The Role and Status of US Temporary Visas for Workers and Students

The US immigration system is complicated, confusing, and frequently changing. With nearly 200 types of visas covering everything from business and tourist trips, to temporary employment, or long-term residency, it's no wonder that the topic of immigration frequently sparks misunderstandings.

Temporary visas are designed for non-immigrants and include significant numbers of foreign workers in the US and visiting international students. For real estate professionals, guest workers and students play a vital role in supporting property markets and economic development.

Even though temporary workers and students are not granted permanent residence, they still need places to live and there are no restrictions on owning U.S. property.

According to NAR's Profile of International Transactions in U.S. Residential Real Estate, resident foreigners who purchase US property are usually interested in a primary residence. In contrast, non-resident foreigners are typically seeking a vacation or investment property.

Regardless of the type of property acquired, foreign investment in US real estate positively impacts property prices. Also, foreign workers and students contribute directly to local economies, supporting businesses and services beyond housing.

Recent Developments

COVID-19 has touched every aspect of human life, including global travel and migration. Following the coronavirus pandemic's outbreak, the White House suspended many categories of visas on the grounds of protecting jobs for US workers while the risk of economic recession loomed large.

Graphic: 1 Million international students contributed $46 billion to the U.S. economy
Graphic: As of September 2020, 583,420 skilled foreign workers holding H1B visas are authorized to work in the U.S.

The executive order, which went into effect on June 24, does not affect immigrants already in the US, existing visa holders, temporary workers in food production industries, or health care workers and researchers fighting COVID-19.

Initially, the executive order suspended visas for international students attending US universities that moved to remote learning. Subsequently, this part of the executive order was rescinded, and student visas remained intact.

The current situation involving US visas remains fluid. For example, in August the US State Department announced the easing of additional restrictions, based on various national interest rules.

4 Key US Visa Programs

NAR supports visa programs as an important source of foreign investment in the US. From an advocacy perspective, NAR promotes visa programs that are transparent and accountable, operated in a fair and efficient manner and actively weed out fraud and abuse. In terms of supporting US real estate markets, these four non-immigrant programs are noteworthy.

Specialty Occupations

  • Purpose: To help US companies hire foreign workers with specialized skills, often in technology and medical fields.
  • Positive Real Estate Impacts: Stimulates economic development, job creation, and property ownership.
  • Status: Suspended in June, with some restrictions subsequently eased.

Seasonal Workers (H2B)

  • Purpose: To help US employers temporarily fill non-agricultural jobs (usually six months).
  • Positive Real Estate Impacts: Supports housing in resort areas that rely on seasonal help (waiters, lifeguards, etc.).
  • Status: Suspended in June. Applicants may still be eligible if they meet specific criteria, including proof that denial will cause financial hardship for the US employer.

Expat Employees (L1A and L1B)

  • Purpose: To assist international companies in establishing US operations by temporarily relocating some employees.
  • Positive Real Estate Impacts: Stimulates economic development, job creation, and property ownership.
  • Status: Suspended in June, with some restrictions subsequently eased. For example, foreign companies wishing to open US offices must employ five or more US workers.

Student Visa (F1)

  • Purpose: Allows international students to attend US colleges and universities.
  • Positive Real Estate Impacts: Students purchase and rent properties near educational institutions for housing and long-term investment, typically with their families' financial support.
  • Status: Briefly suspended in June for remote learning students; now fully operational.

Looking Forward

Global real estate professionals should keep a watchful eye on the visa landscape in the US and other countries. As the pandemic continues to shape nations' visa policies, there will undoubtedly be both positive and negative impacts to cross-border property investments.

Who is Recruiting Remote Workers?

Digital nomads have been in the vanguard of the work-from-anywhere movement long before the onslaught of COVID-19. Now, remote work has become mainstream, and many countries are eager to boost their economies. Several new visa programs are designed to attract work-from-home employees longing to trade their virtual Zoom backdrops for a real-life change of scenery, including:

Barbados

The Barbados Welcome Stamp lets foreigners live on Barbados income-tax-free for one year, although the visa cost is steep: $2,000 for individuals, and $3,000 for families. It allows unlimited exit and re-entry, as well as free public schooling for children under 12. Applicants must show proof of employment and at least $50,000 in annual income.

Bermuda

At $263, the Work from Bermuda program is a more affordable tax-free option for lovers of island living. Unlike Barbados, Bermuda's remote work visa does not have a minimum monthly income requirement.

Estonia

As an extension of its e-Residency program, Estonia's new Digital Nomad Visa allows remote workers with a minimum monthly salary of $4,150 to live in Estonia for up to one year. The application fee is $125, but the program is currently limited to people traveling from a small group of approved countries outside the EU, Schengen Area, or the UK.

Georgia

The Remotely from Georgia program accepts remote workers from 95 countries, including the US, for stays ranging from 180 to 360 days. The minimum monthly income requirement is $2,000, and applicants must provide proof of health insurance. Upon arriving, a 12-day quarantine is required at a pre-approved hotel at the traveler's expense, followed by a health screening.

In recent years, numerous other countries, including Mexico, Spain, Portugal, Germany, and the Czech Republic, have introduced visas targeting freelancers and digital workers. Since COVID-19 has paused or altered some programs, it's essential to research the latest requirements.

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