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Immigrant Visas

for Permanent Residence in the United States

 
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Updated: September 19, 2017

Immigrant (permanent) visas are available to qualified individuals who wish to live permanently or indefinitely in the US. In most, but not all, cases, in order to be eligible to apply for an immigrant visa, a foreign citizen must be sponsored by either a US citizen relative (spouse, father, mother, brother, sister or child over the age of 21), a US lawful permanent resident spouse or parent, or by a prospective employer.

US immigration law prescribes preference classes for the allotment of immigrant visas as follows :

Immediate relatives
Special immigrants
Family-sponsored
Employment-based
Diversity visas (the ‘Green Card Lottery’)

All immigrant categories, except for ‘immediate relatives’ and ‘special immigrants,’ are numerically limited and annual per-country quotas are prescribed by law. This often has the result, particularly in the family-sponsored categories, that the prospective applicant must wait a long time between the filing of the immigrant visa petition and the issuance of an immigrant visa.

Waivers of ineligibility for an immigrant visa are available in some but not all circumstances. For additional information regarding waivers of ineligibility, see our article Washington, we have a problem!

APPLICANTS NOT SUBJECT TO ANNUAL NUMERICAL LIMITATIONS

IMMEDIATE RELATIVES

This category includes 3 subgroups. For information regarding how a US citizen living in the United Kingdom can sponsor an immediate relative for an immigrant visa, click here.

First: The unmarried children of a US citizen, as long as the children are under the age of 21.

Second: The spouse of a US citizen and the parents of a US citizen who is aged 21 years or older

Third: A widow/widower (and his/her unmarried children under the age of 21) of a US citizen if the parties were not legally separated at the time of the citizen’s death, the widow/widower has not remarried and the widow/widower files an immigrant visa petition within two years of the date of death. 

SPECIAL IMMIGRANTS

This category primarily includes individuals who lived in the United States previously as lawful permanent residents and are returning to live in the US after a temporary visit of more than one year abroad.

APPLICANTS SUBJECT TO ANNUAL NUMERICAL LIMITATIONS

US immigration law prescribes preference classes for the issuance of immigrant visas as follows:

FAMILY-BASED PREFERENCES

First Preference: Unmarried sons and daughters, at least 21 years of age, of US citizens, and their unmarried children under the age of 21.

Second Preference: Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 of lawful permanent residents. At least 77 percent of all visas available for this category will be allocated to the spouses and children; the remainder will be available for the unmarried sons and daughters (aged 21 or older) of permanent residents.

Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of US citizens, and their spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21.

Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of US citizens, and their unmarried children under the age of 21. In order to sponsor a sibling for an immigrant visa the US citizen must be at least 21 years old.

EMPLOYMENT-BASED PREFERENCES

The Immigration and Nationality Act provides a yearly maximum of 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas, which are divided into five preference categories.

First Preference: Priority workers receive 28.6 percent of the yearly world-wide limit of employment-based immigrant visas. Within this preference category there are three subgroups.

Second Preference: There are two subgroups within the second preference category, which is allocated 28.6 percent of the yearly worldwide limit, plus any unused first preference visas. Eligible for second preference immigrant visas are the following:

  • First: Professionals holding an advanced degree (beyond a baccalaureate degree) or the equivalent.
  • Second: Persons with exceptional ability in the arts, sciences or business.

Third Preference: The three subgroups of the third preference are eligible to receive 28.6 percent of the yearly worldwide limit for employment-based immigrant visas, plus any unused immigrant visas from the employment-based first and second preferences. Employers filing petitions for prospective employees under this preference must demonstrate that the proposed foreign worker would be employed in a position for which US workers are unavailable. The subgroups are as follows:

  • First: Skilled workers (persons capable of performing a job requiring at least two years’ training or experience).
  • Second: Professionals with a baccalaureate degree.
  • Third: Other workers (persons capable of performing unskilled labor, not of a temporary or seasonal nature).

Fourth Preference: This preference accounts for 7.1 percent of the yearly worldwide limit and covers a wide variety of applicants, including but not limited to ministers of religion, retired employees of international organizations, and certain overseas employees of the US Government.

Fifth Preference: Employment Creation Investors receive 7.1 percent of the yearly worldwide limit. To qualify, applicants must have invested, or be actively in the process of investing, at least $1,000,000 in a business which they will manage. If the investment is in a new enterprise (including the qualifying expansion of an existing business) it must create full-time employment for at least ten US workers (either citizens or immigrants and not including the investor and his or her family). Alternatively, an investment of $500,000 may also qualify if the business is located in a geographical location designated as a “targeted employment area,” being either a rural area or one with high unemployment.  A pilot programme also makes immigrant visas available to passive investors in approved regional centres. For more information regarding the Employment Creation Investor immigrant visa, see our article Immigrant Investor: The ‘Million Dollar Green Card’.

DIVERSITY IMMIGRANTS

The Diversity Visa Program, often called 'the green card lottery,' makes available 55,000 immigrant visas every year to persons from countries with low levels of immigration to the US during the five preceding years.  (The number of available visas has been temporarily reduced to 50,000 per year.)  The selection of winners is made at random by computer from among all qualified entries submitted during the registration period.  Registration for the Fiscal Year 2018 Lottery ended November 3, 2016, but the Fiscal Year 2019 Lottery is open for registration from October 3 to November 7, 2017.  Information regarding the Lottery and the application process can be obtained from the US Department of State’s Diversity Immigrant Visa Program web page

Eligibility for the Lottery is generally determined by a person's place of birth—that is, the country of which one is a 'native'—rather than by one's country of citizenship or residence. The Department of State has published on its website and elsewhere a list of qualifying countries, natives of which may participate in the Lottery.

Individuals whose place of birth disqualifies them for participation in the Lottery but who have a spouse who is a native of a qualifying country may themselves be eligible to apply, as long as the spouses are both issued immigrant visas and enter the US simultaneously. In addition, if a person was born in a country whose natives are ineligible, but neither of his or her parents was born there or resided there at the time of the birth, such person may be able to claim nativity in one of the parents’ country of birth.

In order to participate in the Lottery an applicant must be otherwise eligible for an immigrant visa (for a general discussion of the more common grounds of ineligibility under the Immigration and Nationality Act click here) and have either (1) a high school education or its equivalent or (2) two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience to perform.

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