Updated: Nov 25, 2022
Immigration is the movement of people from one place or country to another and is a fundamental aspect of human history. America is a country that has been created and built by immigrants from around the world.
In addition to the countless nature experiences and the diversity of cultures, you will find economic and financial opportunities. The United States, a single country the size of Europe, offers many reasons for people to emigrate from abroad.
And how can you emigrate to the USA legally?
Applying for US immigration is often expensive, complicated and overwhelming. In order to be able to live and work legally in America, there are fees and requirements for which legal advice can be recommended. However, this support often does not go beyond the legal matters, and many expats are on their own after receiving their visa. This is a crucial point, because only then does the actual journey begin!
First of all, it is important to understand the possibilities and difficulties involved in applying for a visa for legal entry into the United States for both temporary and permanent residence. What you find on the internet about US immigration is not always truthful or easy to understand, so I'm happy to share my personal experience.
About six years ago, I moved to the USA for work, and I am still surprised to this day at how little help was given with integration. In other articles, I explain whether and when legal advice is necessary, which experts you also need and what you still need to accomplish to successfully start your new American life.
Helpful US immigration vocabulary
On portals and articles you often come across the following terms. Everything is explained here for easier understanding:
Adjustment of Status: Adjustment of status from nonimmigrant visa to immigrant visa
EAD (Employment Authorization Document): Identification document of the work permit
Green card: Identification document of the immigrant visa
I-94: Arrival/Departure Form required for all travelers on non-immigrant visas
Immigrant Visa: Visa with unlimited rights and residence
Legal alien: foreign citizen with US visa
Lawful Permanent Resident: Individual with an immigrant visa/green card
Non-immigrant Visa: Visa with limited rights and residence
Permanent resident: foreign citizen with immigrant visa
Temporary resident: foreign citizen with non-immigrant visa
USCIS: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
These phrases will be used and explained in this article.
The US visa process
There are many methods to obtain an American visa, but the general rule is:
You need a sponsor (person, company, school)
The sponsor must submit a petition (application for the foreign person)
Once the petition has been approved and the visa is available, the foreigner can submit their application for visa
The application contains social and criminal background information, as well as a biometric appointment and a medical check-up performed by certified parties
After receipt of the application, you will be invited to an interview with an Immigration Officer (USCIS).
After approval, you will receive your visa and the permission to request entry into the United States.
Note: Since only a certain number of visas are available per year for certain visa categories, in some situations you have to wait for the availability of the relevant visa after you have submitted your petition before you can submit the application.
The official U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Forms can be found here.
Common problems when applying for a visa and reasons for visa refusals are missing information and documents as well as insufficient qualifications for the chosen category. It is often also careless mistakes or missing signatures that complicate the process.
Differences in procedures, costs and duration depend on the type of visa and the individual situation. There are more ways to legally immigrate to the United States, but in this article, I will focus on the most common methods.
So, what does all that mean exactly?
Explanations of the visa types
Immigrant visas with the Green Card as an accompanying identification document grant the unrestricted right to permanently live and work in the United States. You have the same rights and responsibilities as an American citizen, except for the right to vote or serve on a jury.
An American immigrant visa is thus the permanent residence and work permit for the USA. The green card holder is referred to as a lawful permanent resident and can apply for American citizenship, typically after 5 years.
Requirements for an Immigrant visa depend on the origin of the application and thus category of the visa. Visa fees are typically between $2000 and $3000, and the average approval time is between one and two years.
There are different types of immigrant visas depending on the origin of the application, some examples are:
Employment-Based Immigrant Visa – Obtaining the Green Card from an Employer
Family-Based Immigrant Visa – Obtaining the Green Card through family reunification
Diversity Visa Lottery – Obtaining the Green Card by winning the Green Card Lottery
Please note: A green card is usually applied for when you are already legally residing in the United States. A visa, on the other hand, is required to even request an entry permit.
The full range of possible immigrant visas can be found here!
Nonimmigrant visas give you the right to reside in the United States for a limited period of time. An American nonimmigrant visa is the temporary residence and work permit for the United States.
Nonimmigrant visa holders are referred to as legal aliens or temporary residents. After the visa expires, you must leave the United States or renew your visa.
As a temporary resident, you can obtain a U.S. driver's license and Social Security card, file taxes, and rent or buy real estate during your legal residency. However, you only have a temporary work permit (only for the sponsoring company) and no right to vote or military service.
As with immigrant visas, the requirements for a nonimmigrant visa depend on the origin of the visa and its category. Visa fees typically range from $200 to $300 and approval times average from two to four months. There are numerous nonimmigrant visas for a variety of situations, such as:
Please note: A visa gives you permission to ask for entry. There is no guarantee that you will be able to enter the United States. This decision is up to the border official.
See the full range of possible nonimmigrant visas here!
Examples of Visa processes
I was offered an employment contract by an American company and applied for an E-2 nonimmigrant visa.
Here is an overview of one such application:
Sponsor: A Company.
The US company.
Petition: From the sponsor.
The company created and submitted the application (petition) to explain what I will contribute to the American economy, what is included in the position and why I am specifically qualified to fill this position.
Visa Application: From me.
My application contained evidence of my medical background (proof of vaccinations, illness and accidents), my criminal background (background check, questions about crime) and my professional and personal background (work, place of residence, family).
Interview: With the US government.
I applied for my visa personally at the embassy and completed the biometric appointment and the interview with a USCIS immigration officer on site.
The embassy approved my application and entered the new visa (E-2) in my passport. Upon entering the United States, I was allowed to ask the border official to allow entry, issue my Arrival/Departure Form (I-94) and authorize the two-year stay that came with it.
Result: New status.
So, I was a temporary resident on a nonimmigrant visa.
The E-2 visa is valid for 5 years and the I-94 must be renewed within 2 years of entry/exit to stay legally in the US.
The entire application process went quite quickly, about four months. Cost around $10,000.00. It should be noted that the petition and application were submitted with the help of the company's immigration attorneys.
After I got married, my partner and I applied for Adjustment of Status from E-2 to Green Card.
Here is an overview of one such application:
Sponsor: A person.
The spouse as a US citizen.
Petition: From the sponsor.
Petition for me, as a foreign relative, with an affidavit of financial support.
Application: From me.
My application for Adjust of Status and the associated EAD, with proof of my medical background (vaccination, illness and accident records), criminal background (background check, crime questions) and professional and personal background (work, location of residence, family) and proof of our marriage. Petition and application were submitted together by mail, biometric appointment is completed at the nearest USCIS office.
Interview: At the US government.
Invitation to an in-person interview with a USCIS Immigration Officer.
After the interview, the application will be approved, and the green card is sent by mail.
Result: New status.
This means that I am a permanent legal resident with unrestricted residency and employment rights.
The whole process can take up to a year or more depending on where you live in the US and which office is responsible for it (you will get the EAD faster so you can work). The cost was around $4,000.00.
K-1 Fiancé Visa: If Person A (foreigner) and Person B (US citizen) are engaged and wish to be married in the United States, Person B must first petition to the US government for a nonimmigrant visa, and have it approved before Person A is allowed to enter and both are allowed to get married and then Person A can apply for the immigrant visa.
K-3 Spouse Visa: If Person A (foreigner) and Person B (US citizen) were married outside the United States, Person B must first petition to the US government for a nonimmigrant visa and have it approved before Person A is allowed to enter the country to obtain the immigrant visa.
EB-1 Visa: Self-application (no sponsor required) as a person of exceptional ability, such as outstanding professors and researchers, people with exceptional ability in arts, science, business, sports or education, and executives who have worked in a foreign university within the last 3 years branch of a US company.
EB-5 Visa: When you are investing $500K to $1M in a US trading company and are holding 10+ permanent jobs.
Dual Intent Visa: When you are a student at an American US college and start working for the college, which then becomes a sponsor.
After finally getting your US visa, it feels like the worst is over. But if you don't have friends or family in the US who can support you with legal and local knowledge, your next project is only just beginning.
Because what happens after immigration?
Social security number, driver’s license, lease, car insurance, bank account, health insurance, cell phone contract, credit score building… the beginning can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. (Check my downloads here!)
Planning ahead from your home country before moving is key to a smoother transition, but even then, progress can be limited as some things can only be done locally in person.
If you have arrived in the US and are in the process of integrating into the community, there are a few things to keep in mind. Local bureaucracy coupled with often a shortage of support and understanding from local residents can quickly lead to helplessness.
Don't be surprised if you feel overwhelmed with the integration process and remember that there are people who are happy to help you. In other blog posts and downloads I explain everything step by step so that you can easily and efficiently become part of your new American community.
Since this is a legal matter, it can be reassuring to ask an expert for help.
If you want to learn more or need more details, I'm happy to help!