What Are Types of US Immigrant Visas?

If you are planning a trip to the United States, you will discover that there is no universal visa for all travelers.

There are around 185 different types of US visas which are broadly categorized as follows:

  • Immigrant visas: An immigrant visa permits you to stay in the United States permanently. These visas entitle you to what is informally known as a Green Card and allow you to live and work in the US for as long as you wish.
  • Nonimmigrant visas: This type of visa allows you to stay in the United States temporarily but does not allow you to immigrate to the US

What's in This Guide

Who Needs to Apply for a US Visa?

Citizens of any of the forty countries in the VWP (Visa Waiver Program) are permitted to travel to the US for up to 90 days without requiring a visa. This applies to both tourist trips and business visits. Citizens of Canada and Bermuda enjoy these same visa-free privileges by applying for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This document is obtainable from the CBP (US Customs and Borders Protection).

Travelers from all other countries must apply for a US visa in advance of travel.

Additionally, every traveler to the United States must have an e-passport containing a machine-readable zone and biometric information.

Application Process for US Visas

Regardless of the type of visa, the US visa application is straightforward and follows a similar procedure. The discussion below presumes that the beneficiary is eligible for the visa; many different factors determine whether someone is eligible, which will be discussed below. This discussion is meant to demonstrate the general process for those who are eligible.

That said, there are differences in the process according to the visa category and type, as well as differences relating to the country from which you are making the application.

What are the Different Types of US Visa?

For the purposes of today’s guide, we will focus primarily on immigrant visas. There are two broad categories of US immigrant visas:

  1. Family sponsored and immediate relative immigrant visas
  2. Employer sponsored immigrant visas

Beyond this, there are also diversity immigrant visas offered to countries with historically low rates of immigration to the US. Here are the specifics of each type of US immigrant visa:

Immediate relative immigrant visas

Any foreign national with an immediate relative who is a US citizen is potentially eligible for an immediate relative immigrant visa. An unlimited number of these visas can be issued each year.The definition of an immediate relative includes a spouse, an unmarried minor, or a parent. Relatives of US citizens can apply for one of the following immigrant visas:

  • Spouse of US citizen (IR-1)
  • Unmarried minor (aged under 21) of a US citizen (IR-2)
  • Orphan adopted by a US citizen abroad (IR-3)
  • Orphan who will be adopted by a US citizen in the United States (IR-4)
  • Parent of a US citizen where petitioner is over 21 years of age (IR-5)

To initiate the process of obtaining an immigrant visa for a beneficiary – a foreign relative – the petitioner (the US citizen) needs to file a Petition for Alien Relative (form I-130) with USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services). The I-130 Petition is the first step and does not entitle the beneficiary to any status; it functions as the way USCIS can verify you are who you say you are, the petitioner is who he or she is, and that you are related in the way you have asserted.If the beneficiary is living in the United States, they will need to file an Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status (form I-485) in conjunction with the I-130 Petition. Subsequently, they would need to appear in person for collection of biometrics (i.e., fingerprints) and an interview before a USCIS officer. If the beneficiary is living outside the United States, they must wait for an approval of the I-130 and then file for an immigrant visa at the US consulate in their country of residence. Assuming the beneficiary is eligible for the visa and passes an interview and medical exam, the immigrant visa will be issued.

Family preference immigrant visas

It is also possible for more distant family members of US citizens to apply for a family preference visa. This category also allows some permanent residents to apply for their relatives. In this category there are wait times because of the quotas imposed, as will be seen below. The relationship between the relative and the US citizen or permanent resident will determine the visa category as follows:

  • Family first preference immigrant visa (F-1): Unmarried child (aged over 21) of US citizens and any accompanying minor children (23,400 visas issued annually).
  • Family second preference immigrant visa (F-2): Spouse, minor child, and unmarried child (aged over 21) of a lawful permanent US resident (114,200 visas issued annually).
  • Family third preference immigrant visa (F-3): Married children of US citizens, their spouses, and their minor children (23,400 visas issued annually).
  • Family fourth preference immigrant visa (F-4): Sibling of a US citizen, their spouse, and any minor children (65,000 visas issued annually).

Applying for this type of visa involves the same process as when applying for an immediate relative visa.

Diversity immigrant visas

The DIVP (Diversity Immigrant Visa Program) makes provision for foreign nationals residing in countries with traditionally low rates of immigration to the United States to apply for permanent residency. Each year, there is a limit of 50,000 diversity visas. Applicants will be selected randomly according to the allotted number of visas for that region or country. There are eligibility requirements in place. Selection through the DIVP is not a guarantee that the applicant will be issued with a US visa.

Employment-based immigrant visas

The USCIS allows for the issuing of roughly 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas each year. These visas are categorized as follows:

  • First preference employment-based visa (EB-1): Priority workers.
  • Second preference employment-based visa (EB-2): Professionals with exceptional abilities or advanced degrees.
  • Third preference employment-based visa (EB-3): Professionals, skilled workers, and unskilled workers.
  • Fourth preference employment-based visa (EB-4): Specific special immigrants.
  • Fifth preference employment-based visa (EB-5): Immigrant investors.

Each employment-based visa category has unique requirements that must be satisfied before the applicant is awarded permanent resident status.

How Do Nonimmigrant Visas and Immigrant Visas Differ?

With a non-immigrant visa, you will only be eligible to remain in the United States temporarily. You can find a list of all non-immigrant visa categories right here. Those who wish to legally work in the United States must first apply for a specific work visa. As outlined above, all these immigrant visas have different costs, requirements, application processes, and processing times. Contact an experienced immigration lawyer for clarification. Be prepared for a lengthy and involved process when applying for a work visa. The primary requirement is a firm job offer from an employer based in the US. If you are issued a work visa, it will only be valid for as long as you continue working for that specific employer. Those who are ineligible for the Visa Waiver Program who are looking to remain in the United States for up to 180 days can consider applying for a US visitor visa. This allows for longer stays for the purposes of tourism or restricted business activities. Immigrant visas, on the other hand, allow you to stay permanently in the United States without restrictions on employment. Reach out to Chicago Immigration Lawyers today by calling (312) 704-8000 or our contact form, and we will guide you through the visa process.


If I obtain a US visa, does this guarantee entry into the country?

No, possessing a valid visa for the United States does not guarantee entry. This decision is made by the border patrol (US Customs Border Protection) at the point of entry into the US. When you go through customs and immigration, an official will verify your documents and check your background. The main reasons for entry into the US being refused involve any threat posed to the safety and security of US citizens by the person attempting to enter the country.

What can I do if my US visa application is denied?

Visa applications can be denied for many reasons, including criminal history or ineligibility for that specific visa type. If you fail to obtain a US visa, the best approach is to make a fresh application. You should also contact an accomplished immigration lawyer.

How long is it possible to remain in the US with a visa?

All nonimmigrant visas permitting travel to the United States are temporary. As such, they have an expiration data that varies according to visa type. Some nonimmigrant visas are valid for three months, while others are valid for three years. If you have an immigrant visa, also known as a green card, you are eligible to remain in the United States indefinitely.

What should I do when my visa expires?

When a US nonimmigrant visa expires, you can renew it by undergoing a similar process to that of the initial application. You are only required to renew this visa when the expiration date has passed.