This post is Part IV in a series about how I moved from Australia to the SF Bay Area as a software engineer between 2016 and 2022.
Read Part I for context on my circumstances, which might color the description here. Part II covers finding a software engineering job in the Bay Area, and Part III covers compensation and interviewing.
To work in the US, you'll need a working visa.
There are a few you'll hear about most often:
H-1B visa is the one most tech workers use. Recruiters are familiar with it, and many people will assume you're on this. Don't get this one if you can help it.
E3 visas - this is a special visa just for Aussies and is the one I got. More on why this is great is below.
L1 and O visas - I don't have any experience with these. They're for more senior employees or those with "extraordinary" skills. I suspect the bar required to get this is higher. The handful of Aussies I met on L1 visas was transferred by a global company they were already working for from an Australian office to a US one.
F visas are for full-time students, so they are only applicable if you fit this demographic.
In my experience, the E3 visa is the most suitable option.
Only Aussies are eligible for this visa, and it's somewhat lesser known than the other visas.
You may find that a (usually smaller) company you are speaking with or a particular recruiter / HR person is unfamiliar with this visa. I typically explain this simply as:
"The E3 visa is like H-1B but just for Australians, so it's easy to apply for."
E3 Visa H-1B Visa Eligible Nationalities Australian only. Many countries. Eligibility Period 2 years, renewable indefinitely. 3 years, renewable once only (total 6 years). When can you apply? Anytime during the year. All applications are submitted in the 6 months before the start of the US government's fiscal year, between April 1 and October 1. Costs for application Much cheaper, approximately USD $1,000. Between USD $4,000 to $10,000, including all fees. Processing Time 4 to 6 weeks. 6 to 8 months.
There are two main advantages to the E3 visa:
Likelihood of Success - So long as you are reasonably qualified, you (as an Aussie) are almost guaranteed to get this visa. An annual quota for this visa has never been met, unlike H-1B visas, where many thousands of hopeful applicants are rejected yearly.
Indefinite Renewal - E3 visas have a 2-year validity period, but you can repeatedly renew indefinitely. This is unlike the more common H-1B visa, which has 3 years but can only be renewed once. After that, you either apply for a Green Card (i.e., permanent residency) or return home.
The main drawback to the E3 visa is there is no pathway into permanent residency. You'll have to renew every two years until and if, you apply for a Green Card.
However, this wasn't a problem for us as we never intended to apply for a Green Card for one key reason.
For both the E3 visa and Green Card holders, you must pay taxes on worldwide income to the US government when you are legally a tax resident in the US (basically while you are physically there).
The beauty of the E3 visa is that once you stop being a tax resident in the US, you are only liable to pay the US government for US-sourced income and not worldwide income. You give up your E3 visa and that's all - there are no further tax implications.
However, suppose you are on a Green Card.
In that case, the only way to stop being liable for worldwide income is to revoke your Green Card status. When you do this you will be liable for an exit tax.
From what I understand, this exit tax applies to your worldwide income and assets. This means if you own property outside the US, the US government will assess you as if you sold this property - taxing you for the capital appreciation even if you did not sell!.
So once you have a Green Card, you will continue being liable to indefinitely pay the US for worldwide income no matter where you live, OR you revoke your Green Card and pay the exit tax. It's similar to being an American citizen.
This is not the case with the E3 visa. Once we finished our time in the US and were no longer tax residents in the US, our tax obligations to the US government ended.
I had four E3 experiences:
The first initial application, in 2016.
In 2018, I renewed by traveling to the US embassy in Vancouver.
In 2019, I transferred my visa to a new employer by traveling to Vancouver again.
In early 2021, the pandemic forced me to renew while staying in the US (it's a different process).
All 4 times, it was relatively straightforward. I was always worried I wouldn't get approved, but that proved unfounded.
The initial application took 2 - 3 months in total.
The E3 visa requires almost a university degree, but I'm a self-taught engineer without a relevant degree. If I had a Computer Science degree instead of my Commerce degree, this wouldn't have been a problem.
So we had to find a US-based university professor to attest that my professional experience is equivalent.
Luckily the immigration lawyers my employer used arranged that, but it still added about a month.
This seems to be common practice - two different immigration law firms arranged something similar for my subsequent renewals.
The process involved providing an updated resume. The professor (whom I had never met or spoken to) wrote a long letter confirming my years of this experience are equivalent to a degree.
That seems to be sufficient for the US government 🤷🏽♂️
During this whole process, we had to remain outside the US. You also have to nominate a US embassy to attend an interview and get the visa inserted in your passport once successful.
We did this in Melbourne.
The renewals in Vancouver were the easiest of all.
Technically in 2019, when I changed employers, it was a new E3 application. Still, the process between that and the renewal in 2018 was virtually identical.
They both took 6 weeks to process, and we took a short flight to Vancouver for a pre-arranged interview at the US embassy there.
The main difficulty was getting an appointment for the interview. There weren't many available, and we had to choose a mildly inconvenient date. On both occasions, we attended the embassy at our appointed time with the required documents.
The interview itself was nerve-wracking and involved the embassy officer asking a series of questions to probe the authenticity of the application (I'm guessing). I don't recall the questions exactly, but it's similar to what we often get asked when crossing Customs at the airport, if a little more detailed.
There were variations of how long you have been working as an engineer, what you do daily, who you are staying with, and how long you intend to stay in the US.
I remember mentioning I mainly did backend engineering, and the officer asked what's the difference between that and other types of software engineering. I still don't know whether he was making conversation, if he was testing me, or if he actually did understand the difference.
After the interview, we did the usual touristy things in Vancouver for 3 days. Then we got the notification that my visa was approved, collected it from the embassy, and flew back to the US the next day.
We could have chosen to renew at any US embassy outside the US.
We considered renewing in Mexico for some traveling simultaneously but eventually decided against it for unrelated reasons.
When my E3 visa was due for renewal in 2021, the US was still primarily locked down, and international travel was rare.
Our immigration lawyers recommended we do an in-country renewal this time.
This meant we completed the application forms, then sent our passports to Washington DC rather than attending an embassy interview. Some weeks later, we received our passports back.
This took a little longer, about 4 months, from starting the first conversation with the lawyers to receiving our passports back.
However, there was one complication we never entirely resolved.
It seems the E3 visa itself is distinct from the slip of paper pasted in your passport. With the visa approval, we could stay in the US until the visa's expiry two years later.
However, you are not allowed to enter the US without the slip of paper in the passport.
So the next time we left the US, if we wanted to return on the E3 visa, we would still have to attend an interview at an overseas US embassy!
I don't recommend renewing in-country for these reasons (it takes longer, and you still have to go to an embassy anyway).
Thankfully, we left the US for good a year later and never had to visit an embassy because we didn't return on the E3 visa after that.
Note: While the following was true at the time of our renewal in 2021, since January 2022 the E3D visa has been replaced with a new E3S visa which allows spouses to work without a separate EAD. Thank you to reader Rick for this update! 🙏🏽
With the E3 visa, my wife applied for the E3D (dependent) visa, which also allows her to work. It seems the E3D visa is almost always granted if the E3 visa is.
However, the E3D visa is only the first step.
For her to work, she needed an Employment Authorization Document (EAD). The E3D visa just enabled her to file for the EAD, which was what employers asked for.
Applying for the EAD separately after the E3D approval added another 3 months before she could work.
I did not seem to need this for the E3 visa itself.
Each time I had to renew my E3 visa, my wife also had to renew her E3D visa and EAD.