Whether you plan to live in the USA permanently, or just want to stay temporarily, you will need to apply for a visa. If you are planning to live for a while, you must apply for permanent residence, or a "green card". If you only want to stay temporarily, you must apply for a nonimmigrant visa. These applications are to be sent to the appropriate immigration agencies, including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which has offices across the United States, and the U.S. Department of State (DOS), which manages consulates and embassies around the world. Neither of these application processes is as quick and easy as many people think. The visa application process can be lengthy, so give yourself plenty of time for your visa application to be processed before you apply.
Permanent Residence and "green cards"
A green card proves that the permanent resident has been granted benefits, including the permission to live and work in the USA. The cardholder must meet certain conditions, must file timely green card renewals, and must refrain from breaking the law or abusing his or her green card status in order to continue his or her permanent residency. Otherwise, the green cardholder can be removed from the USA. Those eligible for applying for green cards include family members of U.S. citizens, investors and workers who have been petitioned by U.S. employers, people with special skills or degrees, and those who are fleeing persecution who qualify for refugee or political asylum status. For information beyond the scope of this immigration overview, see FindLaw's article on green cards.
A non-citizen with a green card application in process can obtain two temporary permits. One is a temporary work permit called the Employment Authorization Document. This work permit allows the non-citizen to work legally in the USA, much like a visa. The other temporary permit acts as travel authorization and allows the non-citizen to travel and re-enter the country should he or she leave. Both of these are independent of any existing status that the non-citizen currently holds (like a visa).
Temporary Residence and Nonimmigrant Visa
Those who wish to visit the USA for a short period of time must obtain a nonimmigrant visa. A nonimmigrant visa allows you to visit the U.S.,attend school and work for the duration of your visa. Students and businesspeople make up the majority of visa holders. Nonimmigrant visas are also available to tourists, exchange visitors and those skilled workers that specialize in an area that the U.S. workforce is lacking.
Visa Waiver Program
Entering on a visa waiver is a simpler way to enter the USA if you are only planning on staying 90 days or less. If you are from one of the countries that participates in the Visa Waiver Program and are coming for business or pleasure, you do not need a visa. Simply present your machine-readable passport and return ticket to the immigration officers when you arrive. If you come by land from Canada or Mexico, you will also need to present proof of finances to fund your stay. See http://travel.state.gov to see what countries participate in the Visa Waiver Program. Although this is the simplest way to enter the USA, you give up a lot of your benefits and rights by participating in the program; it is often easier to deport those in the USA on a Visa Waiver Program.
The United States government has mandated a requirement called The Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) for those participating in the Visa Waiver Program. ESTA requires Visa Waiver visitors to complete an I-94W form online before traveling to the USA. The website, https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta/, is very user-friendly and is available in multiple languages. Passengers without an ESTA may be denied access to check in. If you are planning to take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program, be sure to visit the website and fill out your ESTA before traveling to the USA.
Applying for Immigration Rights
Once you have decided which type of visa or green card you need, you must figure out how to obtain it. With the occasional exception of Mexicans and Canadians, most immigrants and visitors must obtain a visa from a U.S. consulate before even leaving for the USA. Once you are legally in the USA, you can look into changing your immigration status either to lengthen your stay, or even change your status to permanent residency.
Overview of U.S. Immigration Laws
Immigration laws and categories are perhaps the most convoluted of any set of U.S. laws. They are spelled out in Title 8 of the U.S. Code, or in the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.). Information about USCIS and how they enforce the law is found in Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The DOS regulations are in Title 22 of the C.F.R. Because all of these laws are so convoluted, it may be helpful to consult an immigration lawyer. You can ask a friend for a referral or visit FindLaw's Lawyer Directory. Do not go straight to the USCIS for help. There have been incidents of employees of USCIS giving misinformation to immigrants. In many cases, this misinformation has caused immigrants to be deported or have their visas denied.
To find out what type of visa you qualify for and under what law, see http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/87524.pdf. Here are some common categories along with their visa symbols:
Other common categories include family member visas, diversity visa lotteries, and asylum and refuge. For an overview of obtaining a visa and what category you may qualify under see FindLaw's article on green cards.
Anyone Can be Denied Entry
Lying to or misleading the U.S. government has harsh negative effects. Lying can have immediate effects such as denying you admittance into the USA, or long-term effects such as barring you from obtaining a green card for life. The U.S. government can deny anyone admittance or residency status for any purpose. Even if there is nothing wrong with your application, and you have not lied or misled anyone, the government can deny your application. There is a long list of reasons why you can be denied including certain crimes and diseases.
Contact a qualified immigration attorney to help you with visa procedures.