Foreign Nationals: How You Can Live In Hawaii, Too

Posted Jun 3, 2011 at 4:40pm
Students wearing backpacks walk across a lawn on a college campus.

Kapiolani Community College in Honolulu is just one of many approved schools in Hawaii that foreign nationals may attend on a student visa. (Photo credit: Kyle Nishioka)

Surprise, surprise: Americans citizens aren’t the only ones who want to move to Hawaii. During fiscal year 2009, nearly 7,000 green-card holders took up residency in the state (source: 2009 State of Hawaii Data Book). Among those 7,000 new residents, the most common countries of birth were:

The Philippines – 4,013
China – 605
Japan – 534
South Korea – 264
Vietnam – 213
Thailand – 100
Canada – 95
Brazil – 85
Mexico – 66
Tonga – 61

If you’re a foreign national who longs to live in Hawaii, there are several ways you can make that happen, even without a green card (permanent resident status). Some visas are much easier to get than others, and the type you get will determine how long you’ll be able to reside legally in Hawaii and if you’ll be allowed to get a job during your stay.

Visitor Visa

A visitor visa is probably the easiest type of visa to get, and if you’re coming from one of the 35 countries that participates in the Visa Waiver Program, you won’t need a visa at all — just pack your bags, grab your passport, and come to Hawaii.

Here’s the catch: The longest you’ll be able to stay in Hawaii is three months, and you won’t be able to work if you’re on the B-2 (“tourist”) visa.

Student Visa

Another visa that’s fairly easy to get is a student visa. To be eligible, you must enroll in an approved school and take at least 18 hours per week of coursework. When you apply for a student visa, you can also apply for a separate but related visa that will allow you to bring your spouse and children with you to Hawaii. Once you receive your visa, you’ll be allowed to remain in Hawaii until your approved course of study is finished.

Exchange Visitor Visa

Exchange visitor visas are designed to allow people from all over the world to share their culture and knowledge with other countries. To obtain this type of visa, you must be accepted into a certified Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

The programs are administered by institutions across the globe, some of which are in Hawaii. However, just because you are accepted into a program doesn’t mean you will be assigned to the location in Hawaii.

Like the student visa, the exchange visitor visa allows your spouse and children to accompany you to Hawaii on a related visa. You are allowed to remain in Hawaii for the duration of your exchange program.

Temporary Worker Visa

Temporary worker visas can be more difficult to get than the previously discussed visas, because they require a prospective employer to file a petition on your behalf. That petition must then be approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services before you can even apply for the visa.

The payoff for jumping through these hoops is that you’ll be allowed to earn money during your stay in Hawaii, which will last as long as you work for your sponsoring employer.

Immigrant Visa (Green Card)

Immigrant visas — also known as green cards — are the hardest to get. But once you have one, you can reside in Hawaii permanently and change jobs whenever you like. In most cases, to apply for a green card, you must be sponsored by a prospective employer or a family member who is a U.S. citizen or green-card holder.

Roughly 140,000 employment-based green cards are granted each year. The five categories of workers who are eligible to apply are (in order of preference):

  1. Those with national or international acclaim in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; internationally recognized professors and researchers; and multinational managers or executives.
  2. Professionals holding a post-baccalaureate degree or a baccalaureate degree plus five years of experience in their profession; and people with extraordinary abilities in the sciences, arts, or business.
  3. Skilled workers in jobs requiring two years of training or work experience; professionals in jobs requiring at least a baccalaureate degree; and unskilled workers in jobs requiring less than two years of training or work experience.
  4. Certain special immigrants, including broadcasters, religious workers, physicians, Armed Forces members, Iraqi/Afghan translators, and more.
  5. People who invest $500,000-$1 million (depending on the unemployment rate in the geographic area) in a business that creates at least 10 full-time jobs for U.S. workers, not including the investor and their family.

Green cards can also be sponsored by certain family members. Those eligible for family-based green cards are (in order of preference):

  1. Spouses, unmarried children under 21, adopted orphans, and parents of a U.S. citizen. If you are a parent of a U.S. citizen, your child must be at least 21 years old to sponsor you.
  2. Unmarried children age 21 and over — and any of their own minor children — of a U.S. citizen.
  3. Spouses, minor children, and unmarried children age 21 and over of green-card holders.
  4. Married children — and their spouses and own minor children — of a U.S. citizen.
  5. Siblings — and their spouses and minor children — of a U.S. citizen age 21 and over.

Because there are more qualified applicants than available green cards per year (except for the first-preference category, which doesn’t have an annual limit), most family-based green-card applicants must wait for years until it’s their turn (based on the date they filed their application) to get the next available green card in their category.