Skip Navigation

The Immigrant Visa Process

Foreign citizens who want to live permanently in the United States must first obtain an immigrant visa. This is the first step to becoming a lawful permanent resident.  

Immigrating to the United States is an important and complex decision. In this section, you will learn about who may immigrate to the United States, the different types of immigrant visas, the required forms, and the steps in the immigrant visa process. Because most immigrants receive visas in the family or employment based visa categories, they are a key focus of this section. To be eligible to apply for an immigrant visa, a foreign citizen must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen relative, U.S. lawful permanent resident, or a prospective employer, with a few exceptions, explained below. The sponsor begins the immigration process by filing a petition on the foreign citizen’s behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

Expand All
Immigrating Based on Family

A U.S. citizen can file an immigrant visa petition for:

  • Spouse
  • Son or daughter
  • Parent
  • Brother or sister

A U.S. lawful permanent resident (that is, a green-card holder) can file an immigrant visa petition for:

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried son or daughter

As you get started:

  • Learn more about Family Categories.
  • To begin the immigration process, your sponsoring family member must file an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).


Employment-Based Immigration

A U.S. employer can sponsor certain skilled workers who will be hired into permanent jobs. In some specialized fields, U.S. law allows prospective immigrants to sponsor themselves. In addition, U.S. law provides a number of special immigrant categories, as well as an immigrant investor program.

 As you get started:

  • Learn more about Employment Categories
  • To begin the immigration process, your sponsoring employer must file an I-140 Petition for Alien Worker with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In some categories, you can file the I-140 petition yourself.

Number of Visas Each Year is Limited in Some Categories

Regarding some of the immmigrant visa categories, United States law limits the number of visas available each year, with certain limits by country. In these limited categories, whenever the number of qualified applicants exceeds the available immigrant visas, there will be a waiting list. In this situation, the available immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed. The date your petition was filed is called your priority date.  You can learn more about priority dates.

Other Immigrant Visa Categories

Many immigrants receive visas in the family or employment based visa categories; however there are other immigrant visa categories. A U.S. citizen can also petition for the immigration of a foreign fiancé(e) to be married in the United States, or an orphan adopted abroad/to be adopted in the United States. Several immigrant visa categories that cover special types of workers or special circumstances are established by U.S. laws. (Learn more about special immigrant categories.) The United States also conducts an annual program for Diversity Visas. For these other visa categories, the immigrant process flow chart above does not apply; therefore, select from the category webpages under More Information above to learn how to apply in these visa categories.

What does it mean to be a...

Agent
Attorney of Record
Beneficiary
Petitioner
Sponsor

visa process image Submit a Petition Check Priority Date Begin National Visa Center Processing Pay Processing Fees Establish Financial Support Submit Visa Application and Supporting Documents Prepare for the Interview Visa Applicant Interview After the Interview
  • 1

    Petition

    WHO'S INVOLVED

    U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

    USCIS oversees immigration to the United States and approves (or denies) immigrant petitions and much more.

  • 2

    After Your Petition is Approved

    WHO'S INVOLVED

    National Visa Center

    After petition approval, the National Visa Center (NVC) handles processing for certain kinds of documents, sending them onward to U.S. Embassies & consulates.

  • 3

    Submit Documents to NVC

    WHO'S INVOLVED

    National Visa Center

    After petition approval, the National Visa Center (NVC) handles processing for certain kinds of documents, sending them onward to U.S. Embassies & consulates.

  • 4

    Interview

    WHO'S INVOLVED

    U.S. Embassies and Consulates

    Review visa applications and documents, conduct interviews to determine eligibility for visas, and complete processing. They issue U.S. visas to eligible applicants