One of the most frustrating obstacles to deal with as an international finance hopeful is visa problems.
If you are a student at a non-U.S. school, an international student at a U.S. school or an international employee, you will have much more difficulty landing top U.S. jobs than your U.S. peers. For many junior roles, there is often enough talent available domestically that U.S. firms are often not motivated to take a chance on an international hire. International hires often require more administrative work, are more expensive (due to added legal fees), and come with more risk (due to the chance of visa being rejected).
There are a number of unique obstacles you have to face as an international candidate that U.S. candidates will never understand.
If you're an international student at a top school in the U.S. and you're on an F-1 student visa, you'll still only have 12 months after graduation to land a new visa. For investment banking, you typically need to get either an H-1B visa or a TN visa (if you're from Canada / Mexico) to work in the U.S. thereafter.
As an international candidate, you will generally always be tied to a visa whenever you are in the U.S. You will have much less certainty as you go through the recruiting process. You will always have to consider whether a firm will deny you because of your international status.
I’m not going to pretend like I have a defensible blueprint for people for every country (because there isn’t one), but I can share a couple of tips and strategies that helped me.
Please note that I am Canadian, which has one of the friendliest working agreements with the U.S. I know that I am much luckier than many people are.
By the way, if you want to maximize your chances of breaking into a top investment bank, you should start preparing with our Investment Banking Course.
Seek Legal Guidance
The very first thing you need to do is just go talk to or e-mail a lawyer to see what is even in the realm of possibility. You essentially want to find out which visa makes the most sense for you given the passport you have. Ideally, you’ll be able to speak to an immigration lawyer that has represented people in your country. Here are a couple of great immigration lawyers that I have either directly worked with or who helped with peers of mine:
Fragomen has a helpful blog that posts a lot of immigration statistics and is a resource I used a lot when recruiting.
I would essentially just do a Google search for “immigration lawyer united states [your country]” (or something to that effect) and then e-mail 10 or so lawyers. It’s unlikely they’re going to help you that much because you won’t be paying them anything, but I think you can maybe get them to answer one or two simple questions for you.
You might want to ask simple things like:
Which U.S. visa is the most common for someone with my passport and industry?
How long does it take for that kind of visa to typically be processed?
Do you know of any obvious restrictions that would prevent me from obtaining that visa?
What does the process to a green card look like for someone from my country?
Do you know of any lawyers who specialize in representing people from my country?
During my time in the U.S., I met people from many countries (commonly from Singapore, Korea, the UK, Australia, and the EU). Everyone had a different path to the U.S and the specific country you’re from will have a dramatic impact on what is available to you. There are unique nuances to each country and lawyers will know these nuances far more than anyone else.
So, by far the most important thing is to just quickly connect with a lawyer.
Lean on Alumni and People from Your Country
Secondly, you’ll want to find alumni and fellow country-people who have been in your situation. As unique as you might be, it’s highly unlikely you’re the only person who has wanted to work on Wall Street in the history of your country. There must be someone else who has walked your path, who knows which firms like your country, and which lawyer firms will go to bat for you.
Your goal is to find precedents of people who came from your country and ask them how they dealt with visa situations. Look at finance alumni who graduated from your university. Look at cultural clubs at your university and see who went to work in investment banks and private equity firms.
As a Canadian, I know for example there is a Facebook group filled with people with the TN Economist visa, which essentially is people who want to pursue finance or consulting. I found this group through a university alumnus and the group is dedicated to help people in my situation.
I also know that a group of helpful Waterloo alumni constantly update a “USA Intern” guide for Canadians, that is filled with helpful resources. If you ask around, you’re bound to find some helpful communities like the ones below:
All of this visa information is extremely nuanced and is country-specific, so it’s stuff you have to research on your own.
Focus on Firms who have Sponsored Visas in the Past
After connecting with a lawyer and speaking with some country alumni, I think the next thing to do is to narrow your focus on firms that will explicitly hire from your country.
If you can’t find a single person from your country at a given firm on LinkedIn, then there’s a good chance that that firm won't sponsor a visa for you.
Some paths and firms are much more friendly to people from different countries. For example, I know that some firms like Evercore, JP Morgan and Goldman have tended to help and hire Canadians more often than firms like Citi or Bank of America (this is why half of Ivey ends up at Evercore every year).
Here are a couple of steps / observations that might be helpful to be aware of:
Check each firm in the H1B Database
The H1B Database is a repository of all of the H1B visa entries in the U.S. The H1B is one of the most common visas in the U.S. and a great deal of finance and technology workers use it.
It’s extremely helpful to check this database to see which firms actually sponsor people for visas. It might not be a good use of your time to network with a firm that has no or very few sponsored visas.
Larger firms will generally be more open to sponsoring visas
I find that larger firms tend to be more open to sponsoring visas than smaller ones. Larger firms mean more employees and that generally means they’ve encountered a specific visa issue before. I know of many smaller buyside firms that wanted to hire someone, but encountered visa issues and didn’t want to go through the trouble of figuring out the solution.
Visas are a key reason people stay in banking vs. going to the buyside
Relatedly, one of the key advantages of staying in banking with a multinational diversified firm like Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley is that they are much better equipped to deal with legal and logistical problems. Some of the most coveted buyside roles are firms with under 20 people, where everyone went to the same two or three schools, meaning they will have very little experience dealing with an international person.
Recognize the Power of Lateraling
I think it is extremely helpful to be honest and transparent with yourself. Recruiting directly into a New York banking analyst position from an international country, especially from a non-target, is extremely, extremely hard.
It’s hard enough recruiting from a target school with an international passport, so being fully international is extremely challenging.
In my experience, banks and firms are much more likely to take a chance on an associate, experienced hire, or someone who has proven themselves to the firm. As a result, you should really recognize how common and plentiful lateral opportunities are.
We've written a full article on how to pursue off-cycle opportunities and lateral jobs.
It is much better to get some experience in a smaller finance city (like Calgary or Sydney) vs. putting all your eggs in one basket and missing out on an unlikely New York spot.
If you know you have a tough visa situation, you should really think about the lateral game. Tons of people lateral every year because there is so much attrition in investment banking and finance.
If you do well in a satellite office as an analyst, you will be one of the first people they consider when a spot opens up in New York or San Francisco for example.
Similarly, it’s better to get some investment banking experience, even if it’s with a local boutique, vs. giving up entirely.
I can think of many, many Canadians who started out in a Big 5 Canadian bank in Toronto and then lateraled to a top bulge bracket or elite boutique in New York after a year or so of working. I also know a lot of people who started in Salt Lake City with Goldman Sachs in a middle-office role and slowly climbed their way to a great buyside role.
Consider Working in International Finance Hotspots First
For some people, working in the U.S. directly out of school will simply be off the table due to their visa or personal situation. It’s good to be aware of this so you can dedicate your energy most effectively.
If your ultimate goal is still New York or San Francisco, it might still be helpful to first focus on getting anywhere in investment banking and ultimately lateraling. Many of the largest investment banks will have offices all around the globe and again are much more friendly towards internal transfers than a new hire. Here are some non-U.S. cities that will hire investment banking analysts every single year. Some of these cities might be easier to target depending on your passport. Some cities might be considered less desirable and have less competition.
London (though still very competitive)
Toronto (lots of people lateral to New York every year from Toronto)
Goldman has a number of offices around the globe and it's often easier to start in a satellite office and eventually transfer to the U.S. There are pros and cons to working at a firm's headquarters vs. a firm's satellite office.
Getting an Offer is Different from Getting a Visa
The last thing I’d like to remind you is that getting a verbal or even written offer from a firm is extremely different from getting a visa. You need to stay diligent until you actually cross the border and get visa approval before completely celebrating. Plenty of people get rejected at the border or encounter visa problems before their starting date. I can think of a couple of people who got rejected at the border and the firm had to rescind their offer.
The implication is that you should still continue to look for contingency plans and don’t completely stop networking just because you received an offer. You shouldn’t be actively looking for new work, but you want to still be reasonably sharp and prepared if something awful happens.
One common case I’ve seen this is in private equity recruiting. On-cycle recruiting is sometimes so hectic that the interviewers won’t remember to ask about your visa situation. They might give you an offer during the on-cycle process but later realize they don’t have the capacity to accommodate a visa.
These things happen all the time and border security tend to be unsympathetic and indifferent to how much you want the job.