L-1, Intracompany Transferee Visa to the U.S.: Who Qualifies?

Learn the eligibility requirements for an L-1 nonimmigrant visa for intracompany transferees coming to the United States.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

The L-1, intracompany transferee visa allows managers, executives, and "specialized knowledge" employees who work outside the U.S. for a company that has an affiliated entity inside the U.S. to come to the U.S. and perform services for that entity. It is a nonimmigrant visa, meaning it expires eventually, and is not equivalent to permanent residence or a green card.

(See I.N.A. §101(a)(15)(L), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15)(L).)

This article will give you an overview of the L-1 visa, including:

  • its key features
  • what types of employees qualify for it, and
  • whether an L-1 visa can be used as a stepping stone to U.S. lawful permanent residence.

Meeting the Basic Criteria for an L-1 Visa

Under U.S. immigration law, a worker qualifies for an L-1 visa if the person has been employed outside the U.S. by the sponsoring company for at least one continuous year out of the past three years, and is being transferred to the U.S. to work as a manager, executive, or specialized knowledge worker. (Managers and executives receive L-1A visas and people with special knowledge receive L-1B visas.)

The U.S. company to which you are transferring must be a parent, branch, subsidiary, affiliate, or joint venture partner of the non-U.S. employer. "Non-U.S. company" means that it is physically located outside the United States. Such a company may be a foreign division of a U.S.-based business or it may have originated in a country outside the United States. Either one fits the definition of a non-U.S. company.

The company must continue operations for the duration of your visa, and the visa holder should expect to be transferred back upon return. In case the foreign employer closes, the U.S. employer must have a related foreign company to which the L-1 visa holder could theoretically be transferred.

Key Features of the L-1 Visa

Here are some of the pluses, minuses, and other things to know about the L-1 visa:

  • An L-1 allows its holder to work legally in the U.S. for the L-1 sponsor for up to three years on the first visa. Extensions of up to two years at a time are available, with a maximum time in the U.S. of seven years for a manager or executive, or five years for a person with specialized knowledge. If someone has previously held an H visa, however, that time spent in the U.S. counts toward the five- or seven-year maximum.
  • Although the L-1 visa holder is generally expected to work full-time in the U.S., the person can work somewhat less if dedicating a significant portion of time to the job on a regular and systematic basis.
  • The L-1 visa holder may work only for the U.S. employer that served as the visa sponsor, and the employer must be a parent, branch, subsidiary, affiliate, or joint venture partner of the company that currently employs the person outside the United States.
  • An accompanying spouse and minor children may also obtain visas to the U.S., in category L-2.
  • The spouse may accept employment in the United States without applying for a work permit (employment authorization document or EAD). They are considered employment authorized "incident to status," as will be shown on the Form I-94 that they receive upon entry to the United States. Such an I-94 will be considered a List C document, which can be entered on the Form I-9 that employers must have new employees fill out in order to demonstrate a right to work in the United States.
  • The L-1 visa holder may, if desired, take trips in and out of the U.S. until the L-1 status expires.
  • If the person has an L-1 visa based on an executive or managerial level position in the U.S. company, and the employer, or some other employer, wishes to sponsor the person for a U.S. green card, the law allows them to go ahead and pursue this (as described below).

Also, because there are no limits on the number of L-1 visas given out each year, you won't face a waiting list or registration lottery when applying.

Details of L-1 Visa Eligibility Rules

Let's take a closer look at some of the eligibility rules for the L-1 visa.

Qualifying as a Manager, Executive, or Person With Specialized Knowledge

The job held with the non-U.S. company must fit the definitions of a manager, executive, or person with specialized knowledge. What does that mean, in plain language? The immigration-law definitions of "manager," "executive," and "specialized knowledge" are more restricted than their everyday, dictionary meanings.

Manager. A manager is defined as someone who:

  • manages the entire organization or a department, subdivision, function, or component of the organization
  • supervises and controls the work of other supervisory, professional, or managerial employees or manages an essential function, department, or subdivision of the organization
  • has the authority to hire, fire, or recommend such personnel decisions. If no employees are supervised, the manager must work at a senior level within the organization or function, and
  • is authorized to make decisions concerning day-today operations of the portion of the organization under their management.

This definition can be difficult to apply in the case of first-line supervisors; that is, lower-management personnel who directly oversee non-management workers. A first-line supervisor is not normally considered a manager; but the opposite may be found if the employees being supervised are at a professional level. The meaning of "professional" is a worker holding a university degree in a field related to their occupation.

Note: A manager coming to work for a U.S. office that has been in operation for at least one year may also qualify for a green card as a priority worker.

Executive. An executive is defined as someone who, as part of their primary role:

  • directs the management of the organization or a major function or component of it
  • sets goals or policies of the organization or one of its parts or functions
  • possesses extensive discretionary decision-making authority
  • receives only general supervision or direction from higher-level executives, a board of directors, or stockholders

Note: An executive coming to work for a U.S. office that has been in operation for at least one year may also qualify for a green card as a priority worker.

Persons With Specialized Knowledge. The term "specialized knowledge" refers to the employee's understanding of the employer company, including its products, services, research, equipment, techniques, management or other interests and its application in international markets, or advanced knowledge of the company's processes and procedures.

USCIS and consular officers will be looking for knowledge related to the company that is not widely held throughout the industry or even within the company, but is truly specialized; or, to use USCIS's favored term, "advanced and unique" as compared with that of other employees who are similarly situated. The agency will also be looking to see that such knowledge is not readily available within the United States.

Employer Qualifications as a Parent, Branch, Subsidiary, Affiliate, or Joint Venture Partner

L-1 visas are available only to employees of companies outside the U.S. that have related U.S. parents, branches, subsidiaries, affiliates, or joint venture partners. There is also a special category for international accounting firms. For visa purposes, these terms have the following specific definitions.

Parent. A non-U.S. company that owns more than 50% of the U.S. employer.

Branches. A different operating location of the same company. The clearest example of this is a single international corporation with branch offices in many countries.

Subsidiaries. The U.S. company owns a controlling percentage (50% or more) of the foreign company.

Affiliates. Although no direct ownership exists between the two companies, both are controlled by a common third entity, either a company, group of companies, individual, or group of people.

Joint Venture Partners. Although there is no common ownership between the two companies, they have jointly undertaken a common business operation or project

International Accounting Firms. In the case of big accounting firms, the interests between one country and another are not usually close enough to qualify as affiliates under normal L-1 visa rules. Nevertheless, the law considers the managers of such companies qualified to support L-1 visa petitions for their employees. The firm must be part of an international accounting organization with an internationally recognized name.

Can an L-1 Visa Lead to U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence?

There's no automatic stepping stone from L-1 status to a green card. You still must separately show eligibility for U.S. lawful permanent residence. You might do so based on employment (most likely through your current employer, if it is willing to sponsor you in one of the employment-based green card categories); or perhaps through a qualifying family relationship, such as marriage, to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident; or in some other category of U.S. immigration law.

Assuming you do have a basis for green card eligibility, you will enjoy several advantages over other types of immigrant visa applicants, including:

  • being covered by the doctrine of dual intent, and
  • presumably having (by virtue of your eligibility for an L-1 visa as a manager or executive) professional qualifications that will allow you to avoid the process of labor certification in obtaining a green card, if your employer is indeed willing to sponsor you.

We'll elaborate on these points below.

How Dual Intent Doctrine Helps L-1 Visa Holders Get a Green Card

By way of background, most applicants for nonimmigrant visas must prove, as a condition of getting the visa, that they are not ultimately hoping to get a U.S. green card. Their sole intent must be to come to the U.S. on the nonimmigrant visa, maintain their status under that visa, and then leave the U.S. by the expected and allowed time. But with an L-1 visa, you are allowed to simultaneously intend to spend time as a nonimmigrant on your L-1 visa while also pursuing the possibility of a U.S. green card. In other words, you are allowed to have "dual intent."

How L-1 Visa Holders Can Often Apply for an Employment-Based Green Card in Category EB-1C

Given your professional qualifications, your best bet in applying for green card might be to use the EB-1C category, which means employment-based first preference, a type of "priority worker." The EB-1 category specifically covers multinational executives and managers.

Your U.S. employer will need to apply on your behalf. You will need to have worked as an executive or manager in a qualifying company for at least one out of the three years before your arrival in the United States, and to be taking a similar position with a U.S. branch, affiliate, or subsidiary of the same company.

Fortunately, your employer will not need to undertake the "PERM" or labor certification process on your behalf to help you obtain an EB-1C green card. Labor certification is an expensive, laborious, and lengthy process, in which the employer must attempt to recruit U.S. workers and establish that none of them are qualified, available, and willing to take your job.

Instead, your green card application process will start with your employer filing a visa petition on your behalf, on USCIS Form I-140. The petition will need to be accompanied by several documents, including proof of your L-1 approval, proof that you've worked for the appropriate amount of time as an executive or manager, a description of your job duties, the company's financial statements and recent tax returns, and so on.

Once the visa petition has been approved, you'll be able to submit your application for a green card, or to "adjust status." After several months, you'll be scheduled for an interview, and hopefully be approved as a U.S. permanent resident.

You Would Like an L-1 Visa: What's Next?

If you think you might qualify for an L-1 visa, your best bet might be to hire a lawyer. Larger employers often have their own lawyers on staff. The lawyer can help make sure that your application is done right the first time. Look in particular for an attorney with expertise in business immigration law (even immigration law has subspecialties within it). If you elect to hire a lawyer to represent you and handle the green card application process, which is an especially wise bad idea if you think there might be complications, expect to pay a few thousand dollars.

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