Comprehensive Guide to U.S. Immigration: How to Legally Immigrate to the U.S.

The choice to immigrate to the U.S.A. is a significant one. If you are considering moving to America, remember that legal immigration refers to the official way to live permanently in the U.S.A., work there, enjoy rights, and maybe become an American. There are various ways to immigrate, and this guide will explore the most common routes available.

The road is not easy, and the U.S. immigration process is not cheap, so consider this guide as your companion in the immigration process. We will discuss the difference between immigrant and non-immigrant visas, obtaining lawful permanent residency status, the approval process, and more. U.S. legal immigration is complex and requires careful planning, so let’s take one step at a time!

What Is Immigration to the United States?

Immigration to the United States is the legal process for obtaining permanent residency. It involves moving to the U.S. to establish yourself here in the long term. People choose to immigrate for various reasons, such as seeking better employment opportunities, escaping conflict or hardship in their home country, pursuing educational goals, or reuniting with family members who are already U.S. citizens.

The U.S. immigration system is built on several core principles.

One is family reunification, which allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to sponsor close family members for immigration. Another principle is attracting skilled workers who contribute positively to the U.S. economy. The system also offers a path for refugees fleeing persecution to find safety and build a new life. Finally, the U.S. values the diversity that immigrants bring to its society.

The law governing U.S. immigration policy is called the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.). This act sets a yearly limit on permanent immigrant visas that can be issued across various categories. Importantly, there is no limit on the number of immediate family members (spouses, parents, and unmarried children under 21) of U.S. citizens who can be admitted each year. Additionally, the I.N.A. mandates annual consultations between the President and Congress to determine the number of refugees the U.S. will accept through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

How to Immigrate to the United States: Immigrant vs. Non-immigrant Visas

If you want to move to America, you have a direct way to become a permanent resident (obtain an immigrant visa) and an indirect way (obtain a non-immigrant visa, which doesn’t grant permanent residency but could eventually lead to a green card through complex and lengthy processes).

An immigrant visa (the green card) grants you permanent residency (LPR status) with the right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely.

In some cases, if you are already in the U.S. without legal status, you can get lawful permanent resident status through “adjustment of status.” It typically involves meeting specific requirements and going through an A.O.S. application process while legally remaining in the U.S.

On the other hand, a non-immigrant visa allows you to stay in the country temporarily for a specific purpose, such as tourism, work, or studies. They could indirectly lead to green cards, but only under specific conditions. For example, a student on an F-1 visa may later get sponsored by their employer on an H-1B work visa and eventually qualify for an employment-based green card.

IMPORTANT! This guide will discuss direct and permanent U.S. immigration and green cards. Hence, our focus in the next section will be on immigrant visas.

Immigrant Visa Categories and Green Cards

The green card allows you to stay indefinitely in America if you don’t commit serious crimes. Green cards also open the door to applying for U.S. citizenship after just a few years (three years if married to a U.S. citizen, five years otherwise).

The U.S. grants a little under 1 million green cards each year. Interestingly, about half of them go to people already in the U.S. who may have been temporary workers or students and are now seeking permanent status. The other half goes to applicants outside the country.

Getting a green card usually requires visa sponsorship, either from a family member who is a U.S. citizen or an employer who needs your skills. Family reunification is a primary focus of U.S. immigration, with roughly two-thirds of green cards going to family members of U.S. citizens. The remaining third is divided between employment opportunities, humanitarian reasons, and the lottery system for diversity.

Family-Based U.S. Immigration, Visa Types, and Family Green Cards

The U.S. immigration system has a dedicated path for reuniting families. This is called family-based immigration and allows U.S. citizens and green card beneficiaries to sponsor certain family members for green cards.

There are two main categories within family-based immigration:

Immediate Relatives

This category offers the fastest track and has no annual visa limit. It includes spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents of U.S. citizens (as long as the petitioning citizen is at least 21 years old). There are standard eligibility requirements that both the applicant and the U.S. citizen sponsoring them need to meet, including financial requirements for the sponsor.

Family Preference System

This category has a limited number of visas available each year. It covers a broader range of family members, such as adult children (married or unmarried) and siblings of U.S. citizens (again, the petitioning citizen must be 21 or older). It also includes lawful permanent residents’ spouses and children (minor and adult). Similar to immediate relatives, there are eligibility requirements for both the applicant and the sponsoring LPR.

Here is a quick overview of the family-based green card visa categories:


Immediate Relative

Immediate Relative

Immediate Relative

Immediate Relative



Visa Type

IR1, CR1 visas

K-3 visa*

IR3, IH3, IR4, IH4

IR2, CR2, IR5, F1, F3, F4

F2A, F2B


Spouse of a U.S. Citizen

Spouse of a U.S. Citizen awaiting I-130 approval

Fiancé(e) of a U.S. Citizen (to marry & live in the U.S.)

Intercountry orphans' adoption by U.S. citizens

Certain family members of U.S. Citizens (e.g., adult children, parents)

Certain family members of lawful permanent residents (e.g., spouse, children)

IMPORTANT! While listed here, K visas are technically non-immigrant visas. However, they are included in this table because they are a step to obtaining a green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen.

Employment-based U.S. Immigration, Visa Types, and Employment Green Cards

If you want a green card through work, the U.S. allocates a fixed number of visas annually for the principal applicants and their eligible family members. These employment visas are separated into five preference categories, with some requiring a labor market test to ensure a U.S. worker cannot fill the job.

The process typically involves sponsorship from an employer or self-petitioning (depending on the category). After USCIS approval, foreign nationals can apply for an immigrant visa abroad (consular processing) or adjust their status to LPR if they are legally in the U.S.

Here is a clearer perspective on employment-based immigrant green card categories:

Visa Type





S (various subtypes)

S.D., S.R.



C-5, T-5, R-5, I-5


Priority workers (e.g., extraordinary ability in sciences, arts, business, athletics, or outstanding professors/researchers)

Advanced degree holders and professionals with exceptional abilities (with a national interest waiver possible)

Skilled workers, professionals, and other workers (performing skilled or unskilled labor)

Certain special immigrants

Religious workers (ministers, religious vocations, etc.)

Iraqi and Afghan translators/interpreters

Iraqis who worked for the American government

Afghans did work for the U.S. government's benefit.

Immigrant investors (creating a commercial enterprise and investing a specific amount of capital)

What Is the Difference Between Temporary Work Visas and Employment-based Immigration Green Cards?

Over 20 types of temporary work visas are available in the United States, allowing companies and employers to hire alien workers for specific jobs and durations. The most common examples include:

IMPORTANT! Most temporary workers are tied to the sponsoring employer and may have limited job-changing options. These visas typically require workers to leave the U.S. when their visa expires or their employment ends.

Humanitarian-based U.S. Immigration, Visa Types, and Humanitarian Green Cards

The U.S. offers you permanent residency (green card) if you face persecution or hardship in your home country or are a victim of certain crimes within the U.S. It is called a humanitarian-based green card, also known as a “special immigrant” green card.

This U.S. immigration program helps refugees, victims of human trafficking, asylum seekers, and others who have received special visas or humanitarian parole. You must meet specific criteria set by U.S. immigration laws.

Here’s a breakdown of some common types of humanitarian visas that can lead to a green card:

Visa Type

U Visa

VAWA Green Card


Available to victims of severe human trafficking who cooperate with authorities to investigate and prosecute the crime.

Granted to individuals living in the U.S. who suffered physical or mental abuse and cooperate with law enforcement.

Offered to victims of domestic violence or abuse by a U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouse or parent.

The humanitarian immigration application process is incredibly complex and requires detailed documentation to prove your circumstances. However, if you qualify, a humanitarian-based green card offers a life-changing opportunity for safety and stability in the U.S.

Diversity-based U.S. Immigration, Visa Types, and Diversity Green Cards

The Diversity Visa Lottery program application itself is free and done electronically. Once the application period closes (you have a very narrow window that usually opens in the fall), the U.S. government conducts a random selection of qualified applicants. Those chosen will be invited to apply for a green card, which involves further steps and fees.

To qualify for immigrating to America on a diversity visa, you must be a citizen of an eligible visa lottery country, have at least a high school diploma, its equivalent, or two years of work experience in a qualified field, and pass a background check.

IMPORTANT! Winning the visa lottery doesn’t mean you can immigrate to the United States the next day! You still must meet all the requirements for permanent residency through the green card application process!

How To Legally Immigrate to The U.S. And What Is the Immigration Process

While the U.S. immigration system offers various ways to move to America to live and work as a legal immigrant and green card holder, each path has its requirements, procedures, fees, and processing times. While the specifics vary depending on the immigrant visa type you seek, we will discuss the general immigration requirements for many U.S. visas.

Meeting the Green Card Eligibility Requirements

Since the two most common routes to legal U.S. immigration are family-based and employment-based green cards, let’s take a closer look at the eligibility criteria for each of them:

Family-Based Immigration Qualification and Requirements

You can immigrate to America if you have a close family relationship with a U.S. citizen or green card holder willing to sponsor your application. 

  • Eligibility: You need a qualifying family tie, such as being a spouse, child, parent, or sibling of an American citizen or green card beneficiary.
  • Financial sponsorship: Your sponsor must demonstrate sufficient income to sustain you financially and prevent you from becoming a public charge. Sometimes, a joint sponsor can supplement the income requirement.
  • Immediate relatives vs. family preference: If your sponsor is a U.S. citizen and you fall under specific categories (spouse, minor child, parent of a U.S. citizen over 21, or widow(er)), you qualify for a faster track with no wait time for a visa. You’ll apply under family preference categories for other family relationships or if your sponsor is a green card holder. These have wait times depending on your specific relationship (typically shorter for children of U.S. citizens, longer for siblings).

Employment-Based Immigration Qualifications and Requirements

If you have the skills and experience that are valuable to U.S. employers, you can immigrate on a work visa. Here’s a glimpse into eligibility criteria and USCIS requirements.

  • Job offers and sponsorship: You need a valid job offer from a U.S. employer willing to sponsor your visa petition.
  • Labor certification (in some cases): To ensure the job wasn’t filled by a qualified U.S. worker, some employment-based immigration visa categories require labor certification from the Department of Labor.
  • Qualification and experience: You must meet the education and experience requirements for the offered position.

You could apply for EB-1 or EB-2 (Exceptional Ability or Advanced Degrees) visas if you prove exceptional abilities in STEM, arts, business, or athletics or are a professional with advanced degrees. Qualifying for an EB-1 or EB-2 visa requires extensive documentation showcasing your extraordinary skills, training, and achievements. This might involve awards, recognition, patents, or publications in your field.

The EB-2, EB-3 & EB-4 (Professionals, Skilled Workers & Certain Special Immigrants) visas directly address professionals with advanced degrees and skilled workers offering valuable skills in specific job fields. Typically, you’ll need an employer to sponsor your application and petition for your green card. For EB-2 and EB-3 visas, the process often involves obtaining a Labor Certification from the D.O.L. 

The EB-5 category offers a green card option for foreign investors who invest significantly in a U.S. commercial enterprise, creating jobs for American workers. Complex rules govern the minimum investment amount, the type of business, and the number of jobs created.

Have a Valid Passport

This is your key to entering the U.S. All visa applicants must hold a valid passport from their home country. The passport’s validity period should typically extend at least six months beyond your intended stay in the U.S. Renewal procedures vary by country, so plan accordingly.

Submit the Immigration Petition to USCIS

Specific visa categories, like those for employment or family reunification, require a sponsor or petitioner to file an application on your behalf (Form I-130 for a family member’s green card and Form I-140 for a foreign worker’s green card). This petitioner is typically a U.S. citizen or green card holder willing to support your immigration process.

Attend Your Consular Interview

For most visa types, you must attend a consular interview at a U.S. embassy or consulate in your home country. This interview is your chance to explain your purpose for travel, demonstrate your eligibility for the respective visa, and answer any questions from the consular officer. Preparing well for this interview is crucial.

Prove Financial Support and Resources

Some visas, especially those for work or study, may require proof of sufficient financial resources to support yourself during your stay in the U.S. This could involve bank statements, proof of employment, or a scholarship award letter.

Demonstrate English Language Proficiency

You may need to demonstrate your English communication ability depending on the visa category. This might involve taking an English language proficiency test like the TOEFL or IELTS.

Pass the Medical Examination

Certain visa applicants, such as those seeking permanent residency, may need a medical examination by a designated physician. This exam ensures you’re healthy and don’t carry any contagious diseases.

Get a Biometrics Check and Have a Clean Criminal Record

Most immigration visa applicants must go through and pay for a biometrics check. All visa applicants are subject to security checks. You must demonstrate a clean criminal background without involvement in terrorist activities or serious crimes.

Seek Legal Counsel

U.S. immigration laws are so complex that they sometimes confuse American authorities and judges. Considering the time, effort, and potential consequences involved, hiring legal help when you decide to immigrate to America can make all the difference. A U.S. immigration attorney or a service provider can help you understand the specific requirements for your desired visa category, ensure a complete and accurate application, and represent your interests throughout the process, especially since U.S. immigration is a touchy subject these days and one small error on a form can quash your dream to become an American in a second.

How to Go Through the Visa Application Process On Your Way to Becoming a Legal American Immigrant

How you get your green card varies depending on where you are currently. If you’re already in the U.S., you can apply and stay legally while your application is reviewed (through Adjustment of Status). This is the ideal situation!

However, if you’re outside the U.S., you’ll typically apply from your home country and wait there for processing at the U.S. embassy or consulate (consular processing). Understanding the difference between these two is mandatory.

No matter which path you take (family or employment-based immigration), the basic application process usually involves five key steps:

  1. Petition: Your sponsor files a petition on your behalf with U.S. authorities.
  2. Approval: USCIS reviews and approves the petition.
  3. Application: You submit your formal green card application.
  4. Interview: You attend an in-person interview to discuss your eligibility.
  5. Decision: You receive a decision on your application.

The processing location determines where things happen next. If you’re already in the U.S., USCIS handles it, and you’ll be notified for fingerprints and photos (biometrics). If you’re abroad, your consulate takes over, and biometrics will be part of your interview.

Finally, your green card will either be mailed directly to you or come with a visa allowing you to travel to the U.S. for final processing and mailing of your green card to your U.S. address.

How Long Does It Take to Immigrate to the U.S.?

Now, this is a question for the ages! The wait for your green card can feel like an eternity, depending on several factors. Here are some issues that influence your immigration wait times and how they differ depending on what type of immigration you choose:

Marriage-based Immigration and Green Cards

Suppose you’re married to a U.S. citizen. In that case, you can expect a shorter wait time (around 17 months) than marrying a green card holder (around 30 to 48 months) because U.S. citizens’ spouses are considered “immediate relatives” with priority processing.

Other Family-Based Immigration Options

For other family relationships, such as parent-child or sibling sponsorship, wait times can be significantly longer and depend heavily on your situation. These categories have limited visas issued each year, creating a backlog affecting processing speeds. To stay updated on current wait times for your specific family category, you can consult the U.S. visa bulletin, released monthly.

Employment-Based Green Cards

The processing time for employment-based immigration petitions is about 1 to 3 years. Once everything is approved, on average, your actual green card application processing can take less than a year. In some cases, your employer might be able to expedite your application processing by utilizing premium processing, which comes with an additional fee but can significantly reduce wait times.

In other words, you won’t be able to immigrate to America once you decide. Plan your future by counting months and years, not days or weeks.

Diversity Visa Green Cards

The wait to be scheduled for your interview and receive your visa can vary up to 14 months – which doesn’t mean you can immigrate; it only means you must go to the interview. This timeframe depends on how quickly you submit your visa application after being selected. The sooner you apply, the sooner you’ll likely be interviewed and receive your visa. As you can imagine, moving to the U.S. as a legal immigrant takes much longer, especially nowadays, with the Diversity Lottery being a hot topic for the U.S. government.

Asylum Green Cards

The processing times for asylum immigration applications can vary dramatically, ranging from as little as 4 months to over 5 years. This significant variation is due to the involvement of the court system in determining asylum eligibility, which can add significant delays.

IMPORTANT! To minimize delays, ensure your visa and all other immigration applications and supporting documents are complete, accurate, and filed correctly from the beginning. Incomplete or missing information can lead to highly lengthy processing times!

How Much Does It Cost to Immigrate to the U.S.?

The price tag for immigrating to the U.S. can vary greatly, ranging from $1,600 to $10,000. This wide range boils down to two main factors: the type of green card you’re applying for and the specifics of your situation.

  • Family-based green card: Calculate your budget starting at a minimum of $3,100 (for applicants already in the U.S.) to a minimum of $1,600 (for those abroad). It includes mandatory government fees and the typical medical exam cost.
  • Employment-based green card: Here, costs vary depending on the specific E.B. category you’re applying under. Expect to pay around a minimum of $2,500 for your application. Still, your employer might incur additional filing fees and labor certification costs, potentially pushing the total cost closer to $10,000, if not more.

Remember that the mandatory government fees (non-refundable) include application fees, processing fees, biometrics (if applicable), and medical exam costs. These fees also differ depending on your application for family, employment, or other immigration programs.

Other fees you must include in your immigration budget are translation fees for some documents, legal fees you need to pay an immigration lawyer (depending on your case’s complexity and your lawyer’s experience), immigration services fees, transportation costs, documents’ notarization (when necessary), etc. 

Moreover, if you’re considering residency through investment, additional costs like starting and running a business in the U.S. will need to be factored in.

You Immigrated. What's Next?

For many people, reaching and passing through Border Control at an American airport is already the biggest dream come true. But while you are on your way to your family or a new job, you must wonder what you should do next with your newly achieved legal immigrant status. 

Since the U.S. is now your home base, following your future goals is only logical.

First, expect your physical green card to arrive within 3 months at the U.S. address you provided on your application. The good news is that you don’t need to wait for the card to arrive to start enjoying the benefits of your green card status. You’re legally authorized to live and work in the U.S. after your application is approved.

Then, between 3 and 5 years after receiving your green card, you’ll become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. This is the final step for many immigrants seeking full legal status in the U.S. While becoming a citizen isn’t mandatory, it grants additional rights and privileges, such as voting in elections.

If this is a goal you aspire to, it’s never too early to start planning. To qualify for citizenship, you must meet specific requirements, file forms, pay fees, and take the test.

IMPORTANT! You’ll receive a conditional green card if you obtained your green card through marriage but haven’t been married for at least 2 years. It means you must file a petition (Form I-751) to remove the conditions after two years of being married and living together in the U.S. Failing to file this petition could result in the revocation of your green card!

IMPORTANT! You must renew your green card once in 10 years. Fortunately, there’s no limit on how many times you can renew it as long as you meet the eligibility requirements.

Can You Get Immigration Problems and Troubles as a Legal Immigrant?

If you think visa availability, bureaucracy, money, or wait times are the only challenges you must deal with during your legal immigration process, you are only half right. As hard as you gain your legal immigrant status, as easy is to lose your privileges and get in trouble with the American immigration and justice systems. So this is what you must and must not do related to your green card and immigration status in the U.S.

Don't Live Outside the U.S. Too Long

Spending more than a year outside the U.S. without a reentry permit or filing taxes can be considered abandoning your residency. To prevent this from happening, apply for a reentry permit for extended absences or consult an attorney if you need to be outside the U.S. for a long time.

Don't Commit Any Serious Crimes

Serious crimes can lead to you losing your green card. Period. Not all criminal convictions will result in losing your status, but some offenses might trigger deportation proceedings. These typically involve crimes considered morally reprehensible:

  • Crimes committed within 5 years of arrival (or 10 years for informants): If you’re convicted of a serious crime within this timeframe and it’s punishable by at least a year in prison, you could be deported.
  • Multiple crimes: Having two or more convictions for these serious offenses, even if unrelated, can also lead to deportation.
  • Aggravated felonies: Any conviction in this area at any time after entering the U.S. can be grounds for deportation. This category includes specific severe crimes like drug trafficking, firearms offenses, and certain violent crimes.

If you’re arrested for anything (serious or not), immediately speak to a criminal lawyer and an immigration attorney to understand the potential consequences.

Don't Fail to Remove the Conditions on Conditional Green Cards

If you have a marriage green card or an investment one, you must remove the conditions within 90 days of the 2-year card expiration date. File Form I-751 (marriage) or Form I-829 (investment) before the conditional green card expires; otherwise, you can lose everything you worked for.

Are You Ready to Take the First Step Toward Immigrating to America?

It’s hard to leave your home and move to a new country – especially a big and complicated country like the U.S.A. However, if you decide to put all your ducks in a row, your next step should be seeking professional guidance. Maybe the movies and T.V. shows exaggerate a little, but going through the American immigration system is not for the faint of heart, so you need all the help you can get. 

Whether you’re seeking a green card or want to follow the immigration process correctly, our experienced immigration firm is here to assist. The expert at ImmigrationDirect can help you understand the specific requirements of each visa type, assist with filling out complex forms, and address any concerns you might have. You don’t have to face the system alone. Contact us for a thorough consultation!

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