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The United States, the melting pot of the world, has been built on the backs and brains of foreign-born individuals and those whose parents and/or grandparents were immigrants. Presently, an individual cannot simply buy a ticket to the United States and expect to be granted permanent resident status. There is a maze of laws and legal requirements that a foreign-born individual must navigate in order to obtain a work visa and/or a permanent resident visa.

In the following sections you will find information and answers to commonly asked questions concerning basic immigration rules and regulations. For further information about change or adjustment of status, consular processing, citizenship/naturalization, political asylum/refugee status, deportation/removal, Federal Court litigation, or other immigration matters, visit the U.S. State Department (www.state.gov) or the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service or INS) (www.bcis.gov) web sites.

Types of Visas
Qualifying for Legal Residence Status: Family Based Immigrant Classifications
Company Sponsored Work Visas
Visa Lottery

Types of Visas

The following is a list of non-immigrant classifications for temporary visits and/or employment in the United States. Visa classifications are constantly changing and evolving. For the most up to date information, consult the BCIS (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services) or U.S. State Department websites.

  • B-1 / B-2 - Visitors
    For persons coming to the U.S. as a "visitor" for business or pleasure for less than 180 days. Persons admitted to the U.S. under this visa classification may not engage in employment during their period of stay. Nationals of certain countries may be permitted to visit the U.S. without a visa for up to 90 days.
  • E-1 / E-2 - Traders / Investors
    For persons who qualify as "traders" or "investors" from certain countries having a bi-lateral commerce treaty with the U.S. Applicants for these visas may be employed in the U.S. at 2-year increments.
  • F or M - Students
    For students entering the U.S. in order to engage in a full course of academic or vocational study at an educational institution in the United States. Certain students may be eligible for employment authorization for up to 1 year for purposes of practical training in their field.
  • H-1B - Professional Workers
    For professionals with a bachelor's degree or its equivalent in work experience seeking temporary employment in the U.S. to fill a position which requires such a degree. H-1B visa applicants must demonstrate that they will be paid for the job at or above the prevailing wage in the industry. The length of stay will correspond to the period of time required by the employer, but not exceeding 6 years (up to 3-year increments). Fashion models, foreign medical graduates and certain health-care workers may also qualify for H-1B classification.
  • J - Exchange Visitors
    For students, professors and research scholars, short-term scholars, business or vocational trainees, specialists, foreign medical graduates, international visitors, government visitors, teachers, camp counselors, au pairs and others coming to the U.S. as an "exchange visitor" through a U.S. government-approved exchange program for the purpose of training, doing research or gaining experience in their field.
  • K - Fiancé(e) or Spouse
    For fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens who intend to marry within 90 days of admission to the U.S. Certain spouses of U.S. citizens may also be admitted to the U.S. while awaiting processing of an immigrant visa.
  • L-1 - Multi-National Business Transferees
    For executives, managers and specialized knowledge personnel being transferred to a U.S. office or affiliate of a foreign company. The length of stay will correspond to the period of time required by the employer, but not exceeding 7 years for executives/ managers (up to 3-year increments) and 5 years for specialized-knowledge personnel.
  • O-1 / O-2 - Extraordinary Ability
    For persons who can demonstrate "extraordinary ability" in the arts, science, business, education or athletics; and certain people accompanying or assisting such persons.
  • P-1 / P-2 / P-3 - Artists, Athletes & Entertainers
    For artists, entertainers and athletes who are members of a group or team; part of reciprocal international exchanges; or performing in programs that are culturally unique. Such persons do not need to establish "extraordinary ability" in their field.
  • R - Religious Workers
    For visits of 5 years or less by qualified ministers, religious professionals or other religious workers.
  • TN - NAFTA
    A special classification for professionals from Canada or Mexico seeking admission to the U.S. pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to engage in designated business activity of a professional or quasi-professional nature.
  • V-1 / V-2 - Certain Spouses and Children of U.S. Permanent Residents
    For qualifying spouses and unmarried children under 21 years of age of lawful permanent residents of the U.S. who have had immigrant petitions filed on their behalf prior to 21 December 2000 and which have been pending for more than 3 years.

Qualifying for Legal Residence Status: If You Have an Immediate Family Member Who is a Citizen or has a Green Card

If you have an immediate family member who is a citizen or has a Green Card, you may receive special consideration. The BCIS has a procedure for certain family members, depending on specific factors, to qualify for a Green Card. Parents, spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) of a United States citizen may obtain lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. through the filing of a petition with the BCIS. These "immediate relatives" are not subject to automatic waiting periods and may obtain their Green Cards once processing of the required paperwork is complete.

Qualifying for Legal Residence Status: If You Have an Extended Family Member Who is a Citizen or has a Green Card

If you have a family member who is a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder, but you do not qualify under the "immediate family" rule above, you can still qualify for a family-based immigration visa. Relatives of a citizen who cannot be classified as "immediate relatives" (such as sons and daughters, sisters and brothers over the age of 21), as well as certain relatives of Green Card holders, are subject to limits on the number of visas that can be issued each year.

Following is a preference classification list utilized by the BCIS in determining eligibility and timing in obtaining a visa. These applications will encounter delays corresponding to the "priority date" (the date on which the petition is filed) and the particular preference category to which the applicant belongs. Higher preference classifications should encounter less delay.

  • 1st Preference: Unmarried sons and daughters (over age 21) of citizens.
  • 2nd Preference:
    2A - Spouses and unmarried children (under age 21) of Green Card Holders.
    2B - Unmarried sons and daughters (over age 21) of Green Card Holders.
  • 3rd Preference: Married sons and daughters (over age 21) of citizens.
  • 4th Preference: Brothers and sisters (over age 21) of citizens.

Relatives who cannot be classified within the above preference categories are not eligible for family-based immigrant visas.

Company Sponsored Work Visas

Obtaining a work visa is often a complex and time-consuming process. Individuals who have an offer of employment by a U.S. sponsor, may be able to secure permanent resident status if they fall into one of the three basic employment-related classifications, also denoted by preference category, as explained below.

  • First Employment-Based Preference
    (Approximately 40,000 annual visas for "priority workers")
    Under this preference, no labor certification is required. This is especially helpful because the labor certification process is complex, time-consuming and costly and also involves the filing of a separate application with the U.S. Department of Labor. Accordingly, processing times are generally much shorter under this preference category and qualifying individuals have a much greater chance of success.
  • Second Employment-Based Preference
    (Approximately 40,000 annual visas plus visas not used under the first preference)
    A labor certification (as well as a job offer) is required under this second employment-based preference, although it may be waived by the BCIS in accordance with the "national interest" of the U.S., a difficult standard to satisfy.
  • Third Employment-Based Preference
    (Approximately 40,000 annual visas plus visas not used under the first and second preferences)
    A labor certification (as well as a job offer) is always required under this third employment-based preference. Individuals hoping to qualify in one of these categories are often subject to long and uncertain application periods and, even if a labor certification is ultimately approved, waiting periods can last several years before the requested classification is granted and a visa is issued.
    • Professionals with a bachelor's degree or its equivalent not qualifying in the second preference category.
    • Skilled Workers filling positions requiring at least two years of training and/or experience in the field.
    • Unskilled Workers, although not all such workers are eligible for immigrant classification.

Visa Lottery

Each year, the United States holds a "diversity visa" lottery for a one-month period, usually in October. The U.S. allots a specific number of visas to individuals from certain countries. Many factors go into the decision on how many visas to allot to each country. Specific information regarding eligible countries, the number of visas available and instructions for applying are posted on the U.S. State Department website in July or August. Interested persons should contact the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services or the Department of State for more information about this program. (Visit www.state.gov or www.bcis.gov for up to date information.)