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Guidelines for Foreign Nationals Seeking Employment on U.S. Farms

6 minute read

By Hayley Harrison

Turnover among agricultural workers is extremely high in the U.S. and can take a serious financial toll on farm businesses.1 Many farms struggle to find Americans who are willing to accept positions for seasonal agricultural work, and those who do often don’t remain in their positions until the end of the harvest.

To address labor shortages in the agricultural sector, the U.S. developed the H-2A program. It allows farmers and farm businesses to hire foreign workers for short-term employment and streamlines the immigration process to get them employed and working on farms where they’re needed as quickly as possible. If you’re a foreign worker seeking employment on U.S. farms, understanding the guidelines for this program can assist you with your job search.

Aldo Pavan / Getty Images

What Is the H-2A Visa Program?

The H-2A Visa Program allows eligible farms to hire foreign workers to fill open positions on their farms on a temporary basis in specific circumstances. Usually, obtaining a temporary visa to work in the U.S. is a time-consuming, complicated process, but the H-2A visa makes it much easier to seek employment. In this way, the program allows farms to meet their staffing needs and ensure they have foreign workers on-site and ready to work when needed. Roughly 10 percent of all agricultural work is performed by H-2A via holders, and the U.S. government hopes to increase the work share over the next decade.2

What Farms Are Eligible?

Not every farm can participate in the H-2A Visa Program. To be eligible, a farm must offer a seasonal or temporary job that lasts for less than a year. It must also prove that it first tried to hire U.S. workers who are qualified and willing to do the work. Farm businesses must also demonstrate that the money paid to visa holders won’t negatively impact the amount of pay or the working conditions of U.S. workers. For example, a farm can’t cut the hourly pay for U.S. workers to hire foreign nationals.

What Workers Are Eligible?

Like agricultural employers, foreign workers must meet eligibility requirements to qualify for an H-2A visa. The Department of Homeland Security publishes a list of eligible countries of origin each year.3 If you’re not from one of the countries on the list, you won’t be able to participate. Although your visa application will be expedited, you’ll still undergo a vetting process. If you were convicted of certain crimes, were previously imprisoned or outstayed a previous visa, your application may be denied.4 Unintentional errors, incomplete applications or false information can also result in a denial.

Finding Employment Is the First Step

Under the rules of the H-2A program, you can’t apply for a visa until you’ve received an offer of employment from an agricultural business with an H-2A classification. This means that you’ll likely need to look for work while you’re still in your home country. Once you find a position, the agricultural business completes an application called Form I-129 to request that you be issued a visa. Completed forms go to the employer’s closest U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center for processing.5


One of the simplest ways to find a farm with H-2A classification is to use, a free website managed by the U.S. Department of Labor. When you arrive at the home page, you’ll find a search box where you can enter “farm worker” or “laborer.” You can also enter a city or state if you wish to limit your search to a certain geographic area. Click on any job to find out the hourly pay, the start and end dates and a complete job description. To apply, follow the instructions in the job posting.6

Applying for the H-2A Visa

After an employer has filed Form I-129 on your behalf, you’re ready to apply for your H-2A visa. Normally, you’ll need to visit a U.S. Department of State office in your home country. Typically, these offices are in U.S. Embassies and Consulates. Unfortunately, you usually must apply in person and can’t file the necessary paperwork online. Call ahead to set up an appointment and find out what you need to bring with you to apply. Once you have a visa, you can seek entry into the U.S. at a port of entry.7

Do You Have to Pay Fees to Get Work With an H-2A Visa?

When you apply for an H-2A visa, you usually pay a consulate fee of around $200. The U.S. government may assess an agent fee of around $100, and you may have to pay a $6 fee to receive your border stamp at your point of entry.8 Your employer will be responsible for reimbursing you for these fees when issuing your first paycheck. Under federal laws, employers can’t charge you any fees directly for processing, certification, job placement or room and board. They also can’t confiscate your passport and demand you pay a fee to get it back at the end of your employment.

How Long Can You Stay?

The H-2A Visa program is only for temporary work. An employer can only hire you for a period of a year or less. However, you’re free to seek employment at another farm that has an H-2A classification at the end of your contract. Rules of the visa program allow you to remain employed in the U.S. for up to three years. After that time, you won’t be able to renew your H-2A visa. You have the option to return home between work placements. The time spent in your home country won’t count against the three-year maximum stay.

Understanding the 75% Rule

The H-2A program requires that your employer let you work at least 75 percent of the time covered by your contract period. This prevents farms from bringing in foreign workers and forcing them to serve as unpaid backup labor. For an example of the rule, imagine an employer hires you for 10 weeks and has a weekly work schedule of five, eight-hour days. Over 10 weeks working full time, you would get paid for 400 hours. The 75 percent rule says that the employer would need to allow you to work at least 300 (400 x 0.75) hours during the contract.9

Bringing Your Family to the U.S. With You

You normally won’t have to leave your immediate family behind while working on a farm with an H-2A Visa. The law allows your spouse and any unmarried children that you have under the age of 21 years to accompany you. Each eligible member of your family will need to receive an H-4 Visa. The process for obtaining one is similar to the H-2A Visa in that they will need to visit a U.S. Embassy or Consulate to apply. Keep in mind that H-4 Visa holders can’t legally work during their time in the U.S.

Where Will You Live While Working on a U.S. Farm?

Laws governing the H-2A Visa Program require your employer to provide housing for you at no extra cost. The housing can be on-site, provided it meets all federal, state and local safety standards. Alternatively, your employer can rent you an apartment or put you up in a hotel or motel. Any expenses for utilities must also be paid by the farm. Your employer must also provide you with three meals every day or provide you with kitchen facilities and food to make your own meals. Your employer is not responsible for housing and feeding your family.

Transportation and Travel Expenses

As with housing, transportation costs are generally the responsibility of your employer. Normally, you’ll need to pay for the cost to travel to the U.S. yourself. Once you complete 50 percent of the contract, your employer must then reimburse you for the transportation costs. They’ll also need to pay for your return trip to your home country, unless you secure work with another H-2A-classified employer. If your housing isn’t on the farm, your employer must also provide free transportation to and from the job site.

Your Rights Under the Law

As a participant in the H-2A Visa program, U.S. law protects your rights. An employer can’t refuse to pay you or suddenly change the terms of your contract after you arrive. If at any time you have questions about your rights or wish to file a complaint, you can contact the closest Wage and Hour Division office.10 Understanding the key points above is the first step toward gaining lucrative employment on a U.S. farm as a foreigner.

Hayley Harrison


Hayley Harrison is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After receiving a degree in the History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh, she changed gears and pursued a career in banking. In 2002, she began producing financial literacy articles, and eventually moved to writing full-time on a variety of subjects, including health, food, travel and career planning.


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