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Immigrant Visas FAQ

Navigating the complex rules of U.S. visa application can be challenging. However, securing a U.S. visa is mandatory to enter the country, regardless of whether you aim for lawful permanent residency (LPR) or a temporary visit. Immigrant visas are required for those who want to live, work, and study in the United States indefinitely. On the other hand, nonimmigrant or temporary visas are enough for those aiming to visit the country for leisure, business, or short stays.

The following are some of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) about applying for an immigrant visa.

What is an immigrant visa?

An immigrant visa, also called a green card, grants you the authority to reside in the United States. As a green card holder, you can live, work, pursue education, and engage in other activities almost the same as a U.S. citizen, with a few exceptions.

The most common ways of acquiring an immigrant visa are through family-based or employer-based immigration petitions. In family-based petitions, an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen or has lawful permanent resident status (LPR) sponsors the visa applicant. U.S. employers back employment-based visas.

In addition, there are also other avenues to acquire an immigrant visa. This includes the Diversity Visa Program, asylum applications, and specific cases under the special immigrant category. Each pathway to migrating to the United States has distinct requirements and processes overseen by U.S. immigration officers and other U.S. officials.

What is the difference between an immigrant visa and a nonimmigrant visa?

Generally, recipients of immigrant visas have permission to stay in the U.S. for as long as they want. It also gives them wide-encompassing authority to work, study, or conduct business in the country. Compared to immigrant visas, nonimmigrant visas are for temporary visitors. These nonimmigrant visas often have a period of validity, which can range from six months to a few years.

Nonimmigrant visas are also commonly issued for a specific purpose. For instance, the U.S. government issues B1 visas for tourism and B2 visas for business purposes. Thus, B1/B2 visa holders cannot live, work, or study in the United States. In short, you are prohibited from engaging in activities unrelated to the reason for your U.S. visa issuance.

How do I get an immigrant visa?

There's no simple answer to this question. The steps and eligibility vary depending on the type of visa, who is sponsoring your immigrant visa, and your location at the time of visa application. For instance, if you are applying for an immigrant visa outside the United States, your application often goes through the U.S. consulate or embassy.

But, if you are already in the United States, you would undergo an adjustment of status for the immigration application procedure. The following articles will help you understand how to obtain an immigrant visa:

If your family member is sponsoring you for an immigrant visa:

If an employer is sponsoring you for an immigrant visa:

This article about green card interview do's and don'ts will also be helpful when applying for U.S. visas.

What are the standard requirements you must secure when applying for an immigrant visa?

When applying for an immigrant visa, the following are some of the most common documents that you have to secure:

  • Valid passport
  • Completed application form
  • Photographs as specified by United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS)
  • Civil documents, which may include birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce or annulment documents if applicable, court records, change of name records, and similar documents
  • Affidavit of support
  • Medical examination documents
  • Receipt of payment of fees

What immigrant visa category is right for me?

Choosing the proper immigrant visa may vary depending on the purpose of your move to the United States. If you are reuniting with family members living in the U.S., a family-based immigrant visa might be your option. On the other hand, if you are coming to the United States for an employment opportunity, you'll follow the process for employment-based immigrant visas, or work visas.

Employment visas break down into additional categories as well. For example, some noncitizens might come to the U.S. as temporary workers. Or they might be hired by a company permanently based on an extraordinary ability.

Other individuals could qualify for the special immigrant category. Special immigrants include those coming to the United States for a particular purpose. For instance, if you are coming to the U.S. as a religious worker or are giving aid to the U.S. government.

For countries that have low immigration rates, the U.S. government has the Diversity Visa Program. With this program, the U.S. government provides 50,000 immigrant visas to foreign nationals from selected countries. The process is done through a diversity lottery.

Asylees and refugees follow a different process handled by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS.)

Read more about who can apply for immigrant visas in the article Who May Obtain a Green Card?

What do I need to file if I am entering the U.S. to marry a U.S. citizen?

The U.S. citizen must file a fiancé(e) petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The USCIS will forward an approved petition to a U.S. embassy or consulate near you. They will schedule you for an interview, and if you succeed, you can enter the U.S. to marry a U.S. citizen.

You must travel and wed within a short period of time after receiving the visa. After the marriage, your U.S. spouse must contact USCIS to change your status to permanent resident. This status will be conditional on your marriage lasting for a set period and/or showing the genuineness of the marriage. FindLaw's article about Fiance Visas discusses this topic in more detail.

How long can a person remain outside the United States without losing immigrant status?

Generally, an immigrant or a lawful permanent resident needs to spend more time in the United States than outside of the country. Thus, absences of more than a year could raise suspicions with the USCIS officials. However, if you plan to stay out of the U.S. for a more extended period, there are ways for you to prevent jeopardizing your immigration status.

This includes submitting a reentry permit with the USCIS, called the Application for Travel Document. You should apply for this permit ideally before leaving the United States. You may also apply for advance parole if your green card application is still undergoing processing.

To learn more about traveling outside the U.S. with immigrant status, read the article Can a Person With a Green Card Travel Outside the United States? You can also find more information on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) webpage.

What is a Visa Waiver Program?

The Visa Waiver Program allows foreign nationals of participating countries to enter the United States for business or tourism for 90 days or less without the need for a U.S. visa. The travelers should, however, secure an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before traveling to the United States. You may visit the Customs and Border Protection website for more information about ESTA.

However, if you are traveling to the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program, there are certain restrictions with your visa. These restrictions include the following:

  • You are not allowed to live permanently in the United States. The Visa Waiver Program is only meant for temporary trips to the United States.
  • You are not allowed to study or enroll in academic institutions.
  • You cannot work as a foreign journalist with the press, radio, film, or other information media.

What is the I-601A waiver process?

Form I-601A is used by visa applicants who entered the United States unlawfully but have immediate family members who are lawful permanent residents of the U.S. or are U.S. citizens. With this form, the visa applicant may apply for a waiver of inadmissibility and seek an immigrant visa, adjustment of status, or other immigration benefits. For more information about the application for waiver of grounds of inadmissibility, visit this USCIS webpage.

I have a nonimmigrant visa in the United States. How can I adjust my immigration status?

If you are physically present in the United States, you may apply for adjustment of immigration status. This is applicable based on family-based or employment-based immigration. The USCIS processes adjustment of immigration status, which often begins by filing Form I-485, the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjustment of Status. To learn more, this article by FindLaw talks about the adjustment of status to stay in the United States.

Seek Legal Advice From an Immigration Attorney

The process of legal immigration can be daunting. The immigration system in the United States has many nuances that are often hard to understand. The processing of immigrant visas may also vary depending on your visa category. For instance, if you are an immediate relative of a U.S. Citizen or an LPR, your immigration application is given more favor than applying for an immigrant visa through asylum.

So, it is crucial to stay informed and abide by the guidelines set by U.S. immigration laws, such as the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). For detailed guidance on your immigrant visa application, you can contact an immigration law attorney near you. They can provide you with detailed advice particularly tailored to your case. They can also inform you of the visa processing and updates on the visa bulletin related to your case.

FindLaw has a directory of immigration law attorneys in every state. Contact an immigration attorney to help you answer some of the questions that you might have.

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