Can I work in the U.S. without a green card?

You can work in the United States without a green card only if you have a non-immigrant visa such as an H, L, or O visa or an employment authorization card (EAC). Alternatively, employers may file petitions for labor certification upon meeting certain requirements, such as the ability to pay the proffered wage. Foreign exchange students holding F, J, or M visas must seek permission to work from their school’s foreign exchange advisors unless their visa explicitly provides otherwise.

H-1B and L-1 Visas

H-1B visas are granted for a designated period of employment and can be extended for up to 10 years, even if the employee changes companies. If this happens, the applicant must apply for an extension indicating that he or she is still employed, but has changed employers. Employers must also agree to petition the employee for the required period, showing they have the ability to pay the proffered wage, even if the period of employment ends earlier.

L-1 visas allow companies to transfer certain classes of employees from their operations abroad to the United States. An L-1 visa allows an employee from an overseas branch to work for 3 to 7 years in the United States. 

Employment Authorization Card (EAC)

Most immigrants, including unskilled workers, come to the United States hoping to obtain an EAC. The EAC allows an applicant to obtain a Social Security number and driver’s license. It is the first thing employers look for when hiring employees that are legally permitted to work in the United States.

An EAC is usually issued with an accompanying application for status in the United States, such as an immigrant visa petition or application for adjustment of status. Alternatively, respondents in immigration proceedings have a "work authorization clock" that begins to run from the time they file their applications for relief with the immigration judge. The respondent is allowed to work when the clock hits 180 days.

If the employment authorization clock does not begin to run when it is supposed to, your immigration attorney can call the clerk or write a letter to help get it going. Although respondents are often anxious to have the 180 days run as soon as possible, it is common to have elapsed days that were not counted while they are in proceedings. An immigration attorney will help the applicant balance the benefits of obtaining authorization to work sooner against the drawbacks of having an Immigration Judge adjudicate the merits of his or her case at an earlier date.

Getting Help 

Unauthorized employment in the United States is taken seriously and may result in barring future applications for relief. If you think you have a particular skill and a prospective employer that is willing to sponsor you, consult an immigration lawyer to assist you in obtaining permission to work. Similarly, if you feel you are eligible to receive or extend your employment authorization, an immigration attorney can help you complete the required applications.