Visas for Architects: 5 Common Issues

by Elizabeth Brettschneider


The world is full of many talented artists—including those who design our public and private spaces. Often these talented artists want to come to the US to work in the numerous architectural firms that do business in the US. So, what visas do architects typically have?

H-1B: Probably the most common visa type for architects is the H-1B specialty occupation visa. As architects will most likely have at the very least a bachelor's degree, an H-1B may be the logical first choice; however, with the numerical limits of this visa type, the H1-B may not be possible.      

E-3: Since architects are generally recognized as “specialty occupations” it is likely they will also be eligible for an E-3 visa if they are Australian.  

TN: Since “architect” is one of the professions allowed to apply for a TN visa, architects who are nationals of Canada or Mexico could be eligible for this visa category.

O-1:  Someone who designs the aesthetics of a building is an artist by any sense of the word. If architects have established a career abroad before considering a move to the US or have worked for a number of years in the US on other visa types, they may have become distinguished in their career. If that is the case, a visa petition based on their distinction in the arts could be considered.  

O-2: An architect who has worked closely with another architect who is in the US as an O-1, could come to the US as an essential part of the O-1’s team.

L-1: If the foreign branch of the architectural firm wants to transfer architects to work for the US branch of its company, an L-1 visa could be a feasible visa option. To qualify as an L-1A transfer, architects must have worked abroad, and must be coming to work in the US, as managers or executives; alternatively, for an L-1B, architects must have specialized knowledge which is special or advanced knowledge of a company’s practices or procedures.

E-2: Architects from a country that has a treaty with the US coming to invest a substantial amount of capital into a US business, could possibly come to the US under an E-2 treaty investor visa.  

J-1: Recent graduates or current students from foreign universities who want to come and temporarily intern or train at a US architectural firm may have this option. While on a J-1 visa, the applicants cannot perform productive work unless it’s incidental to training. They must be training under the tutelage of the US company. These trainee architects would have to intend to return to their home country after their internship has ended but this short-term visa can be a good way to gain some valuable US experience. 

Regardless of which visa an architect pursues, there are a number of thematic issues (I’ve identified five main ones) that tend to come up in the world of architecture.

They Make How Much?
When I think generally of the professions out there that I admire or would aspire to if I wasn’t a lawyer, architect is at the top of the list. For heaven’s sake, George Costanza on Seinfeld even made it his fake profession when he was lying to try to impress a girlfriend.

It is always surprising therefore when I see the salaries of many architects are much lower than I would have thought for such an admired profession. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for an architect in New York City is $67,097—lower than the National Average of $72,112. For architects offered lower salaries, this can be an issue with H-1Bs, which must certify that the employee will be paid the industry prevailing wage. Or for an O-1, since a person's high salary can be a factor in determining their overall renown in the field, a low salary can affect the strength of the petition. To counter this, US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) has to be made aware of the industry standard of pay (generally lower) against others in the same field (not across all professions) and thus the industry statistics will become important to the case's adjudication.  

The Death of the Starchitect?
There is much debate on the topic of whether the days where one architect is credited alone for a large-scale project may be over. Today it is very likely that projects may credit a large number of architects—each handling their own piece of the work or working in teams as a collaboration. This is an important concept for immigration—especially with O-1s as sometimes USCIS may argue that architects are not “distinguished” if their name does not appear in the credits for a design project; however, USCIS may not be considering the sheer size of the project. It may be a multiple-acre park with a restaurant, golf course, and concert arena or a fifty story mixed-use residential and commercial space in the heart of a city—either of these projects would typically take years and involve many different people specializing in the various aspects of the design. There may be a group collaborating on the outside spaces, while others design the inside spaces. There will also likely be project managers overseeing the logistics of all parts of the project. These types of projects are not a "one man or woman job" and the understanding of this along with how USCIS reviews petitions for architects will go a long way to the successful adjudication of certain O-1 visa applications. As Beverly Willis says in the ongoing starchitect debate:

Anyone involved in building — from its design, environmental site, its engineering to its construction — knows that architecture is a collaborative process. If the news media, cultural arbiters and the profession itself, would publicly embrace this truth, we would be acknowledging all the voices and visions that are truly shaping our built environment, giving Oscars to each contributing talent.

License to Architect
In order to practice as an “architect” and use that title, a person must be licensed. Those wanting to become a licensed architect must meet the requirements of the state where they will practice. Each state has a registration board to oversee the licensure. Requirements vary in different states but generally there are education, experience, and examination elements encompassed in the licensing process. Inclusive of schooling, the entire licensure process can take many years.  

Where this issue plays into immigration is that an employment-based petition cannot use the title “architect” if the person doesn’t in fact have a license. If a license is required to do the job, USCIS won't grant approval unless the person is qualified with such license by the date of application; however, there are other positions in an architecture firm that work under the guidance and supervision of a licensed architect. If unlicensed architects held one of these positions, it may be possible for visa applications to be submitted for them. 

Years and Years
Many adjudicating officers at USCIS are accustomed to seeing visa petitions featuring a variety of projects, but some architectural applicants may only be able to show one large-scale or lengthy project. As discussed above, a project involving a large building, with combined uses and outdoor spaces, may go on for many years. There may be a design phase before the plans are submitted for appraisal and then a break before construction begins. Some architects may only be involved in one of the stages but if they are involved in more, it is conceivable that just one project could occupy their CV for a number of years. It’s important therefore to know how to present this information to USCIS. 

Architects Are Special
Within the field of architecture there are many different areas of specialization. In our immigration practice we’ve come across a wide selection. Some architects design for residential dwellings, some for commercial institutions both private and public, some architect for landscapes, and some are involved in historic preservation and others still specialize in illustration and renderings of architectural structures. Some “project architects” oversee all the logistics and organization of large-scale designs. Knowing an architect’s specialization can be helpful when strategizing possible visa options. For instance, with an O-1 where a person’s distinction in the field must be demonstrated, it is useful to be able to narrow the category of “field” by showing that this person is well known in the specific sub-section of architecture they practice. 

I greatly admire architects and find the field very interesting (sometimes so much that I wish I had studied this field); however, as an immigration lawyer (which I am very happy to be) I have the chance to observe vicariously and work with many architectural professionals. In comparison with other professions, there are thankfully often numerous visa options available in this field and it’s my job to advise which one is best. While the above issues can certainly come up in submitting the petitions to USCIS, nevertheless, with careful strategizing and presentation they can be successfully overcome.