Visas Overview

A visa is a government document that allows a foreign national to travel to the issuing country. Many countries offer visas for short-term travel, for foreign students to attend a domestic university, for long-term employment, and for permanent residency, among other types. Each type of visa has its own application process and requirements, and some, such as an employment visa, may require sponsorship.

This article provides an overview of U.S. visas. Information for consulting with an immigration lawyer is also provided.

Immigrant Visas

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues immigrant visas, often referred to as a "green card," to qualified applicants who wish to enter the U.S. to stay permanently. There are several types of immigrant visas. For example, a foreign national may be able to obtain a green card through a family member, if the family member is a U.S. citizen or is a green card holder. A green card may also be available to a foreign national who has an offer of permanent employment in the U.S., although there are certain conditions that must be met, such as the employer showing that the position cannot otherwise be filled. A refugee or asylee may also apply for a green card.

Note that while U.S. citizens and green card holders can apply for a spouse living in a foreign country to reside permanently in the U.S., the USCIS will not grant green cards to those who attempt to scam the system by entering into a fraudulent marriage.

Numerical Cap on Immigrant Visas

Currently, there is a "flexible" limit of 675,000 immigrant visas that the U.S. government issues each year. The number is considered a flexible cap, because there are several categories of immigrant visas that are exempt from this limit. For example, green cards issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens do not count towards the cap, nor do green cards issued to refugees and asylees.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program

In addition to family-based and employment-related visas, the USCIS grants a number of diversity visas to applicants from countries that historically send few immigrants to the U.S. In 2016, the number of diversity visas is set at 50,000. Diversity visa recipients are selected through a lottery, and no single country may receive more than 7% of the available diversity visas in any given year. Given the low number of diversity visas issued annually, and given the random lottery drawing, this type of visa is probably a last resort option for foreign nationals seeking permanent residency in the U.S.

Nonimmigrant Visas

The U.S. offers many types of nonimmigrant visas. These visas are issued to temporary visitors who intend to return to their home countries when the visa expires, and each type has its own application requirements and procedure. Common nonimmigrant visa categories include:

  • A-1 visas for diplomatic personnel
  • B-1 visas for business visitors
  • B-2 visas for tourists or those seeking medical treatment
  • F-1 visas for students
  • H visas for temporary workers

Dual-Intent Visas

In most cases, the USCIS evaluates a visa application by determining the applicant's intent. For example, in deciding whether to grant a nonimmigrant visa, the USCIS will determine whether the applicant truly intends to return to his or her country when the visa expires.

However, there is a concept known as dual-intent that applies to H-1 and L visas. Under this concept, the USCIS assumes that an applicant has the intent to stay permanently in the U.S., but will nonetheless grant the applicant a nonimmigrant visa. If the applicant is unable to obtain an immigrant visa during his or her stay in the U.S., the USCIS assumes that he or she will voluntarily return to the home country.

Getting Legal Help

Immigration law is complex. There are many types of immigrant and nonimmigrant visas, each with their own procedures and requirements, and some with numerical limits. To add to the complexity, there are also dual-intent visas.

If you have questions about immigration law, such as questions about the type of visa that's appropriate for a family member living in another country, or questions about how to change your immigration status, you can consult with an experienced immigration attorney in your area through FindLaw.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with visa procedures.