Updated: March 17, 2020
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
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
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
The unmarried children of a US citizen, as long as the children
are under the age of 21.
The spouse of a US citizen and the parents of a US citizen
who is aged 21 years or older
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.
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
Unmarried sons and daughters, at least 21 years of age, of
US citizens, and their unmarried children under the age of
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
Preference: Married sons and daughters of US citizens,
and their spouses and unmarried children under the age of
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.
The Immigration and Nationality
Act provides a yearly maximum of 140,000 employment-based
immigrant visas, which are divided into five preference categories.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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’.
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 2019 Lottery ended November 22, 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.