Entering the United States As an Immigrant

Who is an immigrant?

Basically, an immigrant is a person admitted to the United States for permanent residence. Foreign nationals-also known as aliens-can apply for an immigrant visa at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their home country. Once a visa is issued, the person must still seek approval for entry into the United States.

Who is eligible for an immigrant visa green card/permanent resident status?

Most foreign nationals who enter the United States do so under a complicated system of numerical limits set by the State Department. Aliens born in a foreign country who may be issued immigrant visas or who may otherwise acquire permanent resident status are limited to family-sponsored immigrants, employment-based immigrants and diversity lottery winners. But some foreign nationals are not subject to the number limits placed on these categories. These include immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, refugees and asylum seekers, among others.

Is there anyone who cannot apply for an immigrant visa?

To protect the health, welfare and security of the United States, certain applicants are not eligible for a visa even if they qualify in other ways. U.S. immigration law lists specific ineligibilities. For example, applicants with communicable diseases or a dangerous physical or mental disorder will be refused a visa. The law also denies visas for people who have committed serious criminal acts or are considered terrorists, subversives, members of a totalitarian party, or former Nazi war criminals. Also, the application will be denied if the applicant has illegally entered the United States. Some former exchange visitors must return to their home countries for 2 years before they are eligible to apply for immigrant visas.

What is an "immigrant visa number" and how do I get one?

Everyone except immediate family members who want to establish permanent residency in the United States must have an immigrant visa number. You will not directly apply for one-in most cases, your relative or employer will send a petition to the USCIS. You can petition on your own behalf if you are a priority worker, investor, certain special immigrants or diversity immigrant.

The USCIS will notify the person who filed the petition if it is approved. The approved petition will then be processed at the Department of State's National Visa Center. The Center will notify you when the petition is received and when an immigrant visa number is available.

If you move or your personal situation changes and the change may affect your immigrant visa eligibility, you should notify the National Visa Center. The address is:

The National Visa Center

32 Rochester Avenue

Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03801-2909

Will I have to wait long to receive an immigrant visa number?

Approved visa petitions are placed in chronological order according to the filing date of the visa petition. This is known as your "priority date." The State Department publishes a bulletin that shows the month and year of the visa petitions they are working on by country and preference category. You can estimate of the amount of time it will take to get an immigrant visa number by comparing your priority date with the date listed in the bulletin. To learn which priority dates are currently being processed, you may access the State Department Visa Bulletin at the State Department's Web site, or you may call the Department of State Visa Office at 202.663.1541.

I was told that I am ineligible to receive a visa. Can I get a waiver?

If your application is denied because you are found to be ineligible, you will be advised about your ineligibilities and whether you can obtain a waiver. You will need to complete a form providing an explanation regarding your ineligibility, and pay a fee. Once you have completed the applications for waiver of ineligibility, the INS office will inform you if they need additional information to process your request.

What is a green card?

A green card is a life-long visa that allows a foreign national to live and work in the United States. It is officially called a "Permanent Resident Card." The card itself looks somewhat like a driver's license-though it is not actually green-and is a government-issued plastic ID card that serves as proof of permanent resident status in the United States.

Does receiving a green card mean I am a citizen?

No. A green card is not an indication of citizenship and it can be revoked if you do not maintain permanent residence in the United States, if you travel outside the country for too long or if you break certain laws.

My spouse is a U.S. citizen. Do I have to wait for an immigrant visa number?

No. The immediate relatives of U.S. citizens do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number. The term "immediate relatives" means the children, spouses and parents of a citizen of the United States. In the case of parents, the U.S. citizen must be at least 21 years old. You must still apply for a visa, but you will not be subject to the longer waiting periods of family members who are not immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Stepparents and stepchildren qualify as immediate family if the relationship existed before the child turned 18 years old.

My spouse, a U.S. citizen, died last year. Do I still qualify as an "immediate relative" for purposes of an immigrant visa number?

You must have been married to the U.S. citizen for at least 2 years and not legally separated from the citizen at the time of the citizen's death. The alien-and each child of the alien-is considered an immediate relative after the citizen's death, but only if the spouse files a petition within 2 years after the citizen's death and only until the date the spouse remarries.

My uncle is a U.S. citizen. Can I apply for a visa based on this relationship?

Yes. The U.S. immigration laws are based on a preference system. If you are not an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, you can still apply for a visa based on other family relationships. Relatives must wait for an available visa according to the following preferences (in descending preference):

  • Unmarried, adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Adult means 21 years of age or older.
  • Spouses of lawful permanent residents, and the unmarried sons and daughters (regardless of age) of lawful permanent residents and their children.
  • Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.
  • Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.

My spouse is a green card holder. Can I get a green card based on his green card?

Yes, but you will be termed a "family second preference" instead of immediately qualifying as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. This means you will probably have to wait before being given an immigrant visa number.

I want to work in the United States. I have heard about preferences. What are these?

Immigration based on employment also uses a preference system. You must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the following descending preferences:

  • Priority workers including aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers.
  • Members of professions holding advanced degrees or persons whose exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business will substantially benefit the national economy, cultural or educational interests or welfare of the United States.
  • Skilled workers, professionals and other qualified workers with at least 2 years of experience as skilled workers, professionals with a baccalaureate degree, and others with less than 2 years experience, such as an unskilled worker who can perform labor for which qualified workers are not available in the United States.
  • Certain special immigrants including those in religious vocations.
  • Investment Immigrants

I am an employer and want to hire a foreign national. What steps do I need to take to do this?

First you must file a petition for an immigrant visa number. You can do this using Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker. The form provides detailed information on the filing requirements for each category. In most cases, you must also submit a labor certification request (ETA 750) for the prospective employee from the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. The State Department will then issue the prospective employee an immigrant visa number.

If the employee is already in the United States on a nonimmigrant visa, he or she must apply to adjust to permanent resident status when a visa number becomes available. If the prospective employee is outside the United States when the immigrant visa number becomes available, he or she will be notified to go to the local U.S. Embassy or Consulate to complete the processing for an immigrant visa.

I have heard it can take a long time to get a green card. Can I work before it is actually issued?

Yes. Most immigrants with pending applications are qualified for work authorization. You should apply for work authorization when you mail in your petition and application for a green card. If you do not apply for work authorization along with your original application, you can apply for it later. Normally, only a few weeks after your application has been sent in, you will get a call to come in for a brief interview and fingerprinting, where the agency will take your photograph and provide an ID card. The card is good for work for 1 year.

Our use of cookies

We use necessary cookies to make our site work. We would also like to set some optional cookies. We won't set these optional cookies unless you enable them. Please choose whether this site may use optional cookies by selecting 'On' or 'Off' for each category below. Using this tool will set a cookie on your device to remember your preferences.

For more detailed information about the cookies we use, see our Cookie notice.

Necessary cookies

Necessary cookies enable core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility. You may disable these by changing your browser settings, but this may affect how the website functions.

Functionality cookies

We'd like to set cookies to provide you with a better customer experience. For more information on these cookies, please see our cookie notice.