Immigrants to the United States
Immigrating to the United States to live here permanently is an important and complex decision. In general, to apply for an immigrant visa (also known as a Green Card), a foreign citizen must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen relative(s), U.S. lawful permanent resident, or by a prospective employer, and be the beneficiary of an approved petition. Therefore, a first step is filing a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Visa Types for Immigrants
There are different processes for the four major immigrant categories, which are:
1. EMPLOYMENT BASED IMMIGRANT VISAS
Every fiscal year (October 1st – September 30th), approximately 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas are made available to qualified applicants under the provisions of U.S. immigration law. Employment based immigrant visas are divided into five preference categories. Certain spouses and children may accompany or follow-to-join employment-based immigrants.
The First Steps toward an Immigrant Visa: Labor Certification and Filing a Petition
To be considered for an immigrant visa under some of the employment-based categories below, the applicant's prospective employer or agent must first obtain a labor certification approval from the Department of Labor. Once received (if required), the employer then files an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for the appropriate employment-based preference category. (NOTE: Persons with extraordinary abilities in the Employment First preference category are able to file their own petitions, as well as certain individuals in the Employment Second preference National Interest Waiver category.)
Employment First Preference (E1): Priority Workers
A First Preference applicant must be the beneficiary of an approved Immigrant Petition for Foreign Worker, Form I-140, filed with USCIS. Labor certification is not required for any of the Priority Worker subgroups. Priority Workers receive 28.6 percent of the yearly worldwide limit of employment-based immigrant visas.
There are three sub-groups within this category:
Employment Second Preference (E2): Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability
- Persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics. Applicants in this category must have extensive documentation showing sustained national or international acclaim and recognition in their fields of expertise. Such applicants do not have to have specific job offers, so long as they are entering the U.S. to continue work in the fields in which they have extraordinary ability. Such applicants can file their own Immigrant Petitions for Alien Worker, Form I-140, with the USCIS.
- Outstanding professors and researchers with at least three years experience in teaching or research, who are recognized internationally. Applicants in this category must be coming to the U.S. to pursue tenure, tenure track teaching, or a comparable research position at a university or other institution of higher education. The prospective employer must provide a job offer and file an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, with the USCIS.
- Multinational managers or executives who have been employed for at least one of the three preceding years by the overseas affiliate, parent, subsidiary, or branch of the U.S. employer. The applicant’s employment outside of the U.S. must have been in a managerial or executive capacity, and the applicant must be coming to work in a managerial or executive capacity. The prospective employer must provide a job offer and file an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, with the USCIS.
A Second Preference applicant must generally have a labor certification approved by the Department of Labor. A job offer is required and the U.S. employer must file an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, on behalf of the applicant. Applicants may apply for an exemption, known as a National Interest Waiver, from the job offer and labor certification if the exemption would be in the national interest. In this case, the applicant may self-petition by filing the Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, along with evidence of the national interest. Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability receive 28.6 percent of the yearly worldwide limit of employment-based immigrant visas, plus any unused visas from the Employment First Preference category.
There are two subgroups within this category:
Employment Third Preference (E3): Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers (Other Workers)
- Professionals holding an advanced degree (beyond a baccalaureate degree), or a baccalaureate degree and at least five years progressive experience in the profession.
- Persons with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business. Exceptional ability means having a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered in the sciences, arts, or business.
A Third Preference applicant must have an approved Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-140, filed by the prospective employer. All such workers generally require labor certification approved by the Department of Labor. Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers (Other Workers) receive 28.6 percent of the yearly worldwide limit of employment-based immigrant visas, plus any unused visas from the Employment First Preference and Second Preference categories.
There are three subgroups within this category:
Employment Fourth Preference (E4): Certain Special Immigrants
- Skilled workers are persons whose jobs require a minimum of 2 years training or work experience that are not temporary or seasonal.
- Professionals are members of the professions whose jobs require at least a baccalaureate degree from a U.S. university or college or its foreign equivalent degree.
- Unskilled workers (Other workers) are persons capable of filling positions that require less than two years training or experience that are not temporary or seasonal.
A Fourth Preference applicant must be the beneficiary of an approved Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, Form I-360, with the exception of Certain Employees or Former Employees of the U.S. Government Abroad (see number 3 below). Labor certification is not required for any of the Certain Special Immigrants subgroups. Special Immigrants receive 7.1 percent of the yearly worldwide limit of employment-based immigrant visas.
There are many subgroups within this category:
- Broadcasters in the U.S. employed by the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Broadcasting Board of Governors or a grantee of such organization
- Ministers of Religion
- Certain Employees or Former Employees of the U.S. Government Abroad - Must use Form DS-1884, Petition To Classify Special Immigrant Under INA 203(b)(4) As An Employee Or Former Employee of the U.S. Government Abroad
- Certain Former Employees of the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government
- Certain Former Employees of the U.S. Government in the Panama Canal Zone
- Certain Former Employees of the Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government on April 1st, 1979
- Iraqi and Afghan interpreters/translators who have worked directly with the United States armed forces or under Chief of Mission authority as a translator/interpreter for a period of at least 12 months and meet requirements. This classification has an annual numeric limitation of 50 visas. See Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqi and Afghan Translators/Interpreters - Frequently Asked Questions for more information.
- Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have provided faithful and valuable service while employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq for not less than one year after March 20th, 2003 or in Afghanistan for not less than one year after October 7th, 2001, and have experienced an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment. The provision in U.S. law for Iraqi nationals created 5,000 special immigrant visas each fiscal year (FY) for 5 years, from FY2008 through FY2012. The provision in U.S. law for Afghan nationals created 1,500 special immigrant visas each fiscal year for 5 years from FY2009 through FY2013. See Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqis - Worked for/on behalf of the U.S. Government and Afghans - Worked for/on behalf of the U.S. Government for more information.
- Certain Foreign Medical Graduates (Adjustments Only)
- Certain Retired International Organization Employees
- Certain Unmarried Sons and Daughters of International Organization Employees
- Certain Surviving Spouses of deceased International Organization Employees
- Special Immigrant Juveniles (no family member derivatives; Adjustments Only)
- Persons Recruited Outside of the United States Who Have Served or are Enlisted to Serve in the U.S. Armed Forces
- Certain retired NATO-6 civilians
- Certain Unmarried Sons and Daughters of NATO-6 civilians
- Certain Surviving Spouses of deceased NATO-6 civilian employees
- Persons who are beneficiaries of petitions or labor certification applications filed prior to September 11th, 2001, if the petition or application was rendered void due to a terrorist act on September 11th, 2001
- Certain Religious Workers
Employment Fifth Preference (E5): Immigrant Investors
An immigrant investor or entrepreneur applicant must file an Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur with USCIS, which must be approved before applying for the immigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate outside the United States. Learn more about petition procedures and requirements for the Immigrant Investor EB-5 Program on the USCIS Website. Select Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur, Form I-526 for the instructions and form on the USCIS Website. Labor certification is not required for Immigrant Investors. To qualify as an Immigrant Investor, a foreign citizen must invest between U.S. $500,000 and $1,000,000, depending on the unemployment rate in the geographical area, in a commercial enterprise in the United States which creates at least 10 new full-time jobs for U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or other lawful immigrants, not including the investor and his or her family. Immigrant Investors receive 7.1 percent of the yearly worldwide limit of employment-based immigrant visas.
2. FAMILY BASED IMMIGRATION Overview
- Family-based Immigrant Visas
Two groups of family based immigrant visa categories, including immediate relatives and family preference categories, are provided under the provisions of United States immigration law, specifically the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas (Unlimited):
These visa types are based on a close family relationship with a United States (U.S.) citizen described as an Immediate Relative (IR). The number of immigrants in these categories is not limited each fiscal year. Immediate relative visa types include:
IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. Citizen -
IR-2: Unmarried Child Under 21 Years of Age of a U.S. Citizen
IR-3: Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen -
IR-4: Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen -
IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old
Family Preference Immigrant Visas (Limited): These visa types are for specific, more distant, family relationships with a U.S. citizen and some specified relationships with a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). There are fiscal year numerical limitations on family preference immigrants, shown at the end of each category. The family preference categories are:
Numerical Limitations for Limited Family-based Preference Categories
- Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any. (23,400)
- Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of LPRs. At least seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children; the remainder is allocated to unmarried sons and daughters. (114,200)
- Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. (23,400)
- Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age. (65,000)
Note: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor a relative for immigration.
Whenever the number of qualified applicants for a category exceeds the available immigrant visas, there will be an immigration wait. In this situation, the available immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed using their priority date. The filing date of a petition becomes what is called the applicant's priority date. Immigrant visas cannot be issued until an applicant's priority date is reached. In certain categories with many approved petitions compared to available visas, there may be a waiting period of several years, or more, before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin for the latest priority dates.
Returning Resident Immigrant Visas (SB)
- A lawful permanent resident (LPR) who has remained outside the U.S. for longer than twelve months, or beyond the validity period of a re-entry permit, will require a new immigrant visa to enter the U.S. and resume permanent residence. A provision exists under U.S. visa law for the issuance of a returning resident special immigrant visa to an LPR who remained outside the U.S. due to circumstances beyond his/her control. For more information about international travel as a LPR, and returning resident immigrant visas, visit our Returning Resident webpage.
U.S. Sponsor Minimum Age Requirement
U.S. citizens must be age 21 or older to file petitions for siblings or parents. There is no minimum age for a sponsor to file petitions for all other categories of family based immigrant visas. However, a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) must be at least 18 years of age and have a residence (domicile) in the U.S. before he or she can sign an Affidavit of Support, Form I-864 or I-864-EZ. This form is required for an immigrant visa for a spouse and other relatives of U.S. sponsors.
Is Residence in the U.S. Required for the U.S. Sponsor?
Yes. As a U.S. sponsor/petitioner, you must maintain your principal residence (also called domicile) in the U.S., which is where you plan to live for the foreseeable future. Living in the U.S. is required for a U.S. sponsor to file the Affidavit of Support, with few exceptions. To learn more, review the Affidavit of Support (I-864 or I-864EZ) Instructions.
If You Were an LPR and Are Now a U.S. Citizen: Upgrading a Petition
If you filed a petition for your spouse and/or minor children when you were a lawful permanent resident (LPR), and you are now a U.S. citizen, you must upgrade the petition from family second preference (F2) to immediate relative (IR). You can do this by sending proof of your U.S. citizenship to the National Visa Center (NVC). You should send:
- A copy of the biodata page of your U.S. passport; or
- A copy of your certificate of naturalization
Important Notice: If you upgrade a family second preference (F2) petition for your spouse and you did not file separate petitions for your minor children when you were a LPR, you must do so now. A child is not included in an immediate relative (IR) petition. (This is different from the family second preference (F2) petition, which includes minor children in their parent's F2 petition.)
Children born abroad after you became a U.S. citizen may qualify for U.S. citizenship. They should apply for U.S. passports. The consular officer will determine whether your child is a U.S. citizen and can have a passport. If the consular officer determines your child is not a U.S. citizen, the child must apply for an immigrant visa if he/she wants to live in the U.S. Spouse of US CITIZEN
If you are an American citizen you have two ways to bring your foreign spouse (husband or wife) to the United States to live. They are
3. DIVERSITY VISA (LOTTERY) PROGRAM
- Immigrant visa for a Spouse of a U.S. Citizen (IR1 or CR1) - An immigrant Petition for Alien Relative, Form I-130 is required.
- Nonimmigrant visa for spouse (K-3) - It is important to note that application for the nonimmigrant visa for spouse (K-3) who married a U.S. citizen must be filed and the visa must be issued in the country where the marriage took place. After the visa process has been completed, and the visa is issued, the spouse can travel to the United States to wait for the processing of the immigrant visa case. Two petitions are required:
Petition for Alien Relative, Form I-130; and
Petition for Alien Fiancé(e), Form I-129F
If you are an American citizen, you may bring your fiancé(e) to the United States to marry; and live here.
Nonimmigrant visa for fiancé(e) (K-1)- To travel to the United States for marriage. An I-129F fiancé(e) petition is required.
Immigrant Visa for a Spouse (IR1 or CR1)
Nonimmigrant Visa for a Spouse (K-3)
Nonimmigrant Visa for a Fiancé(e) (K-1)
The Diversity Immigrant Visa program is a United States congressionally mandated lottery program for receiving a United States Permanent Resident Card. It is also known as the Green Card Lottery. The lottery is administered on an annual basis by the Department of State and conducted under the terms of Section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Section 131 of the Immigration Act of 1990 (Pub. L. 101-649) amended INA 203 to provide for a new class of immigrants known as "diversity immigrants" (DV immigrants). The Act makes available 55,000 permanent resident visas annually to natives of countries deemed to have low rates of immigration to the United States.
The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa (DV) program, where 55,000 immigrant visas would be available in an annual lottery, starting in fiscal year 1995. The lottery aims to diversify the immigrant population in the United States, by selecting applicants mostly from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States in the previous five years.
Starting in fiscal year 1999, 5,000 of the visas from the DV program are reserved for use by the NACARA program, so the number of immigrant visas available in the lottery is reduced to 50,000.
Those born in any territory that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years are not eligible to receive a diversity visa. For DV-2013, natives of the following nations were ineligible: Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam. The entry period to apply for the DV-2013 was from October 4, 2011 to November 5, 2011.
The term 50,000 "immigrants" refers only to people who immigrated via the family-sponsored, employment, or immediate relatives of U.S. citizen categories, and does not include other categories such as refugees, asylum seekers, NACARA beneficiaries, or previous diversity immigrants. It is for this reason that Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Nigeria, Ukraine, Venezuela and Poland are not on the ineligible list as of 2011 despite sending over 50,000 immigrants in the previous five years.
The first program was DV-1995, and the following 13 countries were ineligible from the start: Canada, China (mainland), Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.
Changes to the list of countries over the years include the following:
DV-1996: Colombia now ineligible.
DV-1998: Poland now ineligible.
DV-2002: Poland and Taiwan now eligible, Pakistan ineligible.
DV-2004: East Timor added, eligible.
DV-2005: Russia now ineligible.
DV-2007: Poland again ineligible.
DV-2008: Brazil and Peru now ineligible; Serbia and Montenegro listed separately, both eligible.
DV-2009: Ecuador and Guatemala now ineligible.
DV-2010: Russia now eligible; Kosovo added, eligible.
DV-2013: Poland again eligible, Bangladesh now ineligible; South Sudan added, eligible.
4. REFUGEES AND ASYLEES
Refugees and asylees can apply for a green card.