Foreign individuals (sometimes called “nationals”) often require visas to move between countries or to engage in certain activities abroad.  Visas are official government endorsements, usually stamped in the recipient’s passport, permitting a foreign national to proceed with his or her plans in the non-native country.  In the United States, foreign nationals may receive either an immigrant or a nonimmigrant visa for entry.  The specific visa desired depends on the individual’s needs and goals, as well as his or her status with regard to immigration rules.

Immigrant Visas

The Bureau of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues immigrant visas to qualified applicants who wish to enter the U.S. to stay permanently.  The specific type of immigrant visa granted varies based on the individual’s status — such as a family member of a citizen or permanent resident, potential employee of a U.S. company, or foreign national with business or investment interests in the U.S.

Numerical Limitations on Immigrant Visas

Some immigrant visas are subject to annual numerical limitations. The USCIS divides family-sponsored and employment-related visas into limited categories, and grants visas based on a pre-determined allocation among those classifications.

Example: For family-based immigration, spouses and children of lawful permanent residents receive a larger percentage of the visas available for family-sponsored immigration than married children of U.S. citizens.  In employment, priority workers including outstanding professors and persons of extraordinary ability in various fields receive a larger proportion of the available employment visas than religious workers.

The Diversity Visa Lottery

In addition to family-based and employment-related visas, the INS grants diversity visas to immigrants from countries that historically send few immigrants to the United States.  The system involves a visa lottery, and is therefore a very uncertain method of securing legal entrance to the U.S.

Immigrant Visas without Numerical Limits

Immigrant visas not subject to numerical limitation are available to:

  • Immediate relatives of citizens,
  • Permanent residents returning to the United States, and
  • Former American citizens.

The immediate-relative category is the most common of these visa categories even though it covers only spouses and children. The USCIS will not grant visas for fraudulent marriages entered into in order to receive immigration benefits, and the bureau penalizes sham marriages through deportation, criminal imprisonment and fines, and permanent bars to permanent residence.

Nonimmigrant Visas

Nonimmigrant visas apply to temporary visitors who intend to return to their home countries.  Nonimmigrant admissions far outweigh the number of immigrant visas issued each year.  The USCIS establishes a wide range of categories for nonimmigrant visas, and each category brings distinct rights and responsibilities for the holder.  Some examples of nonimmigrant visa categories include:

  • A-1 visas for diplomatic personnel,
  • B-1 visas for business,
  • B-2 visas for tourism,
  • F-1 visas for students, and
  • H visas for temporary workers.

Some nonimmigrant visas allow the holder to work during his or her stay in the United States.  Others allow the visitor to bring family members or to enter the country to join family members.

Getting Legal Help with the Visa Process

The application procedure for both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas can be complicated, involving a large number of forms and necessary documentation. In order to ensure that the application process goes smoothly and has the best chance for a favorable outcome, prospective visa applicants should contact an experienced immigration attorney for key advice and proper guidance.

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