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I know that you can be a pilot in the U.S. as a foreigner. However, are there any special regulations regarding citizens of Iran because of political issues?

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  • $\begingroup$ Hey Keith. I wanna thank you for your comprehensive answer. It was very useful and to the point. Just to clarify I already reside in U.S as an international student and have attended a four year aviation, pro flight program. I'm currently working on my Instrument Flight Rating and feel extremely fortunate to make my dream come true. I was also wondering, if you know of any U.S based airline that is likely to hire me with a H1B visa. $\endgroup$ – saam Dec 20 '17 at 1:23
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The U.S. does not prohibit Iranian citizens entering the United States and remaining here on extended business. It also allows noncitizens to attend flight school, conditional on a review of the candidate by the Transportation Security Administration. So, the U.S. would not categorically prohibit an Iran citizen learning to fly and obtaining a commercial or airline pilot's license.

However, while not impossible, it will be much harder than I just made it sound if you are living in Iran right now, because communications between Iranians and the U.S. State Department have been made difficult by the politics of the past 35 years.

There is, to put it delicately, no functional United States Embassy on Iranian soil. The U.S. maintains a virtual Iranian Embassy online at http://iran.usembassy.gov/ (also in Farsi at http://persian.iran.usembassy.gov/); however it was blocked by Iranian information authorities less than 12 hours after it initially opened and remains blacklisted to this day. Users with a VPN tunnel outside Iran's firewall can access it, but the site is mostly educational; you cannot apply for a visa using the site alone. You'd have to be able to submit your paperwork to a functioning U.S. Embassy or directly to the State Department offices in Washington D.C., which will be a delicate process as the Revolutionary Guard will be monitoring both sides of such correspondence.

Assuming you can establish reliable contact with the U.S. State Department either directly or through an Embassy, you would need an extended visa. There are three basic reasons to stay longer than 90 days, with visa classes for each; work, school, and temporary asylum. If you are coming to the U.S. specifically to learn to fly, an M-1 visa should be what you apply for; it permits entry to the U.S. for "vocational or other non-academic training", including FAA Part 61 and Part 141 flight schools. The Iranian authorities also look most favorably on student visas compared to other types.

In addition to the visa, you would, like any other foreign applicant for flight training, be required to pass a TSA security clearance. This is ultimately discretionary; you cannot force the TSA to grant your clearance (ask any U.S. national; you can't force the TSA to do anything).

While neither the State Department, TSA nor the FAA would categorically prevent you learning to fly based on country of origin, the TSA does list Iran as a country of origin that prohibits the visa holder from "Automatic Revalidation". Essentially, if while attending flight school, you ever left the U.S. (to visit family back home, or even driving north to Canada or south to Mexico for sightseeing) you would be required to go through the full security clearance process again including the TSA check. So, you would have to stay in the United States political borders at all times while in flight school, or you could risk being denied reentry or resumption of your flight training.

While taking flight training and amassing your 1000 hours flight time required for an Airline Transport Pilot license (that 1000 hours number is good only if you're attending a four-year flight school; for most civilians working their way up it's 1,500), there are a number of illegal acts you can unintentionally commit while flying. For citizens, the legal penalty for unintentionally breaking an FAA regulation ranges from nothing to a talking to by air traffic control up to formal hearings with possible suspension or revocation of your pilot certificate. For a non-citizen in the United States for the express purpose of learning to fly, any offense bad enough to get your pilot's license suspended would likely also get you deported (if not for the criminal act, then because you can no longer do what you're here to do). But, you'd usually have to mess up pretty bad several times to get that far.

Once you have your ATPL, your M-1 would no longer be valid as you'd no longer be a student, and so you'd have to leave the U.S. unless you made prior arrangements with the State Department and/or an airline to remain in the country under another status (such as H-1b to work for an airline). If you take your license and leave the country, the FAA ATPL would only allow you to fly "N-numbered" aircraft registered by the FAA. Most other countries have their own registration, and would require you to "convert" your pilot's license to the local regulatory agency's version before you could fly a locally-registered plane. For an ATPL holder this is typically easier than for lower levels, and for the EASA (the largest ICAO-compliant regulatory body besides the FAA) it boils down to a skills test (knowledge and practical), a new medical cert, and being re-rated by the EASA for multi-engine operations (the FAA AMEL class rating does not transfer).

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    $\begingroup$ I think this applies to those currently (or recently) resident in Iran. There are a good many refugees living in the US or third countries who may still retain Iranian citizenship. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Jul 29 '15 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect the OP, if he is himself a citizen of Iran, might already be living in the US or perhaps elsewhere in the world and is not (or not only) asking about visiting the US to undergo training but about actually working as a professional pilot in the US. The answer, while relevant and interesting, does not seem to cover this aspect of the question. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Jul 30 '15 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think getting from Iran to the U.S. is quite as difficult as you make it sound. I've known several Iranians here (in the U.S.) who seem to be able to travel back and forth freely. I think all of the ones I've known were on student visas. Also, as a slight nitpick, the original question asked about an ATP, not just a CPL. An ATP requires a lot more than 250 hours (1,500 normally, 1,250 if you have an approved 2-year flight degree, 1,000 if you have an approved 4-year flight degree, or 750 if you previously flew for the U.S. military.) $\endgroup$ – reirab Jul 30 '15 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the original question was recently edited; the original form of the question specifically stated "commercial pilot" so I answered in terms of a CPL. An ATPL for a foreigner would pretty much require that four-year program you mentioned, as you have to stay a full-time student for the M-1 to remain valid, so you can't take time off from flight school and rack up flight hours on your own. $\endgroup$ – KeithS Jul 30 '15 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ The original question actually stated “commercial airline pilot” which suggests the OP was speaking in general terms rather than using proper terminology and was the reason for my interpretation. But then the OP did not come back to comment and the question was edited by someone else so what he actually meant is still somewhat unclear. $\endgroup$ – Relaxed Jul 30 '15 at 21:25

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