Every day, thousands of people enter the United States from other countries. Some people are returning home after being away. Some people are coming to visit family, take a vacation, work, or move permanently to the U.S. Whatever the reason, each person entering the U.S. must have the right documents to prove that they are legally allowed to enter the U.S.
Many people are allowed to enter the U.S. only for a limited time and only for a specific purpose. For example, someone taking a vacation to the U.S. may only be allowed to enter for a few weeks and only for tourist or sight-seeing activities. This kind of visitor to the U.S. would not be allowed to work. Some people may be allowed to enter for a few years at a time for work but could be restricted to a certain employer. These types of people coming to the U.S. are called non-immigrants. They are allowed to be in the U.S. for limited times and limited reasons.
Note: Non-immigrants are allowed into the U.S. for a set time period and a limited purpose, determined by the type of non-immigrant visa they have been given.
Other people who come to the U.S. are allowed to live and work in the U.S. without restriction. These people are called immigrants. They are allowed to be in the U.S. for an unlimited amount of time and can take part in any legal activity including work and study.
Note: Immigrants are allowed to be in the country for an unlimited time and can take part in any legal activity.
So, although in popular culture we describe all foreign visitors who come to the U.S. as “immigrants,” technically most of the foreign nationals who enter the U.S. every year are “nonimmigrants.” We reserve the word “immigrant” only for the select number of foreign nationals who have been granted the right to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis.
Each person legally admitted into the U.S., whether admitted as an immigrant or a non-immigrant, must show a valid visa before they are allowed to enter the country. A visa is like a pass. Non-immigrants are given non-immigrant visas, or passes, that let them come to the U.S. for a set time and a set purpose. Immigrants enter the U.S., with an immigrant visa, or pass, that lets them stay in the country for as long as they wish.
An immigrant who has entered the U.S. is issued an Alien Registration Card, or Green Card. The Green Card is a record that the immigrant has been granted permanent residency in the U.S. The term “Green Card” comes from early editions of the card which were light green in color. Current “Green Cards” are actually pink or light blue. A person who has been issued a Green Card is called a Lawful Permanent Resident.
Note: A Green Card allows a person to live and work in the U.S. without any time restrictions.
Green Cards can be issued to people who have entered the U.S. using an immigrant visa. But they can also be issued to people who are already legally in the U.S. There are various ways for applying for a Green Card from inside the U.S. or from another country. No matter which method is used to get a Green Card, the end result is the same. Lawful Permanent Residents are entitled to live in the U.S. for an unlimited time, work in any job that they are qualified for, study at any school that accepts them, visit any location in the U.S., and take part in many other activities.