Visas: your ticket to entering America

America is a great nation. We enjoy freedoms and liberties here that many people around the world could only dream of. We get to live our lives in relative peace, free from state-sponsored persecution by the government because of our lifestyle choices, religious beliefs or political affiliations. We are, for the most part, free to chase our dreams, whether they are of opening our own business, getting an advanced degree, buying a home or starting a family. We are free to travel from state to state, and are, in many ways, limited only by our wallets and the extent of our imaginations.

Because of the opportunities afforded to us as U.S. citizens or as naturalized permanent residents, there are many people in other countries without such prospects who want to come here. They may be oppressed due to their gender or sexual orientation, or unable to find adequate employment to support their families. They could live in fear of persecution because of their religious beliefs or cultural identity. They might desperately want to get a better education or occupational training so they can return home and make their community a better place for everyone.

Regardless of the rationale, thankfully, there are many different ways of gaining entrée into America, including seeking asylum, filing for refugee status, applying for a visa waiver (only for citizens of certain countries who are planning on being in America for 90 days or less), or requesting one of the many dozens of different types of visas available.

"Nonimmigrant visas" versus "immigrant visas"

Broadly speaking, there are two main categories of visas for those who want to enter the U.S.: immigrant and nonimmigrant. The differences between these two may be few in number, but they are very important nonetheless. Immigrant visas are permanent in nature; those seeking immigrant visa status plan on relocating to America permanently. Nonimmigrant visas, on the other hand, are for those who are planning to be in the U.S. for a set time and who still maintain a permanent residence in another country.

For more information about the various types of immigrant and nonimmigrant visas available, visit the U.S. Department of State's "Directory of Visa Categories" site.

Immigrant visas: an overview

Immigrant visas are often either to reunite families (such as a U.S. resident seeking to bring over his or her fiancé from a foreign country or an American couple wishing to adopt a child from another nation), or to maintain employment (such as overseeing a new American facility of a foreign-owned company). Employment-based and employer-sponsored immigrant visas are typically available for "priority workers," professionals, those with advanced degrees, those with "exceptional abilities," religious workers and those who have aided the U.S. military in their efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are also immigrant visas available through a lottery system for people from "countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States." These are known as "diversity immigrant visas." In addition, a special visa category exists for one-time permanent U.S. residents who have been out of the country for more than a year ("returning resident visas."

Nonimmigrant visas

Nonimmigrant visas are often oriented around jobs that will only last for a set amount of time, to study, for tourism purposes or to seek medical treatment. These visas are conditional and time-sensitive. They essentially have an "expiration date," after which period the person must either be granted an extension or return to their country of origin. There are nonimmigrant visas that cover a wide range of industries and occupations, including (but not necessarily limited to):

  • Agricultural workers
  • Amateur athletes (such as those competing in the Olympics or World Championships of various sports and don't receive a salary; they are allowed to compete for prize money, however)
  • Au pairs
  • Certain religious workers
  • Diplomats
  • Doctors
  • Domestic workers and nannies accompanying their foreign employers to America
  • Employees of international organizations like NATO
  • Foreign military service members stationed in the U.S.
  • Foreign nationals with "extraordinary abilities" in sciences, arts, business, education or athletics
  • Members of the foreign press
  • Performers (including professional athletes, singers, actors/actresses and other entertainers)
  • Professors/scholars/academics
  • Seasonal/temporary laborers
  • Students
  • Those seeking medical treatment in the U.S.
  • Tourists
  • Victims of criminal activity or human trafficking

Limitations and numerical "caps"

Once you - preferably in consultation with an experienced immigration law attorney who better understands the system and the various types of visas available - have determined which visa will best meet your needs, the hard work begins. Now is the time you must begin the application process. Depending on the type of visa you seek, you need to be prepared for an extensive, very detailed application process that will take time, after which you might not even be granted a visa.

This is particularly true if you are seeking a permanent, employment-based, immigrant visa. Those are capped at a maximum of 140,000 a year, and are subdivided by priority into five categories. For example, there are usually only 40,000 visas available annually for "persons of extraordinary ability" (those who are particularly skilled in the arts, sciences, education, business or athletics) and highly skilled researchers or professors. This number might fluctuate if there are leftover visas remaining in the statutory 10,000 maximum for both religious/special workers and job-creating investors, though.

There are also only 40,000 visas available for people with advanced degrees seeking to immigrate for employment. Should there be visas remaining after all the "persons of exceptional ability" have been considered, however, then it is possible that more foreign nationals with advanced degrees could be allowed to enter the U.S.

There are many more family-based visas available, including those designed to bring over eligible fiancés, spouses, parents and children from other countries. Congress has made a minimum of 266,000 family-based visas available annually, but there are times when as many as 500,000 could be offered in a given year.

Getting started

To get started on a visa application, you'll first need to figure out what type of visa best suits your unique needs. Once that is done, you'll need to ready the supporting documentation required for the application, which varies according to the particular visa you are seeking, but could include medical records, a birth certificate, passport, identification, employment records, vaccination records, criminal history, etc. You'll also need to fill out the relevant visa application; applications for all manner of visas are available for free online from the U.S. Department of State and the Bureau of Consular Affairs.

The amount and type of qualifying documentation will also vary depending on the type of visa sought. For example, you might also need for prospective employers, educational institutions, medical facilities, family members, sponsors or other third parties to provide documentation on your behalf.

The immigration system can be very complicated. Don't try to navigate the red tape on your own. Having an experienced and compassionate immigration law attorney at your side will help lessen your anxiety and ensure that your visa application is thorough and complete before submission. An attorney can also help you if your application is denied and an appeal is necessary.