U.S. Visa Basics: Immigrant and Non-Immigrant Visas

US Visa Laws

A visa is a document that allows a foreign citizen permission to travel to a port of entry to the United States to request entry to the country. There are two main categories of visas: immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas. Within these two broad categories, there are different types of visas issued depending on the person’s reason for entering the country. The visa application process, fees, and requirements differ based upon the type of visa being sought, and may vary depending upon the U.S. Embassy or Consulate where the application is made.

Immigrant Visas

Immigrant visas are issued to those wanting to establish permanent residence in the U.S. For example, an immigrant visa is typically sought for a child being adopted from a foreign country, a relative of a U.S. citizen who wants to move to the U.S. permanently, or for someone seeking permanent employment in the U.S. Each of these visas is different.

A sponsor is usually required for a foreign citizen to obtain an immigrant visa. For a family visa, the sponsor must be an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (someone with a U.S. green card); for employment-based visas, the prospective U.S. employer would be the sponsor. 

The sponsor begins the immigration process by filing a petition on the foreign citizen’s behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The type of petition filed depends on the type of visa request; the petition for immigration of a family member of a U.S. citizen is different from the petition filed by an employer for a skilled worker. The petition must be approved before the prospective immigrant can submit his or her visa application. 

Once the petition is approved, the immigrant visa applicant will begin processing with the National Visa Center. This includes identifying an agent to receive communications from the Center, paying fees, submitting the visa application form, and collecting and submitting financial and other supporting documents. 

Once processing is complete, the applicant’s file is transferred to the appropriate U.S. Consulate or Embassy for an interview of the applicant. The applicant will also have to undergo a medical examination. After the interview, the applicant is notified whether their visa is approved—many are not.

Visas are then issued in the order in which the petitions are filed. However, U.S. law limits the number of visas available, and some limits are imposed by country. If the number of qualified applicants exceeds the number of available immigrant visas, the applicant is placed on a waiting list. For immigrants from some countries, the waiting list for a visa is long, lasting many years. 

Non-Immigrant Visas

Non-immigrant visas are issued to those seeking to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis. Non-immigrant visas for travel to the U.S. are also issued for very specific purposes, such as studying at a U.S. school, participating in an exchange program, or temporary or seasonal employment. 

The application process, forms, and required fees also differ depending upon the type of visa. For example, if an applicant seeks to enter the U.S. for the purposes of temporary employment, the prospective employer is required to file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The petition must be approved before the prospective employee can apply for a work visa. In most cases, in addition to completing the visa application, applicants for a non-immigrant visa must also undergo an interview, usually conducted at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their home country.

The visa type can include restrictions on the activities the individual is permitted to engage in while in the U.S. For example, an individual who is in the U.S. on a student visa may not have permission to work. In addition, if the individual’s plans or activities change while in the U.S., they may be required to apply for a change of immigration status in order to remain in the U.S. legally. An immigrant who is in the U.S. on a work visa may need to obtain a new visa if he or she wants to change jobs or work for a different employer, and in some cases, the employer may have to file the change of status paperwork on the employee’s behalf.

To learn more about visa laws and immigration status, read our previous post, Understanding U.S. Visa Laws and Immigration Status, or find an immigration lawyer

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Posted - 01/18/2017