Work Permits vs. Business Visas: What’s the Difference?

Last Updated on October 18, 2023

Work permits vs. business visas. They might sound similar, but they serve distinct purposes for international travelers.

Employers can send employees to different countries for various corporate activities, including attending conferences, training, networking and work projects. Work permits and business visas grant foreign nationals legal entry into a foreign country to conduct activities, but the two have distinct purposes.

Business visas generally only allow holders to participate in tasks that are not considered work or gainful employment, while work permits grant holders the ability to perform services considered productive work in the host location.

Understanding the difference: work permits vs. business visas 

What is a business visa? 

Government authorities issue business visas to travelers who intend to conduct permissible business activities and attend meetings that do not constitute labor or employment in a specific country.

Common activities performed on a business visa include:

  • Attending meetings
  • Attending business events/conferences
  • Investigating business opportunities and ventures

The most critical element is that business visas typically involve only business logistics and relations, not labor or services.

However, the permissions granted to a holder of a business visa differ from country to country. For instance, some countries allow business visa holders to perform the installation of goods (hardware, machinery) after a sale, while other countries may require a work permit for this same service. Some countries even offer foreign nationals of select countries the option to conduct permissible business activities without requiring a visa.

Business visas are also often different from work permits as they are only granted for a temporary short-term period while, generally, work permits can be granted for longer periods. Many business visas are valid for 30 to 90 days within a 180-day period. However, some business visas are granted for as little as 15 days or for periods longer than 90 days.

The conditions of entry often vary as well, with some business visas permitting multiple entries into the country of issuance throughout the duration of its validity.

What is a work permit? 

Government authorities issue work permits to foreign nationals who earn an income or compensation through work performed overseas or provide temporary services in the host location. Productive work in this context is defined differently depending on the activity and the host country.

Common reasons to apply for a work permit:

  • Obtaining full-time or part-time employment
  • Project-based activity
  • Working under contract
  • Transferred from a host entity to an affiliated entity located in another country

Work permits allow foreign nationals to engage in paid work, contracted labor, or any activity that a country would interpret as requiring an income or compensation. The duration of a work permit varies significantly from country to country, with some remaining valid for six months or as long as a year or more.

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The process for obtaining a work permit is generally longer and more in-depth than a business visa, and the timeline and application processes vary greatly by country. Ultimately, each country has different requirements to apply for a work permit, so before moving forward with the permit application process for an employee, be sure to consult with your legal team to determine what the country of interest interprets as “work.”

Work permits and business visas in the U.S. 

The Department of State issues visas used for entry into the U.S.

The B-1 visa for Business Visitors allows individuals to take short trips to the U.S. to conduct business matters such as meetings and attending conferences.

On the other hand, foreign nationals seeking work authorization in the U.S. can apply for various temporary work visas. Each has different eligibility criteria based on the type of work being performed.

Entry permissions and terms differ based on the destination country and the traveler’s background. Envoy’s Global Legal Team helps clients determine which work authorization is most appropriate and, based on that determination, outlines what documents are required and how to navigate the resulting process.

Check Envoy’s global mobility resource center for additional information on business visas, work authorizations and global travel considerations.

Content in this publication is for informational purposes only and not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an attorney at one of the two U.S. Law Firms working with the Envoy Platform or another qualified professional. On non-U.S. immigration issues, consult an Envoy global immigration service provider or another qualified representative