Physical Therapists – Frequently Asked Questions

Graduation time for Physical Therapists (PTs) is closely approaching. I know that this is an exciting time for graduates and the question of what shall I do next is the foremost on many minds. This can be a frightening time for many who are not sure where opportunity now lies for them. Physical Therapy is a noble profession and graduating with a degree in this field is itself an accomplishment. For many PTs, with a sense of adventure and a longing to see the world, opportunity will take them overseas to work in their field. The United States is one country which has a heavy demand for the PT skill set. I have decided to dedicate a column exclusively to common questions raised by Filipino Physical Therapists who wish to immigrate or work in the U.S. These questions include the following very good queries.

I am a physical therapist (PT) and I hear that it takes the U.S. Consulate in Manila over two years to process my green card application by my employer in the U.S.? Is this true, and if so how can the Consulate expect my employer to hold the job position open for two years?

The processing time for green card sponsorship does take approximately two years from start to finish. U.S. employers must first petition the USCIS (formerly the INS) for PTs to work in the U.S. Once the USCIS has approved the petition, the approval is forwarded to the U.S. Consulate in Manila. The Consulate then takes about three months to complete its processing and issue the immigrant visa.

But, PTs can come to the U.S. sooner in a nonimmigrant visa category called H-1B. The H-1B is a specialty worker visa that also needs a U.S. employer to petition the CIS. Unlike the green card, the USCIS can process the case in 15 calendar days for an additional filing fee of $1000. This is considerably faster than the normal processing time of six to eight months at the various CIS processing centers. The H-1B is usually issued in three-year increments and is capped at six years. Once the USCIS approves the petition, it sends a copy to the U.S. Consulate. The PT must then apply for the H-1B visa at the Consulate. Once the visa is issued the PT may come to the U.S. to begin working for his employer.

I am a PT in the Philippines. Is it true that in order for me to get an H-1B visa I must be licensed in the U.S.? How do I get a U.S. license if I am in the Philippines?

This is a very common concern and big misconception amongst PTs. First, a PT does not need to be licensed in the U.S. in order to get an H-1B visa. As a practical matter however, many employers in the U.S. cannot make use of a PT if the PT is not licensed in the state of intended employment. Some employers will sponsor PTs on the condition that they obtain their license as soon as possible. The licensing exams are given in the U.S. and at a few international locations such as Singapore. Because it is difficult for foreign PTs to sit for the licensing exam unless they are in the U.S., the USCIS and the State Department allow PTs to obtain a one-year H-1B visa. This allows the PT one year in which to obtain the State License. The PT must have the license in order to extend his H-1B visa status. If a license is not obtained, the H-1B extension will not be issued.

What is this visa screen that a PT has to get? When do I have to get it, and do I need one for my H-1B visa or only for my green card?

The visa screen is a mechanism meant to address the concern that PTs be able to perform at the level of U.S. workers in medical knowledge and that they can communicate in English effectively. All PTs coming to the U.S. to work as a PT, whether in H-1B status or as an immigrant (green card applicant), must obtain a visa screen certificate. This certificate is issued by either the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) or the Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy (FCCPT).

The Visa Screen evaluates the PT’s education credentials, all licenses held by the PT, and English language proficiency as determined by ETS administered tests. New regulations require that a Visa Screen issued by CGFNS or FCCPT be presented to the Consulate with the visa application. No visa may be issued without the Visa Screen. Any PT applying for a H-1B visa after June 26, 2004 will require a visa screen.

What is the English language test for PTs?

A PT can only take the English exam administered by ETS. This is a three-part exam requiring a TOEFL paper score of 560 or computer score of 220; a Test of Written English (TWE) score of 4.5; and a Test of Spoken English (TSE) score of 50. The exam scores are valid for two years. The PT may obtain a waiver of language exam if he obtained his PT education in Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, U.S., Ireland, and Canada (except Quebec).

What is the H-1B visa cap and does it affect PTs?

Immigration law limits the number of H-1B visas that may be issued in a fiscal year. As of October 1, 2003 this cap was lowered to 60,000 H-1Bs from over 100,000. The H-1B visa cap for 2004 has now been met. H-1B visas for 2005 will be available on October 1, 2004. Employers can file visa petitions on behalf of PTs as early as April 1, 2004 to capture a number from the October 1, 2004 quota. PT’s will have to compete with other specialty occupations such as Accountants, Software Engineers, Programmers, and Engineers for the 60,000 visa numbers.

There are a lot of misconceptions and myths about immigrating as a Physical Therapist, that if acted upon, can hurt one’s case. Obtaining permanent residency through sponsorship as either a nurse of physical therapist is still one of the easiest and quickest methods when done properly.

By Attorneys Robert L. Reeves and Joseph I. Elias