Immigration for the Physical Therapist

In 1996 the Immigration Act was amended to require certification for the admission of healthcare professionals who are coming to the U.S. to practice in their fields. One such profession is the Physical Therapist occupation. The certification process, commonly known as a visa screen, is meant to ensure that the workers have the professional knowledge necessary to complete the duties of a Physical Therapist and competency in the English language.

This certification is required for both immigrant and nonimmigrant Physical Therapists. The INS, to date, has not issued regulations implementing this revision in the law as it applies to nonimmigrant Physical Therapist. As a result both the State Department and the BCIS (formerly the INS) have waived this requirement for nonimmigrant Physical Therapist in the U.S.

The typical nonimmigrant visa category used by Physical Therapists is the H-1B category. An H-1B Physical Therapist is petitioned by an employer to work in the U.S. for a temporary period of time capped at six years. The BCIS has since issued proposed regulations that would do away with the blanket waiver and require Physical Therapists to obtain a visa screen in order to qualify for H-1B status. These regulations have not been implemented yet and are undergoing a review of comments by the public.

For the time being, Physical Therapists may still obtain the blanket waiver when coming to work in the U.S. in H-1B status. Because Physical Therapy is a licensed healthcare profession, the BCIS is still requiring proof of state licensure in the area of intended employment before it approves an H-1B petition filed by an employer.

For many employers and the Physical Therapists, this is a practical impossibility. The foreign worker is typically overseas and has not sat for the state licensing exam. Furthermore, those in the U.S. who have sat for an exam usually require a social security number in order for an unrestricted state license to be issued to them. The majority of the states will inform the Physical Therapy candidate that he has passed the licensing exam and will be issued his license when he furnishes a social security number. The Social Security Administration, however, will only issue a social security number to nonimmigrants who have BCIS approval for work. This presents a Catch 22. The BCIS will only issue authorization if the Physical Therapist has an unrestricted license. The state licensing agency will only issue the license if the Physical Therapist has a social security number. The Social Security Administration, in turn, will only issue the social security number if the Physical Therapist has a BCIS authorization.

In answer to this problem, the BCIS has agreed to issue the H-1B for one year in which the Physical Therapist should obtain the license. The Physical Therapist must demonstrate that he has met all the requirements necessary to sit for the licensing exam-education, practical hours, etc.-and the only obstacle to obtaining the license is the requirement of a social security number. With the one-year approval, the Physical Therapist will then be able to obtain a social security number.

It is important for those Physical Therapists who wish to work in the U.S. in H-1B status to verify that they meet all the requirements to sit for the licensing exam in the state in which the wish to practice. Each state has its own requirements and what may apply for one, may not necessarily apply for another.

Physical Therapist who wish to immigrate to the U.S. face the additional requirement of obtaining a visa screen. The occupation is recognized as a shortage in the U.S. and because of this, it is one of the fastest ways to obtain legal permanent residency (the “green card”). The visa screen program is comprised of an educational analysis, licensure validation, English language proficiency assessment, and an exam of physical therapy knowledge. Once the applicant has successfully completed all elements of the Visa Screen program, the applicant is awarded a Visa Screen Certificate, which can be presented to a consular office, or in the case of adjustment of status, the BCIS as part of an immigrant visa application.

There are presently two institutions authorized to issue visa screens for Physical Therapists. One is the CGFNS Certification Program, and the other is the Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy (FCCP). Applicants must be licensed in their home country in order to qualify for a visa screen. The only exception is for a physical therapists who was educated in a country other than hi home country and could not be licensed in the country educated in because of that. For instance, a citizen of the Philippines who studied physical therapy in Singapore may be excepted from the licensing requirement.

The physical therapist must also demonstrate proficiency in the English language. The TOEFL exam is the only acceptable language exam at this time. Applicants must score a 560 (or 220 computerized) with a Test of Written English (TWE) score of 4.5, and a Test of Spoken English (TSE) score of 50. The only exception to the TOEFL exam is for those who received their physical therapy degrees from the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Canada (except for Quebec).

Immigrating to the U.S. as a Physical Therapist, or coming as a nonimmigrant employee has several requirements. While these can be seen as large obstacles, it is not impossible to immigrate to the U.S. Because this profession is such a shortage in the U.S., there are many achievable opportunities for foreigners. Seasoned immigration practitioners can help you navigate through the requirements with relative ease and ensure you meet all the requirements. The process is complex, but knowledgeable immigration practitioners have assisted many Physical Therapists obtain nonimmigrant authorization and green cards.