FAPA.aero | The challenging -- and changing -- path to U.S. employment for foreign pilots

Job-Hunting Pilots

The challenging -- and changing -- path to U.S. employment for foreign pilots

By Conor Shine
June 1, 2019

For foreign pilots looking to work in the U.S., the recent hiring market might've made it seem like there's never been a better time to find a job.

And while there are many pilots born in other countries achieving their professional dreams in the U.S., there are a number of obstacles to navigate on the way there.

First off, there's the process of obtaining the certifications and training needed to work as a pilot. While this is something every aviator must do, those who've received some or all of their training abroad will have to take extra steps to have that work recognized in the U.S.

More challenging is the process of getting authorization to work in the U.S., typically through some sort of visa. U.S. airlines have been slow to tap this pipeline, and specialized visas for high-skilled workers haven't been used as widely to hire foreign pilots.

That was slowly beginning to change in 2019, but it meant that foreign pilots without other ways of obtaining work authorization, say through a permanent resident status, otherwise known as a green card, would've had trouble launching their careers in the U.S.

Getting your licenses in order

Airmen certification in the U.S. falls to the Federal Aviation Administration, which has specific rules in place when it comes to foreign licensees. Your skills developed abroad will surely help you navigate the process, but in general you'll be asked to demonstrate them anew before being granted U.S.-valid commercial or ATP certificates.

That process typically begins with an application to the FAA to verify your existing licenses and medical certifications; that process can take 45 to 90 days. It's important that your flight licenses are issued by a state that's party to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, which gave rise to the international aviation regulatory body ICAO.

Foreign pilots seeking an ATP certificate will be required to undergo at least 30 hours of classroom instruction and receive a graduation certificate from an FAA-authorized flight school. The pilot will also have to complete check rides in order to earn the needed type ratings.

Navigating a complex immigration system

Unfortunately, having the necessary skills and training can mean little for your job prospects without permission to work in the U.S.

That means navigating an alphabet soup of different visa types to see if any apply to your situation. To make things even more complicated, shifting control in Washington D.C. has meant lots of changes to the system in recent years, with more sure to come in the years ahead. Add in the number of domestic pilots facing furlough from U.S. carriers and you can see that the current climate is not as favorable as it once was.

Things to keep in mind

For those that are intent on navigating the immigration system in pursuit of a job with a U.S. airline, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Beware of offers that are too good to be true. There's often chatter about 'flavor of the month' visas as new ways to obtain U.S. employment, but their results are often unproven. More traditional approaches to the immigration system might not be as flashy, but can provide longer-term security if successful.
  • Do your research, especially when it comes to a potential employer's financials. It doesn't do you much good to obtain a employer-sponsored visa if that employer goes out of business after a few months.
  • If you're training in the U.S. on a student visa, don't wait until the last minute to begin planning your next career step.
  • Hiring professional assistance can be a good way to make sure you're navigating the proper channels. But pay attention to the company's reputation, making sure to ask questions about how they're paid and what you're getting for your fee.

We appreciate your ideas and input. Please email your comments or questions about this article to: support@fapa.aero.

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Meet the FAPA team

Bryan Haywood

Program Manager


Bryan began his love for aviation as the son of USAF parents stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. He grew up in Montana where he served as a helicopter rappeller with the U.S. Forest Service executing air attack operations in the wildland fire community for many years. He continued his career in aviation riding as Chief of Party for wildland fire reconnaissance.

He remained close to aviation pursuits after leaving the U.S. Forest Service, collaborating with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists on aerial surveys of Elk and Wolf habitat, while pursuing University degrees in Montana. Bryan’s education includes a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science and an M.S. in Public Administration from from Montana State University-Bozeman.  Bryan is an aspiring private pilot himself and brings a unique perspective of integrating the business of professional pilot careers to the practical application of wheels up.

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Hired at Delta Air Lines

Hi Judy, I flew the Tarver 1 Arrival into Reno the other day and, of course, thought of you. I hope you are well and finding time to relax although I'm sure you're swamped with interview prep. All is well at Delta. Best decision I've ever made. I'm on the A320 out of NYC and really enjoying it. Thank you for helping me get here. Enjoy the pic and hope you're doing great. Warm regards, Ryan