You want to bartend in the USA? How to obtain a visa
Words by Rebekkah Dooley
Frank Sinatra sang about it, Salinger wrote about it, Jay Z rapped about it and as far as bars go, it’s London’s biggest antagonist. The rivalry between the world’s two greatest two cocktail capitals is steeped in history, widely documented and far from over, making The Big Apple an alluring prospect and an appealing learning experience for those intrigued by the late nights, big tips and the 118,000 licensed premises of NYC.
In spite of the current political climate, bartenders are on the move. Hospitality has long been a trade that affords us the luxury of travel, but what about relocating? From visas to vocabulary, subways to service; we spoke to bartenders, bar owners, consultants, an immigration lawyer and a property broker to compile the guide we wish we'd been given before crossing the pond.
Whether you're chasing your name on a Tales plate, stealing intelligence for your hometown or attempting to take down the opposition, the move to New York requires one thing: preparation. The teeth are whiter, brighter and straighter, there's sugar in the bread and most of your colloquialisms will be met with a dead stare. People will accost you in the street (just to say hello) and whilst they will fawn over your accent, you might find yourself adopting an American twang just to avoid attention. Garnishes aren't really a thing, the metric system is out, the milk lasts forever (weird) and there's air conditioning on the Subway. You're in the USA.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that Gary Regan discovered America, seeing as he moved here in 1973. "I was fully intending to spend two years bartending in The Big Apple before heading back to sunny Lancashire to start 'a real job' of some sort" he explains "New Yorkers told me if you last two years, you'll never leave. Four decades and four years later, I'm still here." He's also won three Spirited Awards and has been published in over 15 countries. "If you move to New York fuckin' City there's a fair chance you may never live anywhere else for the rest of your life." You've been warned.
Tom Walker, formerly of The American Bar at the Savoy in London, came to NYC shortly after his Bacardi Legacy victory to join the Attaboy team before moving to Fresh Kills. "There's a big chance that those who you work with (or for) won't care about your past experiences, work or otherwise. You're starting from scratch." Jack McGarry, co-founder of The Dead Rabbit, agrees, "If you come over expecting things to fall in your lap because of a job you had in Europe, you're going to be disappointed. New York doesn't give two hoots about your history. It cares about today and tomorrow."
Jack's move to America was a tumultuous experience; "The first two years of being here were the toughest of my life. There's a difficulty with integrating into New York City, becoming a small fish in the biggest of ponds. Some people expect it to be the same as London but it's a monster. If you're not mentally prepared, it will eat you up and spit you out." Jack and partner Sean Muldoon somewhat embody the American dream, having arrived with an idea and little else. With the World's Best Bar, an award winning book and a second venue, BlackTail, to their names, what sets them apart? "We came here with the end in mind. If you have a clear vision of what you want and are prepared to dig in and make it happen, you will succeed. It might take a few months or a few years but persistence and discipline always get rewarded here." Says Jack.
With the romanticized sentiment surrounding the idea of New York, it can be tempting to ask "Just how different can it be?" Irishman Philip Duff moved himself and his award-winning firm Liquid Solutions to NYC from Holland in 2012. As well as continuing to advise liquor brands on on-trade marketing & education, Duff serves as Director of Education for Tales of The Cocktail, and will soon launch his eponymous Old Duff Genever. "It's a real city," he explains "It's where you come to make it, and not really for anything else. You can make the mistake of thinking it is just like other cities, such as London or Los Angeles, which are essentially collections of villages that have grown together where people do a bit of work now and then. New York is not like that." He elaborates "it's a fantastic place to live if you've made it or are hustling to make it, and not quite so nice if you fancy the easy life."
Philip is quick to point out that "Whilst we speak English in The States and have Netflix, the similarities end there." That includes the vocabulary. Midday and fortnight are not words that make sense, likewise "Half past the hour" — use numbers. Americans literally don't know what a queue is, a biscuit is a scone and a cookie is a biscuit, the chocolate isn't (proper) chocolate, and you'd be well advised to bring your own tea and crumpets. Whilst America is super advanced in many ways, they still use cheques (checks) to pay wages and rent. Don't make the mistake of laughing when the clerk asks if you need a check book. You do. Most of our insults don't translate, both a blessing and a hindrance when calling someone a "bloody prick"... "huh?". Don't order a flat white, a CV is a resume, a rota is a schedule, and forget about car boots, pavements, rubbish, lifts, spring onions, aubergines, coriander, jumpers, trainers, mobiles, flats, lorries and trollies, and prepare to double fist... your drinks.
Be prepared for bigger drinks, the kind you'd expect at Duke's London, because as with everything in America, the cocktails are supersized. Nathan O'Neill moved from 69 Colebrooke Row to The NoMad Bar in 2015, where he currently serves as their Head Bartender. "In New York drinks like the Manhattan and the Martini are proportionally bigger, usually around 3oz minus dilution, compared to the UK's average of 70ml minus dilution." And although Americans are known for sweet drinks, they also have a penchant for classics. Jack McGarry explains "The USA is a relatively new country, and they like to celebrate their culture. They've grown up with these drinks in their literature, on their screens and in music." Nathan elaborates "The perception of taste is different everywhere you go in the world and every culture is different. I will say that New York has opened my eyes to so many new ways not only to create drinks but balance them too."
With America's tipping culture, you stand to make decent bank. Whilst the money is better and the weeks are shorter, the hours are longer and your outgoings stand to be higher. According to The Economist's Cost of Living Report, New York is the ninth most expensive city in the world, with London placing 24th. "If you aren't nailed down to one spot and need to pick up other shifts, put yourself out there." Says Tom Walker. Whilst a 20% gratuity is customary in high end bars, it's not guaranteed. Tom explains "If for whatever reason you get a shitty tip (or you don't get tipped at all), tough, you gotta eat it. Tipping isn't a right or a privilege. Good service is absolutely unconditional here. Serving people and attracting regulars is an art form in this city; don't take it for granted." Everything in New York is a commodity, including your well-being. Healthcare is pricey and should be factored in to budgeting - evasion comes with a $600 fine. Better start practicing service with a smile.
Whilst rental prices in London and New York are similar, the set-up costs in NY are significantly higher. Jimmi Circosta is a broker at Citi Habitats and specializes in international relocation. "Before you apply to live anywhere, you need a bank account and a letter from your employer. You'll be expected to pay a non-refundable processing fee upon application, which can be anything from $0 to $250, depending on the landlord." Jimmi explains that whilst cases can vary, the basic letting process requires "One months security, one months rent, and a broker's fee of 15% of the annual rent, to be paid upon signing the contract." To summarize: if your rent is $1,400 per month, you'll have to pay $5,500 before moving in.
Jimmi advises "When looking for a property, the landlord is going to expect you to earn 40x the monthly rent. If you've never had a bank account in the US and have no US credit, you may need a guarantor, who is required to earn 80x the annual rent." The time of year can also affect what's on the market; "November to March is our quiet period and April is when it starts to get busy again," explains Jimmi, and whilst Brooklyn is becoming increasingly desirable "The most coveted zip codes belong to the West Village, Soho and TriBeCa." Consider the subway when moving; living on the same line as work is going to save you valuable travel time, and afford you a better lie-in.
Be smart, Lawyer up. Lorcan Shannon is an Irish immigration lawyer based in NYC, and is responsible for approximately 80% of the expat hospitality community in the US. He comes highly recommended by, well, everyone; and whilst you probably know someone who bartended here without a visa a few years ago and thinks they're super cool for doing so, that person is probably now banned from the country. "Working on a tourist visa is illegal and overstaying your welcome for more than a year can result in a ten year ban" explains Lorcan. Whilst the UK is not listed on President Trump's hotly disputed executive order, premium processing has been cancelled, and recently leaked documents suggest that all visas are going to be coming under increased scrutiny. Below, Lorcan summarizes the visa options available to hospitality professionals, outlining what's required, realistic timespans, and how much it'll cost. Consider this your free consultancy.
The J-1 visa is a cultural exchange program between the United States and foreign countries to bring trainees to the United States. There are two types of J-1 visas. The first category is a trainee J-1 visa. To qualify the trainee must have at least five years experience working in their field, a Bachelor's degree or a recognized equivalent with at least one year of experience. Workers who come to the United States on a J-1 trainee visa, may train in the United States for a hotel or restaurant for a period of 12 months. The J-1 trainee visa allows the foreign worker to develop their skills, gain experience, and return to their home countries taking those skills with them. The second category is for interns, who are in post-secondary education in their home country or have graduated within one year of obtaining the visa. Interns may come to the United States for a one year period to train in a hotel or restaurant. It takes approximately six weeks for this visa to get approved by the Department of State. The fees for the J-1 visa are approximately $3,000.00 including legal and government filing fees.
The H-1B Visa is a non-immigrant visa which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign professionals in specialty occupations for three years, extendable to six years. To qualify for H-1B Visa, the foreign professional must hold a bachelor's or higher degree from an accredited college or university in the specialty occupation. The key requirement for the H-1B is that the candidate is doing a job that requires a specific degree and that the candidate has that degree. This visa can be a good option for those with a degree in hospitality management or a related field who are coming to the U.S. to work at a managerial level in hospitality. The window to apply for H-1B visas opens on April 1st each year. The fees for the H-1B are approximately $4,500.00 including legal and government fees.
The O-1 non-immigrant visa is for the individual who possesses extraordinary ability in their field of endeavor. The O-1 visa can be the perfect option for chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, and other front of house staff of renowned ability. For instance, in order for a chef to qualify for an O-1 visa, they must prove they are a culinary artist of distinction who is renowned, leading, or well-known in the field. To qualify for the O-1, candidates would need to collect evidence such as publications about their work as well as testimonials from peers in the industry confirming their acclaim. The O-1 visa allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign professionals for three years, with the potential to renew the visa indefinitely. The fees for the O-1 visa are approximately $5,500.00 including legal and government fees.
The Treaty Investor (E-2) visa is a non-immigrant visa for nationals of a country with which the United States maintains a treaty of commerce and navigation, intended for those who are coming to the United States to carry on substantial trade, or to develop and direct the operations of an enterprise, or who are in the process of investing a substantial amount of capital. The E-2 visa allows hospitality workers to travel to the U.S. to direct the operations of restaurants, hotels, bars etc. for a period of five years. This is renewable indefinitely. The E-2 is typically used by foreign nationals looking to open and invest in a bar or restaurant in the U.S. Businesses owned by E-2 visa holders can also obtain E-2 visas for nationals of the same country as the owner. The employees should be in a managerial or specialized position. The fees for the E-2 are approximately $5,000 for the initial investor and approximately $1,000 for subsequent employees.
Living in New York is a bewitching, beguiling and for the most part magical experience. Visit for a holiday, move here to work, but don't ever expect it to be a walk in Central Park. In the words of Gary Regan "I envy your New York Experience, it was the best thing that ever happened to me."