How to Immigrate to the USA
Visa & Green Card options to relocate to the USA
If you are considering emigrating to the US, as a non-US national you will generally have to be sponsored by a US citizen or a US lawful permanent resident, usually an employer or family member. This will allow you to make an application for a US Green Card.
Although non-immigrant temporary worker visas are generally issued with the requirement that the holder returns to their home country at the end of their visa, some employment-based visas offer a route to US Green Card.
The main visas that offer the opportunity to change status from a temporary worker to permanent residence are:
H1B visa – Speciality Occupation
This visa is suitable for a degree level position in a speciality occupation, that is, one which requires the holder to have theoretical and practical knowledge of a specialised area, for instance, computing or engineering.
The number of H1B visas available each year is limited. In 2019, 65,000 H1B visas were made available with a further 20,000 H1B visas for applicants with a masters degree. The window for applications opens in April each year and closes as soon as the H1B cap has been reached.
The H1B visa, unlike other petition-based temporary worker visas, is dual-intent. This means that although it is a non-immigrant visa, a worker may hold a H1B visa with the intent to adjust their status and apply for permanent residency in the US once they meet the qualifying period at the end of their H1-B period.
L1 visa – Intra-Company Transfers
The L1 visa allows employees of international companies to be temporarily transferred to a branch or affiliate of that company in the US. The L1 visa is only open to employees who work in a managerial or executive role or have specialised knowledge and skills, and will fulfil an equivalent role (managerial, executive or specialised) in the US and offers a path to a Green Card provided eligibility criteria are satisfied.
O1 visa – Persons with extraordinary ability
The O1 visa is designed for persons who have extraordinary ability in business, the arts, education, the sciences, or athletics, or who have shown extraordinary achievement in the film and TV industry. The three-year validity of the O-1 visa can quickly pass, requiring a renewal application which is equally as demanding as the initial application. Securing a Green Card can alleviate O-1 holders from continued renewals, and provide certainty and stability to benefit family life and career prospects.
Immigrant employment-based visa
Generally, to obtain an employment-based immigrant visa, it will be necessary to have an offer of employment from a US employer.
This type of visa is split into five preference categories:
This category is for priority workers and includes:
- Foreign nationals who have extraordinary ability, with national or international recognition of their accomplishments in the sciences, business, the arts, education or athletics.
- Outstanding professors and researchers who are internationally recognised for their achievements in their academic area
- Certain multinational executives and manager who will be employed in the US by their current employer or an affiliate of their current employer
This category is for member of the professions, for instance, lawyers and engineers, occupations that require degree level education, and those with exceptional ability in the arts, business or science.
This category is for professionals (a member of the professions who holds a degree or equivalent), skilled workers with a minimum 2 years training or experience, and short supply unskilled workers.
This category is for special immigrants, including:
- certain religious workers
- special immigrant juveniles
- G4 international organisation employees
- NATO 6 employees
- US government international employees
- members of the armed forces
- Panama Canal Zone employees
- certain physicians
- Iraqi and Afghan translators
- Iraqi and Afghan nationals who have supported US operations
This is the EB5 visa mentioned in the Treaty Trader or Treaty Investor section above. Eligibility for this visa requires investment in a US enterprise and the resulting creation or preservation of 10 full-time permanent jobs for US workers.
Immigrate to the USA through family
To immigrate to the USA under this category, you will need to be sponsored by a family member who is a US citizen or a US lawful permanent resident.
These immigrant visas are split into immediate relative visas and family preference visas.
This is split into the following categories:
- IR1 – spouse of a US citizen
- IR2 – unmarried child under 21 of a US citizen
- IR3 – orphan adopted overseas by a US citizen
- IR4 – orphan who will be adopted by a US citizen
- IR5 – parent of a US citizen who is 21 or older
Family preference visas
Family preference visas are for less close family relationships, and are split into:
- F1, first preference – unmarried daughters and sons of US citizens, and their minor children
- F2, second preference – spouses, minor children, and unmarried daughters and sons (aged 21 or older) of lawful permanent residents
- F3, third preference – married daughters and sons of US citizens, and their spouses and minor children
- F4, fourth preference – siblings of US citizens, and their spouses and minor children, as long as the US citizen is aged 21 or older
It is not possible for grandparents, cousins, in-laws, aunts or uncles to act as sponsor for a family-based immigrant visa.
Immigrate to the USA as a fiancé(e)
If you are engaged to a US citizen and plan to marry in the US, you may apply for a K1 visa. This is a non-immigrant visa. The wedding must, however, take place within 90 days of your entry into the US under your K1 visa.
Once married, you may apply to adjust your status and become a US lawful permanent resident.
Immigrate to the USA as a student
If you hold a F1 visa to study in the US, it may be possible to remain in the US after your studies, for example by obtaining sponsorship through an employer, leading to either an H1B visa, as mentioned in the Non-immigrant temporary worker section above, or an employment-based immigrant visa.
Alternatively, if during your studies, you marry a US citizen, you should apply for a IR1 (spouse of a US citizen) visa.
Diversity Visa Lottery
The Diversity Visa Lottery is a system that provides a limited number of immigrant visas to foreign nationals from countries that have a historically low rate of immigration to the US.
Online registration for the Diversity Visa Lottery opens in October each year and closes again a month later in November.
How non-US nationals can immigrate to the USA – do you have a question?
As specialists in US immigration, NNU’s London-based attorneys can advise on all aspects of US immigration law and entry requirements, including options to attain US permanent residence status. Contact us for advice on eligibility and how to approach the relevant application process.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.