time student in the United States, you need to apply for either one of these three non-immigrant visa categories:
F-1 (Academic Student)
M-1 (Vocational Student)
J-1 (an 'exchange visitor visa') - relevant for those going to the USA for consultation, training, research or teaching, or for an approved au pair or temporary work position.
Each one entails a specific list of requirements you need to fulfill to be considered an eligible candidate. Regardless of whether you wish to be enrolled in a university, or in a non-academic programme, you must have sufficient funds available to sustain yourself financially during the entire course of study. Further, you must maintain residence abroad which you have no intention of giving up.
If in doubt as to whether all this is worth it, consider the following:
50 % of the world’s top ranking universities are located in the USA as result of the rather small class sizes, highly accredited professors, and cutting edge technology and research capabilities;
The country hosts a wide variety of higher education institutions ranging from community colleges to graduate schools;
Though not an easy concept to qualify, quality education is something that American universities are most famous for (Ivy League Universities are recognised as the top higher educational institutions in the world);
Obtaining a degree from an American university will open up an infinite number of career opportunities.
Opportunities for full-time positions and internships in the US are abundant, though non-citizens might find it rather challenging securing a graduate job.
The US has further suffered from shortages in its science and engineering workforce - areas largely recognised as critical for economic competitiveness in an increasingly globalised world.
Research and development in biotechnology has recently gained traction, with a growing number of jobs arising in the field of sustainable agriculture.
There is no official language (surprise, surprise!), though English is the most commonly spoken one, before Spanish. As a foreigner entering the country for work, sufficient English skills are commonly expected. Universities often ask you take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) before you enroll.