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Immigrant Visas

Immigrant visas, Green Cards, allow a foreigners to gain permanent residence in the United States.  Permanent residency provides an unlimited right of residence and employment in the US, authorization to re-enter the US, and access to various benefits of American society.  Although permanent residency enables a foreigner to live in a manner similar to that of a US Citizen, there are significant differences between the rights and responsibilities of permanent residents and those of US citizens.
Two major factors affect the time required for a foreign national to obtain permanent residence in the US: (1) administrative processing time, and (2) backlogs in the US quota system for immigrant visas.  Under the immigration quota system, numerical limitations apply at three separate stages of the immigration process: (a) a worldwide quota limiting the overall number of immigrants allowed into the US, (b) numerical limitations governing specific immigration preference categories, and (c) a limit on the number of immigrants that can come from a particular country.  The issuance of immigrant visas is based upon a supply-demand principle in which the number of approved applications for visas is measured against the total number of available visas. Where the demand for visas exceeds the number of available visas, the US CIS issues visas according to the “Priority Dates” of the applications, based on the dates on which the applications were received.  Backlogs are readjusted monthly and announced in the Visa Bulletin issued by the US Department of State.
Family-Based Permanent Residency Applications
One set of permanent resident visas is based on family relationships.  Historically, family reunification has been a significant policy of US immigration law. Family-based immigration allows close relatives of US citizens and permanent residents to join their families in the US.  Family-based immigrants are admitted to the US either as immediate relatives of US citizens or through the family preference system.
The following are the categories for immediate relative applications:
  • Spouses of US citizens
  • Spouses of deceased US citizens
  • Unmarried children of US citizens (under 21 years old)
  • Parents of US citizens (for applicants above 21)
There is no numerical limitation on the number of immediate relatives of citizens who may become permanent residents.  A person who marries a citizen can qualify for immigration in this category as long as the parties can demonstrate that the marriage is a bona fide marriage.  If the application for permanent residency is based on a marriage within the two years prior to the filing of the application, the applicant would receive a conditional Green Card.  Permanent residents with conditional Green Cards are considered valid Green Card holders in every respect.  They are permitted to travel outside and return to the US and are eligible for employment authorization in the US.  Conditional Green Cards are valid for only two years and are subject to termination if the marriage has been termination by divorce or annulment during that period.  At the end of the two-year period, an application must be filed to lift the condition on the Green Card, by demonstrating that the marriage remains a bona fide marriage, and obtain a permanent Green Card.
Spouses of deceased citizens qualify as immediate relatives for whom Green Card applications may be filed under some circumstances. In order to qualify, the applicant must have been the spouse of the deceased citizen for at least two years and must not have been legally separated or divorced at the time of the US citizen's death. The applicant must file a relative immigrant visa petition within two years of the date of death and must not be remarried at that time.
Applications also may be filed by relatives who are not defined as immediate relatives.  The following are the four family preference categories:
  1. First Preference: Unmarried sons and daughters (any age) of US citizens
  2. Second Preference:Spouses, unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents
  3. Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of US citizens
  4. Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of US citizens
Any unused visas from higher preference categories may be allocated to lower categories.
Employment-Based Permanent Residency Applications
There are five main preference categories of applications for employment-based immigration:
  1. First Preference: (EB-1 priority workers) – applicants of Extraordinary Ability, outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational executives and managers. Learn more about EB-1 Petitions
  2. Second Preference: (EB-2 workers with advanced degrees or exceptional ability) – applicants who are members of a profession holding advanced degrees or their equivalent, and applicants who because of their exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business will substantially benefit the national economy, cultural/educational interests or welfare of the United States. Applicants in this category may apply for a National Interest Waiver. Learn more about EB-2 Petitions
  3. Third Preference: (EB-3 professionals, skilled workers, and other workers) – applicants with at least two years of experience as skilled workers, professionals with a bachelor’s degree, and applicants with less than two years of experience (unskilled workers) who can perform labor for which qualified workers are not available in the US. Learn more about EB-3 Petitions
  4. Fourth Preference: (EB-4 special workers such as those in a religious vocation or occupation) - applicants who, for at least two years before applying for admission to the US, have been members of a religious denomination that has a non-profit religious organization in the US, and who will be working in the US in a religious vocation or occupation at the request of the religious organization.
    Learn more about EB-4 Petitions
  5. Fifth Preference: (EB-5 Employment Creation) – applicants who have invested substantial funds in a new commercial enterprise.
    Learn more about EB-5 Petitions

Refugee and Asylum Applications Based on Fear of Persecution

Applicants who have a well-founded fear of persecution may apply for asylum or refugee status that will allow them to obtain permanent residency.  In order to qualify in this category, the applicant must belong to one or more of the five categories of people who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of his or her:
  1. race,
  2. nationality,
  3. religion,
  4. membership in a particular social group or because he or she is identified with a particular social group, or
  5. political opinion that will subject him or her to persecution.
*** The law requires an applicant to apply for asylum or refugees status within one year of arriving in the US.  Applicants who do not apply within the required one-year period must prove either extraordinary circumstances or changed circumstances in his or her home country.

The Diversity Lottery Program

The Diversity Visa Lottery program allows applicants to seek to obtain legal permanent residence status in the United States. Through this program, a maximum of 55,000 visas are made available each year, through a lottery drawn randomly through a computer, to applicants who are able to meet certain requirements.
Diversity Visa Lottery visas are allocated among six geographic regions:
Within these regions, only applicants born in countries which have low rates of immigration are eligible. A person from a country which has had more than 50,000 immigrants within the last five years is not eligible to apply for this lottery.  A maximum of 7% of the available visas may be awarded to applicants from any one country.
Individuals born in the following countries are not eligible for the DV lottery:
  • Canada
  • China (mainland born)
  • Colombia
  • Dominican Republic
  • El Salvador
  • Haiti
  • India
  • Jamaica
  • Mexico
  • Pakistan
  • Philippines
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • United Kingdom & its dependent territories (except Northern Ireland)
  • Vietnam
  • Applicants born in Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR and Taiwan are eligible.

There are two main requirements for eligibility:
  1. The applicant must be born in an eligible country. If an applicant was born in a country that has been declared ineligible, the applicant may claim the spouse's country of birth, provided both are issued a visa and enter the United States together. Alternatively, under certain circumstances, the applicant may claim birth in one of the countries of birth of one of his parents.
  2. The applicant must have a high school education or its equivalent, defined as the successful completion of a twelve-year course of elementary and secondary education; OR the applicant must have two years of work experience within the last five years in an occupation that requires at least two years of training or experience to perform.
Before each year's lottery drawing, the US Department of State publishes explicit instructions on how to apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery.  Instructions are usually posted in August and the registration period is usually held in October of each year. Click here for DV Lottery Instructions.
Lottery Fee
There is no fee for taking part in this Diversity Visa Lottery program. However, if an applicant is selected, there is a fee for the immigrant visa as well as a separate visa lottery surcharge.

Starting DV 2012, applicants who have won the lottery draw will no longer be notified by mail at the address listed on the application. The sole means of getting information of the application status is by returning to and entering the assigned confirmation number. This Entry Status Check provides instruction to the winning applicants on how to proceed with application and visa interview appointment. More information of Diversity Visa is available at

However, winning the lottery draw does not automatically guarantee that a visa will be issued.  The number of entries selected is greater than the number of visas available; not all applicants have all of the qualifications required and some applicants do not complete the processing. Once all of the 50,000 visas have been issued, the diversity visa program for the year comes to an end.