What Is An Immigrant Visa and How to Obtain It?

Updated on 08/28/2022

While some foreigners only obtain the right to come to the United States on a temporary basis, for other foreigners, such amount of time in the United States is not enough.  These foreigners want to be in the United States for a longer amount of time.These foreigners specifically seek the right to come to the United States and remain on a permanent basis.  For these foreigners, an immigrant visa is a critical document in their quest to permanently be in the United States.

This article discusses what is an immigrant visa and how to obtain it.

Immigrant visa

Immigrant Visa vs. Non-Immigrant Visa

In explaining what is an immigrant visa, it is helpful to distinguish between immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas.

Visas generally grant foreigners the right to enter the United States.  The distinction between immigrant visa and non-immigrant visa relates to how long the visa holder can remain in the United States after entry.

A non-immigrant visa is issued to a foreigner seeking to come to the United States for a temporary amount of time.  There are more than 20 different categories of non-immigrant visas, including for certain employment, education, business, tourism, and medical purposes.

On the other hand, an immigrant visa is issued to a foreigner seeking to permanently come to the United States.  An immigrant visa is often associated with a green card –a physical card that evidences the holder’s right to permanently reside and work in the United States.

Given the greater immigration benefit provided by an immigrant visa than a non-immigrant visa, it should not be surprising that the process to obtain an immigrant visa is more involved than the process to obtain a non-immigrant visa.

Types of Immigrant Visa

There are many different types of immigrant visa. In understanding immigrant visas, it is useful to group all the immigrant visas into three broad categories – family, employment, and other.

Family

Family immigrant visas are issued based on a qualifying family relationship.  With most family immigrant visas, a family member sponsors another family member to obtain an immigrant visa.

Some family immigrant visas are sponsored by U.S. citizens.  These family immigrant visas are based on a relationship between a U.S. citizen (“USC”) and:

  • A spouse of the USC;
  • An unmarried child (under 21 years of age)of the USC;
  • An unmarried son or daughter (21 years of age or older) of the USC;
  • A married son or daughter of the USC;
  • Certain orphan children by intercountry adoption of the USC;
  • A parent of the USC (if the USC is at least 21 years old); and
  • A brother or sister of the USC (if the USC is at least 21 years old).

Other family immigrant visas are sponsored by a lawful permanent resident (“LPR”, green card holder).  These family immigrant visas are based on a relationship between a LPR and:

  • A spouse of the LPR;
  • An unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of the LPR; and
  • An unmarried son or daughter (21 years of age or older) of the LPR.

In addition, certain widows or widowers of USCs who were married to the USC when the USC died also may obtain a family immigrant visa.

At DYgreencard.com, you can free check eligibility to figure out whether you can sponsor a green card for your alien spouse, parent, child, sibling if you are a U.S. citizen, or spouse/child if you are a green card holder.

Employment

Employment immigrant visas are issued based on a qualifying relationship related to employment.  Witha majority of employment immigrant visas, an employer sponsors an employee to obtain an immigrant visa.

There are five subcategories of employment immigrant visas, as follows:

  1. Persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers with at least three years of experience in teaching or research, who are recognized internationally; and 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 a United States employer(the “EB1 subcategory”);
  2. Professionals holding an advanced degree (beyond a baccalaureate degree), or a baccalaureate degree and at least five years progressive experience in the profession, and persons with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business (the “EB2 subcategory”);
  3. Persons whose jobs require a minimum of two years training or work experience that are not temporary or seasonal, persons who 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, or persons capable of filling positions that require less than two years training or experience that are not temporary or seasonal (the “EB3 subcategory”);
  4. Certain “special immigrants”, including certain broadcasters in the U.S. employed by the International Broadcasting Bureau of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, certain ministers and religious workers, certain employees or former employees of the United States government abroad, certain former employees relating to the Panama Canal, certain Iraqi and Afghan interpreters/translators who worked with the U.S. armed forces, certain Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. government, certain retired international organization employees (and their surviving spouses and unmarried sons and daughters), certain persons recruited outside of the U.S. for the U.S. armed forces, and certain retired NATO-6 civilians (and their surviving spouses and unmarried sons and daughters) (the “EB4 subcategory”); and
  5. Certain investors who invest $800,000 in a targeted employment area or an infrastructure project, or $1,050,000 otherwise, in a U.S. new commercial enterprise, which will create at least 10 full-time jobs (the “EB5 subcategory”).

Other

In addition to family immigrant visas and employment immigrant visas, there are other immigrant visas, including based on the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which randomly selects certain persons (up to 50,000 people per year) for immigrant visas, and for various humanitarian reasons, including for certain refugees, asylees, and victims of human trafficking or other abuse.

How to Obtain an Immigrant Visa?

Certain specific steps must be followed to obtain an immigrant visa.

The first step is to file and have approved an immigrant petition.  The specific immigrant petition that must be filed will vary based on the specific type of immigrant visa that is sought to be obtained.  

I-130

The applicable immigrant petition for most family immigrant visas is U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”) Form I-130, “Petition for Alien Relative”.

Form I-130 is 12 pages and has 9 parts. It asks various factual questions about the sponsoring USC or LPR, known as the “Petitioner”.  It also asks various factual questions about the relative who is applying for the immigrant visa, known as the “Beneficiary”. The purpose of the Form I-130 is to prove the qualified relationship between the Petitioner and Beneficiary.

The actual completion of Form I-130 is relatively straightforward.  The key to having a Form I-130 approved is to properly submit the various documents and evidence that are required with Form I-130. Click here to obtain a document checklist for I-130 petition. 

Additional documents and evidence need to be submitted for certain special situations, including when the Beneficiary is a child born out of wedlock and the Petitioner is the father, when the Form I-130 is based on a stepparent-stepchild relationship, and when the Form I-130 concerns an adoptive parent or adopted child.

Form I-130, and the required supporting documents and evidence, are filed with USCIS. Click here to learn more about details of I-130 immigrant petition and its filing.

I-140

The applicable immigrant petition for a majority of employment immigrant visas (generally employment immigrant visas in the EB1 subcategory, the EB2 subcategory, and the EB3 subcategory) is USCIS Form I-140, “Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers”.

Some EB immigrant petitions needs to be sponsored by a U.S. employer while some of them can be self-petitioned. Some of them needs to obtain a Labor Certification before filing of   Form I-140 while some of them do not. Learn more in our article “Employment Based Green Card – Get Green Card through Employment”.

Frankly, employment immigrant petitions are much complicated and time-consuming than family immigrant petitions. A skilled immigration lawyer is always recommended to such type of cases.

Other Immigrant Visa Forms

In addition to Form I-130 and Form I-140, among the other immigrant petitions that may need to be filed to obtain an immigrant visa include:

  • For qualifying widows or widowers and most persons applying under the E4 subcategory – USCIS Form I-360, “Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant”; and
  • For persons applying under the EB5 subcategory – USCIS Form I-526, “Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur”.

Form I-360 and Form I-526, and their respective required supporting documents and evidence, are filed with USCIS.

Consular Processing

If the applicable immigrant petition is approved, the first step to obtain an immigrant visa is met. The specific second step to obtain an immigrant visa will depend on whether the applicant for the immigrant visa is then residing outside of or in the United States.

If the applicant is then residing outside of the United States, the specific second step to obtain an immigrant visa is known as consular processing. If the applicant is residing inside of the United States, the specific second step is known as adjustment of status. Under certain circumstances, the applicant can switch between consular processing and adjustment of status if they enter or leave the U.S.  Nevertheless, it is highly recommended to consult a skilled immigration lawyer before making such switch.

Under consular processing, USCIS will send the approved immigrant petition to the U.S. Department of State’s National Visa Center (“NVC”).  NVC will issue a case number for the applicant’s case and forward the case to the applicable U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where the applicant has permanent residence.

The applicant will need to file Form DS-260, “Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration”, various supporting documents (such as passport ID page, U.S passport size photo, birth certificate, marriage certificate, divorce decree, police clearance certificate, military record if applicable) will also be required to submitted to NVC. For family-based immigrant visa applications,  the Petitioners need to prove that they have sufficient financial ability to sponsor the applicants. Thus, Form I-864, Affidavit of Support and its supporting documents should be submitted to NVC as well.

After NVC completes reviewing all the documents, an immigrant visa interview will be scheduled. After the interview is scheduled, the applicant needs to complete a medical examination at  designated doctors’ offices before the interview. On the interview date, the applicant is required to attend an interview at the applicable U.S. embassy or consulate.

If the interview proceeds favorably, the immigrant visa should be granted and produced on the passport. With the immigrant visa, the applicant can land on the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident. The physical green card will be mailed to the applicant within 120 days upon entry with the immigrant visa.

Adjustment of Status

On the other hand, if the applicant is then residing in the United States, the specific second step to obtain an immigrant visa is known as adjustment of status.

Under adjustment of status, the applicant will need to file USCIS Form I-485, “Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status”(with various supporting documents and evidence, Form I-864 is also required for all family-based applicants), with USCIS (USCIS handles adjustment of status processing), complete a medical examination, be subject to biometrics appointment (fingerprints, photo and signature of the applicant will be collected), and likely attend an interview at a USCIS local field office.  If there is an interview, and the interview proceeds favorably, or if the application is considered so favorable that no interview is required, the immigrant visa should be granted and a physical green card will be mailed to the applicant generally within 2 weeks. 

Learn more about details of adjustment of status in our article “A Complete Guide of Adjustment of Status”.

How Long Does it Take to Obtain an Immigrant Visa?

The filing of the various immigrant petitions described above to obtain an immigrant visa will incur certain filing fees.  Specifically, the following filing fees apply:

  • Form I-130 –$535;
  • Form I-140 –$700;
  • Form I-360 –$435;
  • Form I-526 –$3,675;
  • Form DS-260 –$445 (only applicable under consular processing, consisting of a Visa Application Processing fee of $325, and an Affidavit of Support fee of $120 if applicable);
  • Immigrant Visa fee-$220 (only applicable under consular processing);
  • Form I-485 – $1,140 (only applicable under adjustment of status, $750 if the applicant is under the age of 14 and filing with a parent’s Form I-485); and
  • Biometrics fee-$85 (only applicable under adjustment of status, for applicants between 14 and 79 years of age).

In addition, in evaluating the total costs to obtain an immigrant visa, it also is relevant to consider the costs for a medical examination, which generally ranges from $400-$800.

Moreover, for certain employment immigrant visa applications which require a Labor Certification, adverting cost must be taken into consideration as it will cost thousands of dollars. 

How Long Does it Take to Obtain an Immigrant Visa?

The time that it takes to obtain an immigrant visa varies greatly from case to case. It will significantly depend on the type of immigrant visa that the applicant is seeking and the specific facts of the case. 

As a general statement, immigrant visas can take anywhere from less than a year (for immigrant petitions by certain spouses, unmarried children (under 21 years of age), and parents of USCs) to 10 to 20 years (for immigrant petitions by certain EB5 subcategory applicants).

Conclusion

For some foreigners, non-immigrant visas do not provide a sufficient time to be in the United States.  These foreigners want to enjoy the benefits from coming to the United States permanently.

Just as the child asks the child’s mother for more time to play, these foreigners declare,  “Permanently, U.S. government!”.  By obtaining an immigrant visa, the foreigner can cause the U.S. government to respond, “Yes, you can permanently remain in the United States”.

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