Visa Options for Graphic Designers and Art/Creative Directors

by Elizabeth Brettschneider

Everyday life is filled with images—from advertisements in the subway and inside magazines and on billboards to artwork and visual designs on websites, t-shirts, product packaging, book covers, and, okay, pretty much everywhere else. We can thank graphic designers and art and creative directors for using their talents to come up with the overall creative vision and design of all those images we see on a daily basis.

A typical evolution in the profession is to start a career as a graphic designer and then get promoted to an art director and subsequently to creative director. At our firm, we work with graphic designers, art directors, and creative directors in the advertising, branding, publishing, and retail industries, among others. Here we discuss some possible visa options for these types of professionals.    


One of the most logical places to start for this type of professional is the H-1B. An H-1B is a visa type for an individual who is offered a position in a “specialty occupation” (meaning one requiring at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field). Graphic designers and art/creative directors are generally considered to be positions sufficiently specialized for an H-1B. The US employer would be obligated to pay H-1B applicants a salary that meets or exceeds the Department of Labor minimums for this type of position (depending on the geographic location of the position and the responsibility level of the job being offered.)

H-1B applicants must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a field related to their position. In the case of graphic designers and art and creative directors, this would include graphic design, advertising, communication design, or a similar field. Alternatively, H-1B applicants could have the equivalent work experience to equate to a degree. Three years of related work experience generally equates to one year of university study so a person can have a combination of education and experience (or simply all work experience) evaluated to equal a US bachelor’s degree and still qualify for the H-1B.

H-1B petitions are granted for an initial three years and can be renewed for a maximum of six years. While the H-1B is often the most appropriate visa for many graphic designers and art/creative directors, there is a potential problem: H-1Bs are subject to a yearly cap, and in recent years this has led to the selection of cases by random lottery. Only 85,000 visas of this type can be granted per fiscal year. The lottery opens up every April 1st for all petitions to be submitted to US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) which conducts a random lottery to pick the lucky 65,000 petitions that will go on to be adjudicated. (There are an extra 20,000 slots for those who hold US master’s degrees.)

If selected and approved, the visa start date is no earlier than October 1st of that year. Needless to say, the potential delays and possibility that the case will not be selected are not quite ideal for employers wishing to hire a graphic designer or art/creative director to start at their company immediately. Unless the foreign national has another visa type that allows them to work through October 1st, the timing of this visa may make this an unappealing option. Of note, though, is that if a foreign national already has an H-1B, the new employer may file a petition on the foreign national’s behalf without having to go through the cap lottery process.


If the foreign national is Australian, then the E-3 visa becomes an option. The requirements for the E-3 are similar to the H-1B except it is only for Australians and therefore without a lottery process. (Technically there is a cap of 10,000 per year but that cap has never been met.) The E-3 can be applied for directly at the US Embassy/Consulate and does not need to go through USCIS and thus can be turned around quickly in comparison to other visa types. 


Should a foreign national be Canadian or Mexican, another visa option opens up—the TN. TN stands for Trade NAFTA and is a category for professionals in a finite number of categories laid out by the NAFTA treaty. Luckily, there is a category for graphic designers! Applicants must have a bachelor’s or licensure degree in a related field and have an offer of employment in the field of graphic design. The TN can be applied for directly at the US/Canadian border (for Canadians) or at a US Embassy/Consulate outside the US (for Mexicans), so like E-3s, this process can often be pretty fast.

For a graphic designer with a graphic design degree, the TN can be a very straight-forward application. The TN category can become problematic for this profession when the duties of the position become more managerial and less hands-on graphic design. To qualify, the duties of the position must involve actual graphic design, not just the directing of others doing that design. Thus sometimes art directors can run into problems with this category unless the application makes clear that applicants will be performing graphic design in their day-to-day duties and not simply be a manager. 


If foreign nationals are more advanced in their career, the O-1 visa could be an option. To qualify for the O-1 visa, the applicant must be an individual of distinction in their field. In the world of graphic design and art/creative direction, evidence of renown can often be shown with industry awards, portfolios full of designs published in major media, billboards or elsewhere, press on the designer or their work, reference letters from peers in the industry, displays of work in artistic exhibitions, or membership in industry groups which require a high level of excellence from their members. This type of visa will not be appropriate for those new to the field but once a designer has been working in the profession long enough to have made a mark, it’s an option worth exploring. 

A unique aspect of O-1 visas is the requirement to obtain an advisory opinion from a union or peer group prior to applying with USCIS. Organizations who issue these generally charge a fee to write the type of letter needed to present to USCIS. Commonly, the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) can be consulted for graphic designers and art directors as well as the Art Directors Club (ADC) for art directors. This requirement is not something that should deter graphic designers and art/creative directors from applying for this type of visa; however, applicants should factor in the added time and expense.


Foreign nationals who will be transferred from a company’s overseas office to the US office may qualify to obtain an L-1A visa. If the foreign national is a manager or executive, this is an option. This type of visa is best suited to senior level individuals such as creative directors who oversee a team of art directors and graphic designers. Foreign nationals would just need to have worked at this level for the foreign parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of the US office for at least one year in the last three years and be offered a transfer to work in the US office in either a managerial or executive capacity. If that is the case, the L-1A could be a viable option. The L-1A is granted for an initial three years and can be extended in two-year increments for a maximum of seven years. 


There may potentially be an option for an E-1 or E-2 visa if the foreign national is coming to work in a key role for a company in the US that is majority-owned by individuals or a parent company of the same nationality as the foreign national. Moreover, the individual and owners must be nationals of a country that has signed a treaty with the US. The employee must be offered a supervisory, executive, or specialized role in the US to show they are an essential worker.

Graphic designers and art/creative directors are fortunate to have multiple visa types for which they may be eligible. And the more experienced the individual, the more options there are typically. The world would be a pretty drab place without images, and we’re happy to help visual designers and creators come to the US to add to the vibrant American art and design industries.