Getting a U.S. Visa (B-1) to Do Volunteer Work

A little-known use of the business visitor visa allows people to come to the U.S. to do unpaid work for a charity or religious organization.

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If you're interested in spending time in the United States as a volunteer, you may be able to apply for a "B-1 Visitor for Business" visa. You can apply for a B-1 visa if you are a member of and committed to a recognized religious or nonprofit charitable organization and will participate in a "voluntary service program" of the organization.

The program must assist the poor or needy or further a religious or charitable cause. It may not involve earning money by selling items or soliciting or accepting donations. You may not be paid, but the organization may provide an allowance or reimbursement for incidental expenses.

Examples of qualifying programs may include a religious mission trip, religious- or secular-based disaster relief effort, or similar activity.

How to Apply

Once you have identified a voluntary service program, the next step is to apply for your visa at the U.S. Consulate or Embassy in your home country. Each U.S. Consulate or Embassy has a website with specific instructions for completing the application form and paying the visa fee(s); find the one you need at http://www.usembassy.gov/.

In addition to the basic items, such as your passport, application form, and visa fee, you will need a letter from the organization you will be helping. The letter needs to describe the organization and the service program and include the following details:

(1) your name and date and place of birth

(2) your foreign permanent residence address

(3) name and address of initial destination in the United States (where you will volunteer), and

(4) anticipated duration of your assignment.

When you appear for your visa interview, you will need to be prepared to explain the organization, your membership, the proposed volunteer work in the U.S., and for how long you plan to stay. The consular officer may have questions, so you will need to be ready to provide any requested information.

After the visa interview, you should receive your passport back with the visa in a few days or weeks. The processing time will depend upon the particular consulate's workload.

For How Long the Visa Will Be Valid

Depending upon the "reciprocity agreement" between the United States and your country, the visa may be valid for just a few months or up to ten years. It also may be valid for one or multiple entries.

If it is a single-entry visa, this means you can use it just one time to enter the United States. If you travel outside the U.S., you likely will need to apply for a new visa before returning. If the visa is a multiple-entry visa, this means you can use it to enter the U.S. any number of times while it remains valid.

Keep in mind that a visa merely allows you to apply to enter the United States. It does not guarantee that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport or other point of entry will allow you to enter. To be sure, having the visa is normally a good sign that you'll be allowed to enter.

How Long You Can Stay in the United States

When the Customs and Border Protection officer greets you and reviews your passport and visa, you will receive a stamp in your passport that notes the date you arrived, your visa class (B-1 visitor), and how long you may remain.

With a B-1 visa, you should receive a period of stay of up to one year. If you receive a shorter period, or if your volunteer program will last longer than the authorized stay noted in your passport, you can later submit an application later (Form I-539), with filing fee and supporting documents, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to extend your stay.

You will need to provide an updated letter from the organization, similar to the one you used to apply for the visa, copies of your passport (including the photo and visa pages), I-94 Departure Record (which you can obtain at the CBP website), and evidence of how you are supporting yourself while in the United States -- without working here.

You may request extensions in periods of up to six months. Based on USCIS's published guidelines, the possibility exists that this agency may take a more restrictive approach than the State Department does, and grant extensions only if you're volunteering for a religious organization. Therefore, if you're volunteering for a non-religious organization (a charitable nonprofit), it would be an excellent idea to talk to an immigration lawyer to evaluate your options.

Visa Waiver for Citizens of Certain Countries Who Plan to Stay 90 Days or Less

If you are a citizen of a designated country (see below) and plan to complete your volunteer activities in 90 days or less, you may be able to travel to the U.S. without a visa, under the Visa Waiver Program. You simply need to complete the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) online registration, and board your flight. The above requirements still apply, and you will need to have the same letter that is required for someone applying for a B-1 visa. The Customs and Border Protection officer at the airport in the U.S. may ask to see this letter before allowing you to enter the United States.

If you use the Visa Waiver Program, you may not extend your stay in the United States beyond the initial 90 days. It also is not recommended to enter the U.S. for 90 days, travel to your home country, and immediately try to return for another 90 days. Attempting to do so may result in the Customs and Border Protection officer refusing your entry and requiring you to obtain a visa. Therefore, even if you're from one of the Visa Waiver countries, if your volunteer assignment will last more than 90 days, you will need to follow the process described above to apply for a B-1 visa at the U.S. Consulate abroad.

With some research and planning, you can find a service program that will allow you to obtain a visitor visa to volunteer in the United States. Be sure to gather the required documents and follow the visa application procedures. Or, if you're spending fewer than 90 days in the U.S. and are from a Visa Waiver country, just make sure you have a valid passport and a letter from the organization you will be assisting.

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