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Immigration Law Basics

Immigration law encompasses a wide range of situations that involve a person from a foreign country coming to the United States, whether for a temporary visit or with the intent to live permanently in the U.S. (as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident). FindLaw's Immigration Law Basics section provides a bird's eye view of the immigration process, including a glossary of immigration terms; an overview of immigration in general; and helpful primers to help you get started with your particular immigration needs. Also provided are links to primers on getting a green card, working in the U.S. as a foreign national, helping a family member adjust his or her status, and more.

Visiting the U.S.

Those who wish to visit the United States for a short time and do not intend to work have a number of "non-immigrant" visa options. Nationals of some countries need not apply for a visa at all and are eligible to enter the U.S. as part of the "Visa Waiver Program." Others will need to apply with the U.S. Consulate or Embassy in their home country in advance of their departure.

There are many different kinds of non-immigrant visas, but the most commonly used are the B1/B2 visitor visas. These visas do not permit study, employment, professional performances, work in the media, or permanent residence in the U.S. There are specific non-immigrant visas and other programs for all of these kinds of activities.

Working in the U.S.

Those wishing to work in the United States may apply for one of several different kinds of employment-based immigrant or non-immigrant visas.

Non-immigrant visas, such as the H-1B and other H visas, permit employment with a specific employer in a specific position. Other employment-authorized visas include the L visa for intra-company transferees and the O, P, and R visas which are used by extraordinary artists, scientists, athletes, educators, and religious workers. Each kind of employment-based visa has challenges that must be overcome. All of them require documentation of the applicant's qualifications for the position offered.

Getting a Green Card

The "green card" is the common term for Lawful Permanent Residency, a status that permits indefinite presence in the United States, the ability to enter and exit the country with few restrictions, and the ability to work or study without seeking permission. Residency is commonly obtained through a petition filed by a family member or employer on the beneficiary's behalf. The nature of the relationship between the parties often impacts the availability of residency and the speed at which it may be acquired.

There are limited circumstances under which an individual may petition to become a lawful permanent resident without a sponsor. These categories include foreign nationals who are established to have extraordinary ability within their field, investors who have positively impacted the U.S. economy, and certain groups for whom humanitarian programs exist.

Becoming a U.S. Citizen

Citizenship, when not acquired by birth, is available to lawful permanent residents of good moral character through the "naturalization" process. Depending on the applicant's circumstances, the period of time required after obtaining residency varies. Spouses of U.S. citizens may apply for citizenship after three years as a permanent resident. Most others must accrue five years of permanent residency before applying for citizenship.

Most applicants must be proficient in English and capable of passing a short civics test on the history and governance of the United States, though there are exceptions for the disabled and elderly. All applicants must be willing to swear an oath of loyalty to the country.

Learn About Immigration Law Basics