Immigration Visa Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Immigrant Visas

If you’re interested in an immigration visa to come to the United States, this guide explains what you can apply for and how to do it.

Immigration Visa Guide - Everything You Need to Know About Immigrant Visas

United States visas come in two types: immigrant and nonimmigrant. Immigration visas are for people who want to live in the U.S. permanently, while nonimmigrant visas are for people who only want to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis. You can use a nonimmigrant visa to work, vacation, seek medical treatment, study, or for many other reasons – but you cannot use them to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. The only way you can use a visa to become a permanent resident (and eventually, a citizen) is to come to the U.S. on an immigrant visa.

What is an Immigration Visa?

Most commonly called immigrant visas, these types of visas are issued to foreign nationals who intend to live and work in the United States permanently. Generally, immigration visas require a sponsor – a relative or employer who lives in the United States and files an application with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, on the beneficiary’s behalf.

Some applicants don’t need a sponsor, such as workers of extraordinary ability, investors, and some special immigrants. However, the vast majority of people who want to get an immigration visa do need a sponsor.

How Does an Immigration Visa Work?

Although each type of immigration visa is different, the person who has one of these visas becomes a lawful permanent resident of the United States after a Customs and Border Protection officer reviews and endorses the visa and required documentation.

Related: Can undocumented immigrants get legal status in the U.S.?

Immigration Visa Categories

The main immigration visa categories are related to family relationships, employment, and special groups. Each type of visa has its own requirements, and some people may be eligible to apply for a visa under more than one category. It’s often a good idea to describe your situation to an immigration attorney and let the attorney help you choose which type of visa is right for you.

Family Immigration Visas

The table below outlines the possible visa categories you may be eligible to apply for based on your family relationships.

Spouse of a U.S. citizen IR1, CR1
Spouse of a U.S. citizen awaiting approval of an I-130 immigrant petition K-3
Fiancé of a U.S. citizen K-1
Intercountry adoption of an orphan child by a U.S. citizen IR3, IR4, IH3, IH4
Some family members of U.S. citizens IR2, CR2, IR5, F1, F3, F4
Some family members of lawful permanent residents
F2A, F2B

Are you in need of help from an expert immigration attorney?

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Employer-Sponsored and Employment Immigration Visas

The table below outlines the main types of employer sponsored and employment immigration visas. Generally, an employer must petition the U.S. government on your behalf if you wish to immigrate to the U.S. for a specific job.

Employment-based immigrants including preference groups:

  • First – priority workers
  • Second – professionals holding advanced degrees and persons of exceptional ability
  • Third – professionals and other workers
  • Fourth – certain special immigrants
  • Fifth – employment creators and investors
E1, E2, E3, EW3, C5, T5, R5, I5, S
Religious workers SD, SR
Iraqi and Afghan translators or interpreters SI
Iraqis who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government  SQ
Afghans who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. government SQ

Other Immigrants

Some other immigrants are permitted to get diversity visas and returning resident visas, as well. These types of visas, like other immigration visas, lead directly to lawful permanent residency.

How to Get an Immigration Visa

Immigration Visa Guide - Nanthaveth & AssociatesIf you’re seeking admission to the United States as an immigrant, the way you apply for a visa depends on where you’re located when you submit your application. If you’re living abroad, you’ll apply for your immigrant visa through a consular office of the U.S. State Department. After you receive your visa approval, you can enter the United States and become a legal immigrant with a simple passport stamp.

If you’re currently living in the United States, you most likely need to file an application for an adjustment of status. You adjust your current immigration status – the reason you’re living in the U.S. – to turn it into legal permanent residence with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS. When you apply to adjust your status, you can also apply for a work permit (if you don’t already have one because you’re here on an employment visa).

Related: Can you get a green card with a criminal conviction?

Immigrant Visas and Numerical Limitations

Some types of immigration visas are subject to a numerical cap. That means the U.S. government only gives out a certain number of those visas each year. When visas are subject to a numerical cap, immigration officials may approve a visa long before actually issuing it. Here’s how it works:

  • You apply for an immigration visa.
  • The appropriate agency approves your petition.
  • You must wait for your number to come up before the government will actually issue you a visa.

Some immigrants wait years before being issued a visa because of the numerical cap. However, some types of immigration visas aren’t subject to numerical caps, including:

  • Those issued to immediate relatives (children, parents and spouses) of U.S. citizens
  • Resident aliens returning from temporary visits abroad
  • Former U.S. citizens

Other immigrants are subject to caps, such as family sponsored (parents and siblings) and business-related immigrants.

What is the Diversity Lottery?

Each year, about 55,000 immigrant visas are available to people from certain countries. Those countries are considered to be “low-admission” countries, which means they are proportionately underrepresented in the U.S. immigrant population. You can only receive a diversity visa if you have at least a high school education (or its foreign equivalent) or two years of work experience in an occupation that requires at least two years’ worth of training or experience, and that work must have occurred within the past five years.

How Do You Get an Immigration Visa?

Every type of immigration visa has its own filing requirements, but each one starts with petitioning the U.S. government. For most people, the easiest way to file a petition for an immigration visa is to work with an attorney who can evaluate the “big picture” and see how an immigrant may qualify for permanent residency in the United States.

If you’re coming to the U.S. on an employment visa, your employer will most likely have to petition the government on your behalf. Additionally, if you’re coming based on a family relationship, your U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident family member will need to petition for you. The only exceptions to having another person or business apply on your behalf is if you are an investor or a person of exceptional talent or ability – and again, your immigration attorney can help you figure out the best course of action for your situation.

Do You Need to Talk to an Immigration Lawyer About Immigration Visas?

If you want to immigrate to the United States and become a lawful permanent resident, we may be able to help you. Call our office today to schedule your free consultation with an attorney so you can discuss immigration visas and other important issues.

Are you in need of help from an expert immigration attorney?

Don't hesitate to contact Nanthaveth & Associates. We have helped many people in the same situation as you. Contact us today for a FREE consultation.

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