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Visa Basics

A visa is a legal document letting you legally enter the United States to live, work, and/or visit.

! A visa cannot be applied for within U.S. borders. You must apply for a visa from the U.S. consulate in your home country. However, you may apply for a non-immigrant or immigrant status within the U.S.

The two main categories of visas are:

Immigrant Visas (e.g. "green cards", refugee "white" cards)
let you stay in the U.S. permanently, work in the U.S. and travel in and out of the U.S. as often as you like.

Non-Immigrant ("Temporary") Visas let you work and or visit the U.S. for a specific period of time, with the assumption that you will return to your home country when the visa expires. Examples include (links to immigration law website, Immigralaw.com):

  • H-1B professional work visas
  • L-1 visas executive transfer visas
  • B-1 and B-2 business travel and tourist visitor visas
  • F-1 and M-1 student visas
  • J-1 exchange visitor visas
  • R-1 religious worker visas

! For a complete list of visa types and application information for them, click here.

The visa application process is normally a two-step process, including:

  • the petition - by a sponsoring U.S. employer or U.S. citizen or green-card holding relative
  • the application

How long does it take to get a visa? Length of application processing varies widely among visas, from as soon as one day for certain travel visas to five to ten years for immigrant visa applicants from certain countries like China and the Philippines, which are subject to quotas.

Who Processes the Applications? The U.S. Department of State processes applications and issues visas. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the regulatory body for U.S. immigration laws and issues.

Exceptions to Visa Requirements:

  • The Visa Waiver Pilot Program (VWPP) lets citizens of certain countries travel to the U.S. for short periods of time (up to 90 days, no extensions) without a visa.

Eligible Countries: Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and Uruguay

  • NAFTA TN status for Certain Classes of Canadian Workers:

TN status allows the worker to avoid the visa application process by proceeding directly to a US port of entry and presenting some or all of the following documents:

  • Evidence of Canadian citizenship
  • Written proof of your occupation
  • In some cases, copies of diplomas or licenses
  • Evidence of the profession listed under approved positions under NAFTA
  • H-1B Alternative Status for Certain Classes of Mexican workers:

    This status allows the worker to bypass the second step of the visa process, the application, and proceed to a US port of entry. However, a labor certification and approved visa petition are required. Proof of Mexican citizenship, professional qualifications and job offer letter from U.S. employer must be presented at the U.S. border


    • must have a firm job offer with a U.S. company
    • must be engaged in a profession requiring a college degree or its equivalent

Basic Immigration Terms

Adjustment of Status:

If you are attempting to change from one status to another, usually from a temporary to a permanent resident status, certain limitations will apply both to your application and to your travel in and out of the U.S. For example, you may need to apply for "advanced parole" ahead of your travel date.

Green Card Lottery ("Diversity Visa Lottery Program"):

Every year the Immigration and Naturalization Service holds a lottery allowing around 55,000 randomly chosen applicants from around the world to obtain a visa. The lottery costs a nominal application fee. In order to qualify, you must be born in a qualifying country and hold a high school diploma or at least two years of job experience. Winners are notified by mail.

For more information on applying for the green card lottery, click here.

You may also call the State Department's Visa Lottery Information Center at (202) 331-7199 for more information on application deadlines. Please note: There is a charge for each call. You may also contact your nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. A listing of U.S. Embassies and Consulates can be found at the U.S. State Department website.


Six to ten years after you receive your immigrant visa, you may apply to become a naturalized citizen, granting you all the rights and privileges of a U.S. citizen, including the right to vote. (The one exception: you may not be elected President or Vice-President of the U.S.) To receive your citizenship, you must take a test featuring questions about U.S. history, government and laws. For eligibility requirements and sample test questions, click here to the USCIS website.


The maximum number of U.S. visas allotted per country per year. Some types of visas don't have quotas. For a list of quotas and waiting periods for different types of visas, visit the quota page on the Immigralaw.com immigration law website.

Removal (formerly "deportation"):

If you are illegally in the U.S. or are convicted of a crime while holding a visa, your legal immigrant status may be taken away and you may be sent back to your home country.


You have a status if you have applied for and received permission to live or work in the U.S. from a local immigration office within U.S. borders. A status does not grant you a visa, which allows you to exit and re-enter the U.S. However, if your application is approved for permanent residency ("green card") status you will be allowed to travel outside the US and return as often as you like.


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