Immigrant visas

Visa categories and preferences

Immigrant visas

A lawful permanent residence card is frequently called a ‘green card’ in the US. In order to obtain a green card, you will need to apply for an immigrant visa. There are two main categories of immigrant visas: family-based and employment-based.

An immigrant visa consists of a stamp in your passport issued by an American embassy or consulate outside the US which allows you to enter, live and work in the US. Once you pass the country border, you are given a permanent resident card (or green card) that serves as an identification card and allows you to enter and exit the US freely as well as the right to work in the country. Immigrant visas are issued on a limited basis, meaning it can sometimes take years to obtain one.

Criteria for getting an immigrant visa

Before starting your application, make sure you meet all the criteria for the visa you’re applying for. Although you can apply for more than one visa at a time, you will only be able to have one visa status while in the US. Most immigrant visas require the applicant to be sponsored by a US citizen or permanent resident who is either a relative or a prospective employer of the applicant. This means a sponsor must file a petition on your behalf with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to initiate the application process.

Categories of immigration

Immediate relatives

There is no limit for the amount of immediate relatives that US citizens can sponsor to gain access to permanent residence. This includes:

  • Spouses (IR1)
  • Unmarried children under 21 years of age (IR2)
  • Parents of a US citizen that is 21 years of age or older (IR5)

Other immediate family members not mentioned above are also considered such as step-parents and step-children as well as adoptive family members. Although the process is not as straightforward as biological relatives, they can be accepted as immediate family members and details can be found on the government website 

Preference categories

Immigrant visas are often processed based on the preference category in which they fall into. As there is an assigned number of immigrant visas which can be distributed each year, the preference of your visa can determine the timeframe in which you can expect to receive your visa. 

Preference categories are further divided into family-sponsored immigrants and employment-based immigrants, as described below:

Family-sponsored immigrants

Visas for specific, more distant relatives of US citizens and permanent residents are limited. Preference relatives are divided into the following four categories:

  • First preference (F1) - Unmarried children, 21 years of age and older, of US citizens
  • Second preference (F2) - Spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents
  • Third preference (F3) - Married children of US citizens
  • Fourth preference (F4) - Brothers and sisters of US citizens (if the US citizen is 21 years of age and older)

Employment-based immigrants

Employment-based immigrants are divided into the following five groups:

  • First preference (EB-1) – People of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers; and certain multinational executives and managers
  • Second preference (EB-2) – Professionals holding advanced degrees or who have exceptional ability
  • Third preference (EB-3) – Skilled workers, professionals, or other workers
  • Fourth preference (EB-4) – Special immigrants – includes religious workers and ministers of religion, employees of certain international organizations and their immediate family members, specially qualified and recommended current and former employees of the US government, and returning residents
  • Fifth preference (EB-5) – Immigrant investors – Entrepreneurs who make the necessary investment in a US commercial enterprise or plan to create full-time employment for at least 10 US workers.

Things to consider

Every year, more than one million green cards are issued by the US government. Most of these are given to family members of US citizens and permanent residents, with the second largest share going to foreign workers seeking employment in the US. Applying for an immigrant visa can be a long and tedious process depending on your individual situation. In addition to the visa allowance for each category (family and employment based) there are limits for certain sub-preferences, some of which are based on formulas that change each year. Please refer to your US Embassy for current details.

Further reading

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