The airlines in the United States are on an unprecedented hiring spree. In 2021, according to FAPA.aero, the eleven largest US carriers hired over 5,400 pilots! That did not include all the smaller Part 121 airlines, nor the Part 135 operators. As airlines continue to hire, they are looking increasingly at more creative ways to fill their open pilot positions. One way to do so is to hire foreign pilots.
There are many different visas programs, including F-1, M-1, H1-B, E-3, EB-2, etc. Although we will review some of the more common ones here, we have dedicated an entire chapter in The Airline Transition Manual to help you understand the requirements of each immigration program and assist you in making the transition to flying for a US carrier.
F-1: This visa may be issued to a foreign student to become a professional pilot and afterwards, teach and continue to build flight time.
M-1: This visa allows foreign pilots to take flight training in a specific FAA-approved course. Note: if you take a CFI course, this might qualify you to work while teaching and continue to build flight time, similar to F-1.
H1-B: This Special Occupations visa is not easy to obtain as it is used by many industries to attract foreign workers and there are various caps for issuance. It is open to all nationalities but requires a sponsor (a company that is willing to hire you). According to myvisajobs.com, SkyWest Airlines hired the most H1-B visa pilots in 2019 (29 total).
E-3: This Specialty Occupation Workers from Australia visa is only for Australian citizens who are already pilots (with an FAA or Australian ATP), as well as a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent). You must also have a legitimate job offer. There are a variety of different airlines who use the E-3 visas to hire pilots, including CommuteAir, Mesa, SkyWest, and Frontier Airlines. However, you are not usually eligible for employment at the major airlines, as they do not hire pilots who are not US citizens or possess a green card. Be aware that during COVID, and the subsequent reduction in flying, some of these E-3 visas were not renewed. Also, an E-3 is not a path for obtaining a green card.
EB-2: The National Interest Waiver (NIW) visa program is generally used to attract foreigners who have advanced degrees (or equivalent) and possess exceptional skillsets. It does however allow for a pathway towards permanent resident status. Various law firms have recently advertised their legal assistance to pilots for securing an EB-2 visa. Though it is unclear how many pilots are actually operating under an EB-2 visa.
Should I hire an immigration attorney service to assist me? Yes. Absolutely. Do not go about this alone. One misstep and you might be delayed for months. As the E-3 visa is tied to a specific company, they might have a connection with a law firm. For the H1-B and EB-2, we highly recommend you contact several law firms who specialize in this type of visa.
Beyond flight training and securing a visa, have you ever lived abroad? If this is the first time you have ventured outside your home country, you might want to take a trip first to see if you actually like being in the US - it’s a big country with a lot of regional as well as geographical differences. Most pilot jobs in the US will require you to live here, so make sure you and your family understand this. And in order to help you prepare for working as a pilot and living in the US, The Airline Transition Manual is full of resources and helpful advice from opening a bank account and getting a social security card, to commuting, scheduling, reserve, and surviving your first year on the line.
In sum, while you have the skills currently to fly an aircraft, there is far more work involved to get you to the US and flying for an airline. Let our manual help you.