The Ultimate Guide to the U.S. Immigration Process

In a Nutshell

The United States is a very popular immigration destination because of the many benefits and privileges U.S. citizens and green card holders enjoy. If you have decided to immigrate to the U.S., you are probably wondering what the immigration process is like. There are many different kinds of U.S. immigrant visas. Still, the U.S. immigration process generally begins with an eligible sponsor filing a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for the foreign national who wants to come to the United States. This is called petitioning. If all goes well with petitioning, the next step is usually that the foreign national applies for an immigrant visa at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate abroad or adjusts status to lawful permanent resident status in the United States. This article will walk you through the different U.S. immigrant visa types and provide a step-by-step guide on applying for them.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Written May 26, 2022

What is the difference between U.S. immigrant and nonimmigrant visas?

The difference between immigrant and nonimmigrant visas is in their names. Nonimmigrant visas are for foreign citizens who will be in the U.S. on more of a short-term basis. Nonimmigrant visas include those for tourist visits and student visas for international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities. On the other hand, immigrant visas are for foreign citizens looking to remain in the U.S. on a long-term, usually permanent, basis. There are a limited number of immigrant visas available every year. An immigrant visa is also called a Green Card. People who have Green Cards are “Lawful Permanent Residents” of the United States. After remaining in permanent resident status for 3 or 5 years, they can apply to become U.S. citizens.

While many people apply for nonimmigrant visas each year, this article will focus on immigrant visas and explore some of the different pathways people take to become U.S. lawful permanent residents and U.S. citizens.

What are the U.S. immigrant visa types?

Under U.S. immigration law, there are several different pathways to get a long-term U.S. immigrant visa. For example, you can get a Green Card through a close family member or a U.S. employer, after a humanitarian crisis, or, through the diversity visa lottery process. Read on to learn more about the different U.S. immigrant visa types. 

Family-based immigrant visas

Family-based immigrant visas are one of the most popular U.S. immigrant visa types. Foreign nationals can apply to get immigration status as permanent residents of the U.S. through immediate relatives — close family members like spouses, parents, siblings, and children, who are either Green Card holders or U.S. citizens.

U.S. citizens and permanent residents can apply for a Green Card for their spousesbiological or adoptive parents, or children. As Green Card holders, immigrants can live and work lawfully in the United States. They also have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens eventually, if they remain in legal status for three years or five years.

Employment-based immigrant visas

U.S. immigration policy also makes it possible for some highly-skilled foreign nationals to live in the U.S. while working for U.S. employers. There are both temporary and permanent work visas available for foreign nationals. Skilled foreign nationals have at least 20 temporary work visas they can apply for. Some of these visas include H-1B visas for foreign workers in U.S. specialty occupations, H-2B visas for non-agricultural employees to do seasonal, one-time work, L-1 visas for employees of multinational companies who are on transfer to a U.S. office branch, R-1 visas for religious workers, and P visas for people working in sports, arts, and entertainment. USCIS gives out only 65,000 H-1B visas per year. The U.S. Congress sets this H-1B visa cap. 

Foreign workers with some types of temporary work visas, like the H-1 and L-1, can eventually apply for a Green Card. This type of Green Card is employment-based, and their employer must submit an immigrant petition on their behalf. 

Humanitarian immigrant visas

People can also become U.S. permanent residents and citizens based on humanitarian reasons. People who flee their home country because of a fear of persecution can seek asylum or refugee status in the U.S. While waiting on a decision on their asylum application, asylum seekers are allowed to apply for a work permit to help them support themselves in the U.S. 

Foreign nationals in refugee and asylum seeker status may apply to become U.S. lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) through a process called an adjustment of status. Once in permanent resident status, asylees can also apply for Green Cards for any close family members who may have fled to the U.S. with them. Like all Green Card holders, they have the option of eventually becoming U.S. citizens by naturalization.

Diversity lottery immigrant visas

Every year, the U.S. Department of State runs a diversity lottery for immigrant visas, popularly known as the "Green Card lottery." Fifty thousand people receive diversity lottery visas each year, out of the approximately 12 million who apply. The U.S. visas offered in the lottery are available to people from countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the last five years.

Foreign nationals need to have at least completed high school or its equivalent (like a GED), or have worked in a job that requires training for at least two years to qualify for the diversity lottery. Their family members can get status through them as well. Learn more about how to register for the diversity visa lottery on the State Department website.

Longtime-resident Green Cards

Certain foreign nationals who have lived in the U.S. for a long time may qualify to apply for a Green Card and begin their official legal process of becoming U.S. immigrants. Not every foreign national living in the U.S. can apply for the longtime-resident Green Card. Only people who have been physically present in the U.S.—either lawfully or unlawfully—since January 1, 1972, and who have not left the U.S. since, are eligible to apply for longtime-resident Green Cards.

Other U.S. immigrant visas

Beyond the immigrant visa categories we have discussed, the U.S. government also issues other types of immigrant visas every year. There are Green Cards set aside for people considered "special immigrants." The Department of Homeland Security considers people like religious workers, people in entertainment, media professionals, and Iraqi and Afghanistan nationals who have assisted the U.S. government to be special immigrants. There are also Green Cards set aside in some cases for people from Mexico and Canada, America’s neighbors. You can learn more about these other types of U.S. immigrant visas on the USCIS website.

What are the requirements for a Green Card?

The requirements for a Green Card are specific to the type of Green Card you are applying for. Employment-based Green Cards and family-based Green Cards, for instance, have different requirements. However, two process requirements cut across the different Green Card types—the immigration medical exam and a criminal background check

At the immigration medical exam, a USCIS-certified doctor will carry out a series of health tests to confirm that you are in good health and can enter the U.S. 

Additionally, USCIS conducts a criminal background check as part of the immigration system’s process to ensure that they don't admit a public safety and national security threat into the U.S.

Read on to learn more about other requirements for the respective Green Card types.

Family-based Green Cards

To qualify for a family-based Green Card, you must be an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen or U.S. lawful permanent resident (Green Card holder). The length of time you will have to wait to get your Green Card will depend on whether you are closely related to a citizen or Green Card Holder.

People who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can apply for their Green Card right away. Immediate relatives here refers to the spouses or widows of U.S. citizensparents of U.S. citizens, and unmarried children who are 21 years old and younger.

People applying for the Green Card through a Green Card holder or a U.S. citizen family member they aren't closely related to are called "family preference" applicants. There are a limited number of family preference Green Cards available every year, so family preference applicants have to wait in line to apply. There are four main preference categories:

  • First Preference (F1)—Unmarried children, who are 21 or older, whose parents are U.S. citizens;

  • Second Preference (F2A & F2B)—Green Card holders' spouses and unmarried children;

  • Third Preference (F3)—Married children of U.S. citizens; and

  • Fourth Preference (F4)—age 21 and older, of U.S. citizens.

The preference category you belong to determines how long you will have to wait to apply.

For family-based Green Cards, the sponsor (the U.S. permanent resident or citizen that you are applying through) must submit an affidavit of support on your behalf. The affidavit is USCIS's way of ensuring that you will have access to financial support once you move to the U.S.

Humanitarian-based Green Cards

For humanitarian-based Green Cards, like the asylum Green Card, there are four main requirements to apply.

First, you must continue to qualify as a refugee under U.S. immigration law. This means that the dangerous situation that you fled from in your home country must continue to exist. If things have changed for the better, and you can return and live in your home country safely, this affects your eligibility for the Green Card.

Second, you must not have resettled in another country. Resettlement means that you have received an offer for permanent residence in another country that is neither your home country nor the U.S. If you firmly resettle in a third country after receiving U.S. asylum, you will no longer qualify for a Green Card.

Third, you need to have been physically present in the U.S. for at least a year to apply for a Green Card as an asylee. USCIS counts physical presence in the U.S. as only the time you spent in the U.S. since receiving asylum. Any time spent outside the U.S. after receiving asylum will not count. Once USCIS grants you asylum, you have to accumulate at least one full year spent in the U.S. before you can apply for a Green Card.

Finally, you must be "admissible" to the U.S. USCIS has published a list of "inadmissibility grounds" that will make it impossible for you to apply for a Green Card. This includes such things as health concerns, financial concerns, criminal history, etc. To be “admissible” you none of these inadmissibility grounds should pertain to you. You can learn more about the requirements for the asylum Green Card in our detailed article

Employment-based Green Cards

For employment-based Green Cards, you generally have to prove that you are highly-skilled and talented in your field of work, or be sponsored by an employer who can vouch for your skills and abilities in your line of work.

There are also additional requirements depending on which of the following five categories of employment-based Green Cards you apply for:

  • First Preference (EB-1)—This category covers academic researchers, executives of multinational companies, and people with nationally-recognized and internationally-acclaimed extraordinary skills fall under this category. It is not always straightforward to prove that your skills and talents have brought you popularity worldwide, so it's a good idea to talk to a lawyer to walk you through applying under this category.

  • Second Preference (EB-2)—This category refers to people with advanced degrees, people whose employment is in the U.S. national interest, and people with exceptional abilities in the arts, sciences, or business. Your employer would have to sponsor your Green Card application in this category. Your employer must also prove with a labor certification that you cannot be replaced at your job by an American worker because of your skill level.

  • Third Preference (EB-3)—This category covers three groups including unskilled workers in jobs requiring less than two years of prior experience, skilled workers with at least two years of work experience or training, and professionals in jobs requiring at least a U.S. bachelor's or its equivalent. For this category, your employer has to sponsor your application and provide labor certification to prove that it cannot find other qualified workers in the United States to do your job.

  • Fourth Preference (EB-4)—This category applies to "special immigrants," like religious workers and religious personnel. You will need your employer to sponsor you for this Green Card category.

  • Fifth Preference (EB-5)—This is for people who plan to invest at least $500,000 into creating jobs for people in the United States.


    Extra guidelines apply regarding what investments qualify and such. It is a good idea to talk to a lawyer if you're considering this path.

How much does it cost to immigrate to the U.S.?

The cost of immigrating to the U.S. depends largely on the type of Green Card you're applying for and where you're submitting your U.S. immigrant visa application from—inside the U.S. (adjustment of status) or outside of the U.S. (consular processing). The U.S. government collects filing fees for the different application forms included in your Green Card type.

In general, for family-based Green Cards, you will have to pay about $1,760 for adjustment of status cases (cases filed from inside the U.S.) and about $1,400 for consular processing cases (cases filed from outside the U.S.).

Humanitarian Green Cards for refugees and asylees cost around $1,140 to $1,225. These fees are regularly updated, and you can check the USCIS fee schedule for the most up-to-date information about application fees.

If you're curious about how to raise money to pay the government filing fees for your application, check out our comprehensive article on some things you can do.

How do you submit an immigrant visa application?

The application process for your Green Card will differ depending on where you're applying from. If you're applying for the Green Card while remaining in the U.S., you will submit your Green Card application through a process called "Adjustment of Status." If you apply for the Green Card from outside of the U.S., you will be submitting your application through what is called "Consular Processing." You can check out our adjustment of status and consular processing Green Card filing guides for more details on each of those processes. 

Generally, though, both application processes follow these steps:

Step 1 - Petitioner Files Application

The process begins with the petitioner (Green Card sponsor) filing an application on behalf of the beneficiary (Green Card applicant). In this step, your Green Card sponsor is submitting forms and supporting documents to establish that they have a family-based or employment-based relationship with you. For family-based Green Cards, your sponsor will submit Form I-130. For employment-based Green Cards, your employer will usually submit Form I-140.

Step 2 - USCIS Reviews Application

After USCIS reviews and approves your Green Card sponsor's petition, you can submit your Green Card application. You will file your application on Form I-485 with USCIS if you're applying from inside the U.S., or on Form DS-260 with the State Department if you're applying from outside the U.S. Additionally, for family-based Green Cards, your sponsor will have to commit to supporting you financially by submitting Form I-864

Step 3 - USCIS Schedules Biometrics Appointment

After USCIS receives your application, they will schedule a biometrics services appointment for you. At the appointment, USCIS will collect your biometric information, like your photograph and fingerprints. USCIS will run a criminal background check with your biometric data to ensure that you will not become a public safety threat if you become an immigrant.

Step 4 - In-person Interview

The Green Card interview is a crucial aspect of the immigration process. It is an in-person interview, and it happens at a local USCIS office if you apply in the U.S. or at a U.S. embassy or consulate close to your foreign address if you apply from abroad. The National Visa Center (NVC) handles all consular applications. At the interview, the interviewing officer will confirm that any information you submitted is accurate and that you're eligible for the Green Card. You may have to attend the interview with your sponsor in some cases. For example, if you apply for a marriage Green Card from inside the U.S., you will have to attend the interview with your permanent resident or citizen spouse.

Step 5 - Receive Decision On The Application

You will receive a decision on your Green Card application either at your interview or shortly after. If USCIS approves your application, you will receive your Green Card application in the mail 2 to 3 weeks later.

What are some pitfalls to avoid when applying for an immigrant visa?

Whether or not your immigrant visa application is successful can depend on a couple of factors.

Previous Immigration Trouble

One of the most common factors is your previous U.S. immigration history. If you have overstayed a prior nonimmigrant visa or undergone deportation proceedings, this can have a negative impact on your Green Card application. If you have any visa violations, it's a good idea to talk to a lawyer. has immigration lawyers that offer services for free or at a low cost.

The 90 Day Rule

The "90-Day Rule" is also something to be mindful of, especially if you plan to apply for an adjustment of status. When you come into the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa, USCIS expects you to maintain and remain in the nonimmigrant status you came with for at least 90 days after you arrive. If you apply to adjust your status within 90 days of your arrival in the U.S., USCIS will scrutinize your application very closely to check that you didn't lie about your real reason for coming to the U.S.

How long does it take to get a U.S. immigrant visa?

The amount of time it will take to get a U.S. immigrant visa depends on what kind of Green Card you are applying for. Even for the different Green Card types, the specific categories have different wait times. The volume of applications filed at the USCIS service center or U.S. embassy or consulate handling your application can also impact your application's processing time.

Generally, marriage-based Green Cards take 10 to 38 months, depending on if you're married to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. If your spouse is a U.S. citizen, it takes 10 to 17 months. It takes 23 to 38 months to get the Green Card if your spouse is a lawful permanent resident. The timing for employment-based Green Cards depends on the EB category, and you can speed the processing time up if your employer applies for premium processing for your case.

You can check out our article on immigration application processing times to learn more about how long your application should take.

What happens after you submit an immigrant visa application?

If all goes well, USCIS has approved your Green Card application at this point— Congratulations! You are now a lawful permanent resident of the United States, and are now allowed to live and work permanently in the U.S. You will receive your physical Green Card in the mail 2 to 3 weeks after you receive your application decision from USCIS.

As a lawful permanent resident, you can sponsor the Green Card applications of your family members. Your card will expire every ten years, and you can renew it as needed to maintain your status. After 3 to 5 years of being a permanent resident, you qualify to apply for U.S. citizenship. If you spend too much time outside of the U.S. or if you break the law, your Green Card may get revoked.