Common Visas for Working in the Restaurant and Hospitality Industries and What You Need to Know
- Business Immigration
For the past three years, the restaurant industry has faced a crisis. According to the National Restaurant Association, during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the restaurant industry eliminated 356,000 positions. Two years later, restaurants across the country were still clambering to get back on their feet.
The National Restaurant Association reported that in April 2022, “eating and drinking places were still 794,000 jobs—or 6.4%—below their pre-pandemic employment levels.” It is only in 2023 that the restaurant industry has begun to see a boost in employment, as “nearly [three] in [four] operators say business conditions are already close to normal.”
The National Restaurant Association claims that the restaurant industry will need to hire 500,000 more people by the time 2024 rolls around. Restaurateurs who lack a stable employee base are faced with a major dilemma: How do we fill all of these jobs? This becomes an even more pressing question if you consider the industry’s high turnover rate. In 2021, fast food restaurants had a 144% turnover rate, and “restaurant workers [were] quitting their jobs at the highest rate in two decades.”
One way to fill restaurant roles is by recruiting foreign nationals through work visas. For years, foreign nationals have made up a sizeable population of the foodservice workforce. The New American Economy Research Fund reported that in 2018, 20.5% of those who worked in the food service industry were immigrants. An April 2021 post from the National Restaurant Industry explains that the benefit of hiring foreign nationals is two-fold because “immigrants gain job experience and access to new opportunities, and restaurateurs fill much-needed positions at all levels.”
In this blog post, we’ll highlight some common work visas that can be applied to the restaurant industry to address its current labor shortage and high turnover rate.
The H-2B Visa
Designed for short-term employment, this nonimmigrant visa is great for hosting, serving, bartending, food prepping, and dishwashing positions. The H-2B visa accommodates four different types of jobs:
- One-time occurrence: The employer needs temporary workers due to a “temporary event of short duration.” This type of job hasn’t had temporary workers in the past and does not plan on using them in the future.
- Seasonal need: The employer needs extra workers for the business’s recurring busy seasons.
- Peak-load need: The employer needs to supplement the regular employee base with temporary workers due to “a seasonal or short-term demand.”
- Intermittent need: The employer needs to utilize temporary workers for a period of time because permanent, full-time employees have not yet been hired.
Due to the temporary or seasonal nature of these visas, it’s no surprise that hotels top the charts in petitioning H-2B visas for food preparation and serving jobs. According to the Employer Data Hub on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website, the top five companies that petitioned for H-2B visas in June 2023 included DHC MI Holdings, LLC; The Breakers Palm Beach, Inc.; Kiawah Island Inn Co.; The Broadmoor Hotel, Inc.; and the Ocean Reef Club, Inc. 
Each year, 66,000 H-2B visas are issued, with 33,000 visas issued from October 1 to March 31 and the other half issued from April 1 to September 30. However, these numbers are not always fixed. In fiscal year 2023, an additional 64,716 visas were made available for returning workers and workers from North Central American countries and Haiti.
The H-2B visa allows foreign nationals to work in the United States for as long as one year, but their visas can be extended for another year, as necessary. Once they have been in the U.S. for three years, however, they must return to their home country for three months before applying for the H-2B visa again. A great benefit of this visa is that a recipient’s spouse and unmarried children younger than 21 can apply for admission into the U.S. with an H-4 visa.
The H-1B Visa
The H-1B visa is one of the most common nonimmigrant visas issued each year. USCIS reports that in fiscal year 2022, “H-1B petitions comprised almost three-fourths of all Form I-129 petitions received, roughly the same as the previous five years.”  Each year, 65,000 H-1B visas are issued.
To qualify for the H-1B visa, applicants must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a specialized skill set. Like the H-2B visa, an employer will petition the applicant and obtain a Labor Condition Application. This visa allows the foreign national to work in the United States for as long as three years, but the visa can be extended for up to six years. Similar to the H-2B visa, the foreign national’s spouse and children under 21 can be admitted into the U.S. with the H-4 visa.
This type of visa is a great option for those seeking a highly skilled restaurant job, such as an executive chef, pastry chef, sommelier, or restaurant manager.
The H-3 Visa
The H-3 visa is designed for foreign national candidates interested in gaining additional experience before starting a career in their home country. In the restaurant industry, this can be applied to positions that require extensive training and education, like a food and beverage manager, restaurant manager, or sous chef. However, the training program must fall under the following stipulations set forth by USCIS:
- The training program is not available in the foreign national’s home country;
- The foreign national must be focused on training rather than “productive employment,” and
- The training will allow the foreign national to find a career outside of the United States.
Once this visa is approved, the foreign national can stay in the U.S. for up to two years. Their spouse and children under 21 can be admitted into the U.S. with the H-4 visa, but they cannot work while in the United States.
The J-1 Visa
The J-1 visa, or the exchange visitor nonimmigrant visa, accommodates foreign nationals studying in the U.S. and is issued to 300,000 people from 200 countries each year. The J-1 visa encompasses a range of programs, and several can be applied to the restaurant industry:
- The Summer Work Travel Program accommodates college students as they work in temporary or seasonal jobs during the summer. Restaurants can hire these students for four-month positions as food preppers, dishwashers, servers, and hosts.
- The Trainee Program requires the foreign national to have a degree or certification and one year of experience or five years of experience outside of the United States. This program can be used to learn the basics of technical restaurant occupations, like operational and managerial positions.
- The Intern Program helps college students gain experience in their field of study. This is a great option for students interested in furthering their education in business operations, which can be directly applied to restaurants. This program can last between three weeks and 12 months, but the program length can be extended, if necessary. 
The Q Visa
Intended to promote cultural exchange, the 15-month Q visa encourages foreign nationals to “communicate effectively about the cultural attributes of [their] country to the American public.” As such, applicants, in addition to being at least 18 years old and qualified to perform the job, must work in a position with a demonstrable cultural component. The cultural element can be applied to a range of restaurant positions.
The Walt Disney World Resort has relied on the Q visa for years to hire foreign nationals at Disney World’s Epcot and Animal Kingdom; in fact, the Q visa is “commonly known as the ‘Disney visa.’” In The Wonderful World of Disney Visas, Kit Johnson explains that at the park’s Animal Kingdom, “some [cultural representatives] work at Jiko, one of the [Animal Kingdom Lodge’s] three restaurants, serving up authentic African cuisine.”
The Q visa can be utilized in similar ways in other restaurants. For instance, a Laotian restaurant could specifically hire Laotian servers and hosts who inform patrons about the dishes on the menu and their importance in traditional Lao culture.
The EB-3 Visa (Green Card)
Designed to establish a pathway to U.S. citizenship, the EB-3 visa accommodates professional, skilled, and “other,” or “unskilled” workers. Each of these categories has corresponding requirements that can be implemented into the restaurant industry. For instance, the professional category requires a baccalaureate degree or higher, and the skilled worker category requires at least two years of experience in the field; chefs, restaurant managers, and workers with experience or degrees in culinary arts or business could qualify. The “other” workers category allows the candidate to have fewer than two years of experience, which can be great for restaurant jobs that do not require as much skill. Because this visa requires a permanent, full-time position, the employer can depend on the foreign national employee sticking around for a while.
It’s important to note that the EB-3 visa only accommodates positions where there are no qualified, willing Americans to fulfill the job. Also, this visa is sponsored by an employer, who must obtain a PERM labor certification to kickstart the process.
The L-1A and L-1B Visas
The L-1A Intracompany Transferee Executive or Manager visa provides a pathway for applicants to establish a new business location or work in an executive or managerial role in the U.S. To qualify for this visa, the foreign national must work for a U.S. business in one of its foreign offices and have at least one year of work experience. One example pertaining to the restaurant industry is someone who oversees the operations of an American company’s foreign restaurant chain. Then, with the L-1A visa, they are recruited to come to the U.S. to open a new restaurant location.
If the visa holder is establishing an office, they can stay in the U.S. for one year. If they’re coming to work as a manager or executive for the business in the U.S., they can stay for three years. The visa can be extended in increments until it has reached the seven-year maximum limit.
The L-1B Intracompany Transferee Specialized Knowledge visa is similar to the L-1A visa in that it requires the candidate to have a “qualifying relationship” and be “doing business” with a U.S. company. However, instead of overseeing the business, the business can recruit the foreign national to come to the U.S. to provide “specialized knowledge” about a “product, service, research, equipment, techniques, management, or other interests.” 
For example, if a restaurant chain has ordered a new line of fryers made in Taiwan, the owner can hire one of the engineers or salespeople to visit the restaurant chains and provide hands-on trainings on how to operate, troubleshoot, and clean the equipment.
The terms for the period of stay in the U.S. on the L-1B visa are the same as the L-1A visa. Both of these visas allow spouses and children younger than 21 to come to the U.S. on an L-2 visa.
Finding the right work visa is only the first step in starting your journey of hiring new employees or finding a job in the U.S. This process can be complex, so it’s important that you have a trusted business immigration attorney by your side to guide you to success. Eagan Immigration’s business attorney, Hannah Whaley, is experienced in helping clients apply for work visas. Click this link or call our office at (202) 709-6439 to schedule a consultation with Attorney Whaley.
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