The ability to work in the United States is a benefit that's available to many visa holders. But if you're a foreign-born person staying in the U.S. on a visa, you'll need to do a little research before going job-hunting.
Some visa categories don't allow its holders to work in the U.S. at all. Some work-based visa categories (such as H-1B and L-1) allow people to work for the employer who petitioned them, but not for anyone else. Finally, some visa categories allow for the possibility of work authorization, but do not grant the ability to work by themselves.
In the latter case, you would need to apply for an employment authorization document card or "EAD" before being legally able to work in the United States. To apply, you would need to file Form I-765 with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS").
Basically, Form I-765 is a request for an EAD card—one that comes with your photo and an expiration date, and fits in your wallet. If USCIS approves an I-765 filing, it issues the applicant an EAD.
As a non-citizen, you can use your EAD as legal proof that you have the right to employment in the United States. By showing it to employers you assure them that, by hiring you, they're not risking trouble with U.S. immigration authorities.
One of the best things about an EAD is job flexibility: You need not have an employer file a petition on your behalf before starting to work in the U.S. or changing employers if you have an existing job.
Common categories of visa holders who must apply for an EAD before starting work are:
For years, USCIS argued that dependent spouses of L-1 and E-1 and E-2 visa holders also needed to submit an I-765 and obtain work permits in order to accept employment in the United States. But in November 2021, the agency finally agreed that L-2 and the spouses of E-1 and E-1 visa holders are employment authorized "incident to status." The Form I-94 that these spouses receive upon entry to the United States should indicate this. Such an I-94 is considered a List C document, which can be entered on the Form I-9 that employers must have their new employees fill out to show a right to work in the United States.
For a complete list of employment authorization categories, see the Employment Authorization page of the USCIS website.
Form I-765 is fairly short. You'll need to fill it out, attach any relevant supporting documents, and either mail it to USCIS or file online (available in certain categories, after setting up an online account with USCIS). For more detailed instructions on answering the questions on the form, see Filling Out Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization.
Once the form is completed, you will need to determine your filing fee and filing location, by checking the USCIS Form I-765 information page. If you are a student applying for an EAD, you will also need to contact your school's international office for assistance in applying for work authorization.
Unfortunately, unlike with some USCIS applications, there's no mechanism in place yet for paying an extra fee for premium, expedited processing. Your sole option is to submit a letter to USCIS requesting expedited processing based on urgent economic necessity. However, USCIS is not required to honor such requests.
All EAD cards have an expiration date. Just how long it lasts depends on how long the underlying status is allowed to last. It's often somewhere between 90 days and five years.
If you are still eligible for work authorization when your expiration date is coming (in other words, if your underlying status allowing for work authorization has not expired), you may apply to renew it. This is done in much the same way as applying for an initial EAD, by filing Form I-765 and sending it to USCIS with the appropriate filing fee.
Timing is an important consideration when renewing an EAD. USCIS processing times for this form tend to range from two to 11 months, depending on eligibility category and which Service Center handles your region.
Also, given the extended processing times, realize that your EAD renewal application might still be pending when your current EAD expires. For certain eligibility categories, this is not an issue, as the current EAD is automatically extended until USCIS decides on the renewal application. For a list of categories to which this automatic extension applies, see the USCIS page discussing automatic EAD extensions.
The bottom line is that, unless you file to renew well in advance of your expiration date, you might face a gap in your employment authorization. This could result in your employer terminating you. Alternatively, your employer might place you on unpaid leave (without benefits) until you receive work authorization once more. In any case, if you do not have a valid EAD and you don't have a visa type that automatically grants work authorization, you are not permitted to work in the United States.
As if these timing issues weren't complex enough, USCIS does not want to receive an application to renew an EAD more than 180 days before its expiration.
Whether these timing issues are relevant to you depends on the facts of your case. If you have questions regarding how to best go about renewing or applying for your EAD, consult an immigration attorney.
If USCIS denies your Form I-765 EAD application, you should first determine whether your present EAD is still valid. If so, you may continue working until it expires. Try to figure out the reason for the denial, in order to then reapply with the errors corrected.
If, however, you get to a point where your current EAD has expired, and USCIS has denied your renewal application, you must notify your employer and stop working immediately. At this point, you should either 1) refile a corrected I-765 if you haven't already done so, or 2) evaluate other visa options that confer work authorization.