So, You’re on a Spouse Visa: Things to Know

The expat Pryces from ‘Mad Men’ (Photo: AMC)

If you’re Brit married to someone (although not, alas, a same-sex partner) on a non-immigrant visa, you’ll most likely have been fixed up with some form of spousal or dependents’ permit.

The most famous (and notoriously restrictive) of these is the H4, which is granted to the husbands, wives and children of foreign professionals on an H category visa. U.S. immigration demands that, for the duration of their stay in the country, H4 holders live entirely as dependents. This means, no matter what an individual’s qualifications or willingness to become a paid up, tax-paying temporary resident, they’re banned from getting a job — or performing any paid work — while using this visa to enter the U.S. (Though, there are a few ways to pull in an income without a work visa.)

Fair enough, you might think. Why should one foreign national’s U.S. work visa automatically be upgraded to a two-for-one just because they happen to be married? But the grumble of many job-ready H4 visa holders is that they’re also banned from working remotely for companies back in their home nation. Freelancing, or even continuing to run a business abroad with no trading links to the U.S., would be a violation of the terms of the H4. “Does America not want my tax dollars?” asked one such “H4 wife” – a copy editor with 10 years’ experience – who I chatted with at an expat event. Because any income – even money earned abroad – is taxed in the U.S. if you live on American soil.

These same dependents aren’t allowed to apply for a social security number — although they can get an Individual Taxpayer Identification number to use when filing their tax return, which means that (depending on state law) they often can’t do the things the most of us take for granted, like opening a bank account, learning to drive or converting their existing license to one recognized by their home state. If you’re a dependent living, say, in rural Idaho, this is far from ideal.

Some, however, may see their H4 status as a blessing. They’re happy to have an excuse not to get a job so they can concentrate on raising a family, homemaking, volunteering or getting an education. Thankfully, those last two are allowed under the terms of the H4, with the caveat that foreign national volunteers may not take jobs that might have been offered as a paid position to a U.S. citizen.

If you’re still in the U.K. debating whether or not you could cope with the H4 life, then please take the time think it over and read as much as you can on the subject. And if, after talking it over with your loved ones, you decide that you couldn’t live as a dependent, then maybe you shouldn’t make the move across the pond. Presumably, your spouse wants to take a job in the U.S. to build you both a better life. However huge the paycheck, this simply won’t happen if one of you is miserable.

Are you on a spouse’s visa? We’d love to hear your experience and any advice you might have for Brits in the same position.

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Sarah T.

    I am here on a spouse’s visa. Thankfully it’s an L2 visa which meant I could apply for a work permit after 3 months, get a social security number, drivers license etc. My husbands company and legal people sorted the whole thing out, I had no idea the H4 was even an option! Anyone looking to move to States…. DO IT! Best move we ever made, once we got through all the red tape and boring paperwork!

  • Pauline Wiles

    We moved here 8 years ago(!!) so I’m rusty on all this, but like Sarah T, I believe my visa was the L kind also, and my work permit wait was only about 3 months. Much easier to deal with than the H picture painted above!

  • Chritine

    I am also on an L2 visa and work part time- legally, although when applying for the work permit it cost about $300! I have a social security number and a driver’s license, those were sorted by my husband’s company but we had to sort the work permit. We are loving it here but go back to UK in March next year.

  • Ramon

    I have an H-1B visa and my wife has an H4. Problem starts that:
    – She can’t open a bank account. She can use mine though.
    – She can’t get a credit card, she can use my account also.
    – She’s having trouble for obtaining a driver’s license, which we need, not an option.
    – The work, she misses. She’s a fully qualified professional and can’t get work due to the visa.
    Any guidance on how we:
    – Can get a driver’s license is welcome.

  • H4