Whether you plan to come to the United States for a short visit or a permanent stay, your first step is to apply for a visa.
Many people think they can show up at a U.S. embassy or border post, describe why they'd make a good addition to U.S. society, and be welcomed in. Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of how the U.S. immigration system works.
Instead, people who want to come to the U.S., whether temporarily or permanently, must determine whether they fit into certain eligibility categories for either "permanent residence" (a green card or immigrant visa) or for a temporary stay ("nonimmigrant visa"). Whether applying for an immigrant or nonimmigrant visa will depend on how quickly you want to come to the United States and what type of visa your U.S. sponsor will apply for. In certain instances, you can get a visa approval in 15 days or less if you pay an additional premium processing fee of $1,000.00 to the U.S. Government.
Once you have decided on which visa to apply for your sponsor will submit an application -- in fact, often a series of applications -- to one or more of the U.S. agencies responsible for carrying out the immigration laws. These include U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which has offices across the United States, and the U.S. Department of State (DOS), which manages consulates and embassies around the world.
What is Permanent Residence (a Green Card)?
If you want to be able to make your permanent home in the United States, you'll need what is called "permanent residence," or a "green card." Green card holders can live and work in the U.S. and travel in and out, with some restrictions (they should not be outside the U.S. for more than 180 days at a time, they can't vote, and can be deported if they abuse their status).
In order to obtain a Green Card you will need a sponsor to file an application on your behalf. The sponsor may either be a U.S. employer or family member. Family members of U.S. citizens make up the largest number of green cards issued each year. Others are issued to investors and workers who have been petitioned by U.S. employers or have special skills. Still other categories have a humanitarian basis, such as refugee or political asylum status (which can lead to a green card), for people who are fleeing persecution. The time it takes to get a green card can range from 8 months to several years depending on who your sponsor is. For example; a green card application for the parent, spouse or child of a U.S. citizen usually takes less than a year but the application for a sibling of a U.S. citizen can take more than ten years. Permanent residents are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship after 5 years of maintaining permanent residency status (it is 3 years if your permanent residency is based on marriage to a U.S. citizen).
Next up....Nonimmigrant Visas