Working in US policy as a foreign national: Immigration pathways and types of impact
Given the importance of US policy across many cause areas — AI, biosecurity, nuclear security, etc. — it is not uncommon for EAs who are not US citizens to wonder whether they should still try to work in US policy. This post provides immigration-related information to foreign nationals considering US policy work (though much of it will be relevant beyond policy work as well).
The post does not argue that foreign nationals should work in US policy or compare policy work in the US to policy work in their home country; rather, it simply provides information that can help people weigh their options. If you are not a US citizen and want to talk through working in US policy, you can get in touch with EA community members who have relevant knowledge/shared backgrounds by filling in this Google Form.
Please note that I’m not an immigration expert and advise you to do your own research if you want to work in the US. In particular, I recommend talking to an immigration attorney before you make any important career decisions that involve moving to the US. The US immigration system is complex and expert advice can help you avoid mistakes, wasted effort, and unnecessary frustration.
The four main immigration categories for foreign nationals seeking to work in US policy are, in increasing order of difficulty to obtain and flexibility once you have it: (i) pursuing an academic degree in the US, (ii) temporary work visa, (iii) green card (i.e., permanent residency), and (iv) becoming a US citizen.
Many people progress through these four categories sequentially, which may take them more than a decade before becoming US citizens (and some people who try never manage to get a green card/citizenship). However, if you can “skip” steps (i) and/or (ii) you may shorten your immigration journey substantially.
The biggest hurdle to overcome to live and work in the US long-term is getting a green card. Once you have that, becoming a citizen is straightforward, though it will take another 3-5 years. You can’t become a citizen without first getting a green card.
There are different types of student visas (F-1, J-1), temporary work visas (H-1B, O-1, etc.) and green cards, each with differing application processes and restrictions. I cover these in more detail below.
You can do valuable policy-related (and other) work in any of these four immigration categories. However, some jobs are off-limits if you are a student, on a temporary work visa, or (though with much fewer restrictions) on a green card.
Depending on your immigration status, you can do policy work in a variety of different settings: running for office or campaigning, working in executive agencies or Congress, doing policy research/advocacy in academia or think tanks/nonprofits, or working at for-profits (e.g., lobbying, government contracting).
The opportunity cost of US policy work as a foreign national compared to policy work in your home country may be significant — consisting of a period of several years during which your job opportunities are limited, e.g., since you cannot work directly for the government — but this may well be outweighed by the greater overall impact you can have in US policy over the long term (or in the near term if you can get a high-impact non-governmental job). What the right choice is for you depends on your individual circumstances.
Policy work by immigration status
The following table provides an overview of the types of policy work you can do across four categories of US immigration status, along with other practical information. Subsequent sections of this post elaborate on the types of policy work and on the specifics of the four immigration status categories and visa types.
Length of your degree + 1-3 years OPT
1-10+ years (very uncertain, can be skipped if lucky)
Indefinite, but eligible to apply for citizenship after 3-5 years
Relevant visa categories
Can get a security clearance?
Some clearance levels might require you to give up your home nationality.
|Eligibility for types of policy activities|
Run for office
What can you do?
Easy to work on campus. Off campus work requires special authorization.
You can work for 1 year (or 3 years for US STEM graduates) after graduation using “Optional Practical Training” (OPT) in a position that is “directly related to [the] student’s major area of study”.
You can work at a think tank/non-profit, university, or in industry (e.g., lobbying, government contracting).
You can do any work, except for
You can work in Congress, but you mostly can’t work in the executive branch (with some exceptions).
You can do any work.
Difficulty and practical requirements?
Easy to get as long as you can prove you have strong ties to your home country and have sufficient financial resources to cover tuition and living expenses.
Requires a university offer.
Medium-difficult to get.
Requires employment sponsorship (job offer + willingness to sponsor).
H-1B sponsorship is costly, so not every employer is willing to sponsor foreign nationals.
H-1B visa involves an annual lottery with ~⅓ chance of success unless the employer is exempt from the H-1B cap (details below)
H-1B holders are tied to one employer. Changing employers requires re-applying for H-1B (though with a simplified process).
O-1 visas require that the individual have sustained national or international acclaim and be one of the small percentage at the very top of their field. There is no annual limit on these visas, but they are difficult to attain.
Difficult to get.
Three main paths:
EB: Most categories require employer sponsorship.
Extraordinary Ability and National Interest Waiver cases can be self-petitioned.
FB: Requires sponsorship from spouse (or other close family member) with US citizenship or green card.
LB: Eligibility and chances of success depend on nationality. There are only 50,000 diversity visas available worldwide per year.
Green card required, but easy to get once you have a green card.
Eligible to apply for citizenship 5 years from when you get your green card (only 3 years if you were married to a US citizen the entire time).
Citizenship application typically takes 6-12 months to be approved.
No cap for O-1 visa.
H-1 visas are capped, but:
(i) a higher cap applies if you hold a US master’s,
(iii) no cap applies if you already have an H-1B (that was subject to the cap) and want to switch location, role, or employer.
There are no caps for immediate family sponsorship (US citizens sponsoring their spouses, unmarried children under age 21, or parents)
There are caps for EB, other FB, and LB green cards. Wait times and probability of success vary by country due to country-based caps.
Types of policy work and impact
Oversimplifying somewhat, there are three paths to impact through policy work:
Policy idea development: research to inform or develop policy proposals.
Policy advocacy: promoting specific policy proposals.
Policy implementation: implementing specific policy proposals (e.g., passing them into law, executing them in a government agency)
As the following table demonstrates, you can do most types of policy work besides implementation as a non-citizen, and even as what the US immigration system terms a “non-immigrant” (i.e., temporary resident without green card).
Type of impact
Run for office
Get elected to the US Congress
Work for a political campaign to help get a candidate elected
Work for a government agency like the State Department
Work as a congressional staffer
Pursue an academic career researching relevant policy topics
Think tanks / nonprofits
Work for organizations like Brookings, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, etc.
(for gov’t contracting)
(for gov’t contracting)
Work as a researcher, lobbyist, government contractor / consultant, etc.
Note that the US is famous for its “revolving door” principle, which describes the permeable boundaries between different types of US policy organizations: it is relatively easy and common in the US to move between different types of policy work, such as switching from a think tank to the executive branch and back. Consequently, you don’t have to commit to one specific path long-term (e.g., only working in think tanks).
Due to the above-mentioned work and security clearance restrictions, students and temporary workers have more limited job options and cannot take full advantage of the revolving door. However, even as a student or temporary worker, you can gain valuable career capital (experience, credentials, networks, etc.) in academia or through think tank work, which can help you get positions in Congress or government agencies after you get a green card or citizenship. You can also do high-impact direct work from outside the government (see this post on think tanks for some examples and more discussion).
Immigration category details
The following visual illustrates the most common pathways into and through the US immigration system. The longest (but common) process would involve starting as a student, getting a temporary work visa, then a green card, and then citizenship — depending on how long it takes to get green card sponsorship, this process can take more than a decade. If you start in the US later during the chain, or manage to skip a step (e.g., going straight from student to green card), your immigration journey could be considerably shorter.
One caveat before going into the specific categories: all student and some temporary work visas do not allow for “dual-intent”, which is the intent to remain in the US both temporarily on the visa and permanently as a green card holder. While it is possible to, for example, go from student visa holder to permanent resident, it could impact your ability to travel internationally and/or to extend your temporary visa status once you reach a certain point in your green card case. Thus, you should consult with an immigration attorney if you are contemplating permanent residence while in a nonimmigrant visa category which prohibits dual intent. The appendix goes into more detail on this issue.
Pursuing an academic degree in the US can be a good entry point to US policy work, whether at the bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD level. Depending on your degree and university, studying in the US will help you to (i) learn about the US political system, (ii) build a network among (future) US policy researchers and practitioners, (iii) gain a valuable credential (one that will often be more highly valued by US employers than a degree from a foreign university), and (iv) in the case of PhD, conduct useful and original research.
International students are generally not permitted to work in the executive or (with rare exceptions) the legislative branch, and they are barred from any positions requiring a security clearance. Consequently, the main options for international students seeking to (prepare for) work in US policy are think tanks, universities, and nonprofits.
Conditional on receiving an offer from a US university, it is usually pretty easy to get a visa to study in the US since there are no caps on the number of student visas that can be issued each year (unlike with temporary work visas, reviewed below). The most common visa category for international students is the “F-1” visa, the second most common being the “J-1” visa (here is a good overview of the differences). Studying in the US does not directly help to obtain a green card or US citizenship later; however, it may well help indirectly by making it more likely that you will find either a US spouse (for a family-based green card) or a US employer willing to sponsor you (for an employment-based one).
International students in the US face restrictions regarding the amount and type of work they are allowed to do. During the academic semester, F-1 students cannot work more than 20 hours per week, though full-time work is possible during breaks, including the 3 month summer break.
It is usually easy to get a work authorization for “on campus” employment, such as being a research assistant for a professor at your university. However, depending on your university, there may be few on campus work opportunities that are relevant to policy work. (Thus, a major advantage of getting a degree at a policy school like Georgetown University is that there are more relevant on campus employment opportunities).
It is more difficult, though often still possible within limits, to be authorized for “off campus” employment (i.e., working for an organization that is not your university). F-1 students may be authorized to complete 1-3 off campus internships during their degree under a program called “Curricular Practical Training” (CPT), though the details differ by university and degree program.
Importantly, all F-1 students are allowed to work in the US for up to one year (or three years for US STEM students) after completion of their degree under a program called “Optional Practical Training” (OPT). Note that your job must be “directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study”, which may limit your flexibility. OPT is a key reason that studying in the US is attractive for many international students.
Degree programs that are particularly suitable to lay the groundwork for future policy work (especially for non-STEM students), include public policy, political science, international relations, economics, law, and some specialized degrees like the Biodefense programs offered by George Mason University. Being located in Washington, DC, is particularly valuable, which puts a premium on DC-based institutions such as Georgetown University, Johns Hopkins SAIS, George Washington University, George Mason University, or American University (in rough order of prestige for policy degrees).
2. Temporary work
The most common path for foreign nationals to work in the US is on a temporary work visa. These visas present another entry point for working in US policy other than studying in the US. There are various different types of temporary work visas, each with different requirements, upsides and downsides. The most relevant types are the “H-1B specialty occupation” visa (most common professional work visa), country-specific analogs to the H-1B (E-3, TN, H-1B1), and the “O-1 extraordinary ability visa”.
Similar to international students, temporary workers are usually not permitted to work in the executive or (with rare exceptions) the legislative branch, or in positions requiring a security clearance. Consequently, the main options for temporary workers seeking to (prepare for) work in US policy are think tanks, universities, and nonprofits.
Generally, temporary work visas require employment sponsorship. That is, an organization needs to offer you a job and be willing to sponsor your visa (which may come with significant costs and administrative overhead for the organization). As the name suggests, these visas are also time-limited: the default duration of both H-1B and O-1 visas is three years. The H-1B visa period is extendable up to six years and you can reapply in the future after spending at least one year abroad. The O-1 visa period may be extended indefinitely in one-year increments.
Temporary work visas can be subject to caps: While O-1 visas are not capped, the number of H-1B visas granted per year is limited to 65,000. There are an additional 20,000 H-1Bs for foreign nationals holding a master’s or higher degree from US universities. Another 6,800 spots are available specifically for citizens of Singapore and Chile. Moreover, you’re exempt from the cap if (i) you’re working at a university, a nonprofit associated with a university, or a nonprofit or government research organization, (ii) if you have been counted toward the H-1B cap in the previous 6 years, (iii) or you already have an H-1B and want to extend your visa, change your location or role while working for the same employer, or change employers. Every year many more people apply for H-1B visas than are available. To select which applicants get the H-1B, the government runs an annual lottery, which involves an approximately ⅓ chance of success.
A downside of the H-1B visa is that you are tied to a particular employer. If you quit your job or get fired, you lose your H-1B status and might have to leave the country within a 60-day grace period unless you can find another employer to sponsor you in time. Moreover, while H-1B employees may not be treated differently from similarly situated U.S. workers, US employers are allowed to replace H-1B workers with qualified US workers.
Working in the US on a temporary work visa does not directly help to obtain a green card or US citizenship later; however, it may well help indirectly by making it more likely that you will find either a US spouse (i.e., family-based) or an organization willing to sponsor you (i.e., employment-based).
Other temporary work visa categories include:
E-3: specialty occupation visas for Australians
TN: North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) temporary professionals from Mexico and Canada.
H-1B1: specialty occupation visas for nationals of Chile or Singapore
3. Green card (i.e., permanent residency)
The most substantial challenge to overcome in order to live and work in the US permanently is to get a green card. As a green card-holder, you can do most kinds of work, including in the legislative branch as a Congressional staffer. However, you cannot get a security clearance or, with some exceptions, work in the executive branch.
There are three main ways to get a green card:
1. Family-based (FB): Sponsorship by an immediate relative — a spouse, parent, or child — who is a US citizen. There are four additional “family preference immigrant” categories (F1 through F4) which may make other family members eligible to apply for a green card, for example spouses and children of US permanent residents, adult unmarried children of US citizens or permanent residents, and siblings of US citizens. There are no caps on green cards for immediate relatives of US citizens (i.e., spouses, parents, and unmarried minor children under age 21) and consequently no wait times. In contrast, there are caps for applicants of “family preference” FB green cards, meaning you have to wait for one to become available. The associated wait time depends on your preference category, which can range, according to this website, “from a year or two for F1 applicants and up to a decade or longer for F4 applicants”.
2. Employment-based: There are five categories (EB-1 through EB-5) of employment-based green cards and, with limited exceptions, they require either sponsorship by an employer or demonstration of “extraordinary abilities”. The sponsorship is required for EB-2 and EB-3 to get a “labor certification” (but not for EB-1, EB-4, or EB-5), which verifies that (i) “there are insufficient available, qualified, and willing U.S. workers to fill the position being offered at the prevailing wage” and (ii) “hiring a foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers”. As the employer is required to test the US labor market and demonstrate there are no qualified, interested, or available US workers, the process can be expensive and arduous, which explains why many employers are reluctant to do so. Large employers typically find this easier than small employers, with the largest companies having dedicated in-house immigration lawyers to sponsor employees from abroad, though plenty of small and medium-sized employers are also willing to sponsor the right person.
In addition to the EB-1 extraordinary ability category, another option is the EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW) category which can be self-petitioned and does not require a labor certification. To qualify for an NIW, your work must be in an area of substantial merit and national importance, you must be well-positioned to advance the endeavor, and the benefit of your contributions must outweigh the interests protected by the labor certification process (e.g. your work is urgent and important to the US national interest).
3. Lottery-based: The US government runs an annual “diversity immigrant visa lottery”, which “makes up to 50,000 immigrant visas available annually, drawn from random selection among all entries to individuals who are from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.” Consequently, your eligibility and chances for success in the lottery depend on your nationality. One website claims that, “the chances of winning a Green Card are currently about 1:25 to 1:75 (depending on the region you live in) – for Europeans, most recently about 1:45.” To participate in the lottery, you need to submit an application during an annual one-month window (usually in October). It is free to apply and can be done online. While the chances of winning are low, it does not take many resources to apply.
There are country-based caps on the number of EB and “family preference” FB green cards, such that immigrants from no single country can receive more than 7 percent of the green cards in any given year. This results in high backlogs and long wait times (often years, up to decades) for certain immigrants, especially those from populous countries like India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines. As stated here: “The per-country limits treat each nation equally, but not each immigrant equally. China receives the same treatment as Estonia, but immigrants from Estonia who apply today could receive their visas this year, while immigrants from China who apply today could have to wait a generation.” (Proposals to eliminate country-based caps have been actively considered by Congress in recent years.)
As a green card-holder it is relatively easy to become a US citizen. To apply for citizenship, you need to have had a green card for at least 5 years (only 3 years if you were married to a US citizen the entire time). Once you are eligible to apply, the process itself is relatively straightforward—consisting mainly of a simple language and civics test—and typically takes another 6-12 months until naturalization is complete.
Once you have become a US citizen, you can do (almost) any work and likely won’t face significant discrimination for being foreign-born. This includes roles in government, all the way up to high-level political appointments and elected office, excluding the Presidency.
As a foreign-born US citizen, you can get a security clearance. However, your likely high number of foreign contacts may cause delays and decrease your chances of success (this is essentially equivalent to a US-born citizen who has lived abroad for a significant period of time). Moreover, some security clearance levels might require you to give up your home nationality; while dual citizens can sometimes get a clearance, you likely have to be prepared to give it up if they ask. Continuing family ties in countries of concern (e.g., China, Russia, Iran) may also hamper some immigrants’ ability to get clearances.
There are several different immigration pathways that allow foreign nationals to work in US policy, each with distinct advantages and challenges. A student visa or temporary work visa may present good entry points for US policy work, but only a green card or citizenship allow you to live and work in the US indefinitely.
On the positive side, foreign nationals can gain career capital and do impactful work in US policy even on temporary work visas, for instance as a think tank researcher. In general, the US policy ecosystem is welcoming of immigrants — even in the national security space. Given the US’s international influence, depending on where you’re from, the impact you can make through US policy work may be substantially larger than if you were to do similar work in your country of origin.
On the negative side, foreign nationals often have to enter the US system as a student or temporary worker, with little certainty about how long it would take to obtain permanent residency/citizenship (it may take more than a decade), or even whether that will be possible at all. Moreover, US immigration can be an arduous and costly process (in terms of money, time, and stress) and migration can involve leaving behind family and friends.
Ultimately, trying to settle in the US — whether to work in policy or elsewhere — is an individual decision that requires taking into account one’s personal fit, circumstances, and preferences. While making any recommendations in the abstract is difficult, I hope to help inform this choice by writing a follow-up post in the future to compare the case for working in US policy vs EU policy vs UK policy vs policy in other countries.
I am grateful to Merlin Herrick, Sophie Rose, and three anonymous reviewers for providing feedback on this article before publication.
Appendix: “Dual intent”
The US immigration system distinguishes between foreign nationals (i) seeking to come to the US only temporarily (those with “nonimmigrant intent”) and (ii) those wishing to live in the US permanently (those with “immigrant intent”). When applying for a US visa, “dual intent” means you want a visa to gain temporary entry to the US and you also aim to become a US permanent resident by getting a green card. “Non-dual intent” means simply that you intend to leave the US again after your temporary visa period is over.
Importantly, some temporary US visas allow you to have dual intent while others don’t. Examples of dual intent visas include the H-1B and O-1 temporary work visas; non-dual intent visas include the F-1 and J-1 student visas. The following table includes the visa categories likely to be most relevant for readers of this post and whether they allow for dual intent or not.
Non-dual intent visas
Dual intent visas
Certain temporary workers
Dependents of H-1B workers
Extraordinary ability workers
Business or tourism visitor
Dependents of O-1 workers
Treaty traders, investors, and investor employees
Certain Australian professionals
Certain Chilean or Singaporean professionals
NAFTA professionals from Mexico and Canada
When you apply for a non-dual intent visa, you need to demonstrate that you have nonimmigrant intent. As this website explains, you might be required to “bring many forms of proof to [your] visa interview, showing, for example, that [you] maintain a residence abroad, have a family abroad, have a temporary work contract in the U.S.” If you own property such as a house or car or hold bank accounts and credit cards in your home country, you should provide proof of those financial ties as well. If US immigration officials infer that you have immigrant intent, in the worst case, according to Wikipedia, “this is grounds for termination of nonimmigrant visas issued, refusal of the visa application, refusal of admission at the port of entry, refusal of readmission, or removal (deportation)”.
The difficulty of demonstrating nonimmigrant intent varies by country of origin. For those from wealthy countries, there is less mistrust and nonimmigrant intent will generally be assumed as long as you do not, say, directly tell consular officers during your F-1 student visa interview that you intend to settle in the US permanently. For example, even applying for the annual diversity green card lottery is not seen as an indication of “immigrant intent” (however, if selected in the lottery, you should be careful when submitting your actual green card application). On the other hand, those from lower-income countries are viewed with more skepticism and their visa applications more often rejected due to dual-intent concerns. In general, if you have questions about dual-intent issues, it is good to consult an immigration attorney (or, if you are an international student, your university’s international student office). As a starting point, this article is a useful guide on some things to pay attention to and avoid.
The J-1 visa is also sometimes used by foreign nationals to complete internships in the US even without studying there (e.g., see this article). However, this seems fairly rare, given that most employers get too many competent domestic internship applicants anyway to bother helping foreign national interns to get a US visa.