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What is the immigration process?

Summary: Common immigration processes include getting visas, green cards, or citizenship, and entering as a refugee or asylee.

There’s no one set immigration process. Every application is different, from the forms required to the deadlines and standards for approval. This article summarizes the process for some of the most common reasons for immigration, but you’ll need to evaluate the law as it relates to your own case.

Requirements for an H-1B visa

To get an H-1B visa, an employer must be willing to hire you for a highly skilled professional job. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) calls this a “specialty occupation.” You’ll usually need at least a bachelor’s degree related to the position, or equivalent informal education and experience.

Only 65,000 H-1B visas are issued per year, and 6,800 are reserved for workers from Chile and Singapore. Applicants employed at academic institutions or nonprofit/governmental research institutions are exempt from this cap, as are the first 20,000 people who have at least a master’s degree. There are also H-1B visa alternatives for those who qualify.

Getting an H-1B visa

Petitions for H-1B visas are accepted starting April 1 of each year for the fiscal year beginning six months later, on October 1. Your employer starts the process by filing Form I-129 (Petition for a Nonimmigrant Worker) and Form ETA-9035 (Labor Condition Application) for you, along with paying any application fees.

Once the Form I-129 petition is accepted, you’ll apply for an H-1B visa from the Department of State. File Form DS-160 online, and schedule an interview at a US consulate or embassy in the country where you live. You need to gather considerable documentation before your interview. After the interview and after all required documentation is submitted, the government evaluates your visa application and makes a decision.

Green card sponsorship

Most applications for permanent residency need to be sponsored by someone already in the country, whether it’s your spouse, fianc(e), family member, or employer. Your sponsor files the relevant form and fee with USCIS, typically Form I-130 for relatives or Form I-140 for your employer.

You may be able to file Form I-360 for yourself if you fall into certain categories, such as the widow of a US citizen, or a long-serving member of the US armed forces.

Getting a green card when you live in the US

If you’re currently in the US on a visa, and are applying to be a permanent resident (also called a green card holder), you’re applying for an “adjustment of status.” You’ll file a form, usually one of the three listed above, with USCIS, and pay a fee.

If you live in the US, you may also need to file Form I-485 at the same time, though this requirement varies. You’ll also be required to go to an Application Support Center appointment, where you’ll be fingerprinted, and you may be asked to appear for an interview before the decision is made.

Getting a green card when you live outside the US

If you live outside of the US and apply to be a permanent resident, you will go through “consular processing” at your closest US consulate. File the relevant forms and fee required for a green card with the appropriate office, listed on the USCIS website.

Wait for notification from the National Visa Center, and then attend an appointment with your local US consulate. When a visa is granted, you can travel to the US and receive your green card after arrival.

Getting a fianc(e) visa or spouse visa

As a US citizen or permanent resident, you file a Form I-129, Petition for Alien Fianc(e) or Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, and pay a fee on behalf of your partner. (Permanent residents may only petition for their spouses, not for their fianc(e)s.) Additional forms may be required before approval.

To expedite the process, a US citizen’s spouse or fianc(e) can apply to enter the US on a K-3 or K-1 visa, and then get an IR visa once you are married or the Form I-130 is completed. Your current/future spouse’s children can also apply for visas.

If you are a permanent resident, your spouse and children can apply for an F2 visa once the Form I-130 is approved.

Seeking refugee status

In order to meet USCIS’s standards for being a refugee, you need to be outside of your country and “unable or unwilling to return home” because you fear serious harm. More specifically, you need to show persecution or fear of persecution in your prior country, and not have participated in persecution yourself.

A USCIS officer must refer you to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). People who are inadmissible because of criminal background or other issues cannot be refugees. You must apply for a green card within 1 year of coming to the US, by filing Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence.

Seeking asylum

An asylee (person seeking asylum) meets the definition of a refugee, but is already in the US. If you are an asylee, you must file Form I-589 (Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal) within 1 year of arriving in the US.

Becoming a citizen

Filling out the USCIS’s Naturalization Eligibility Worksheet is a great way to find out if you can become a US citizen. If you are eligible, complete Form N-400, Application for Naturalization. You’ll also have to take a civics test and an oath of loyalty in order to become a citizen.

Assistance with your application

Talking to a lawyer with experience in immigration law is often very helpful. Immigration law frequently changes, and even if you’re self-motivated and detail-oriented, you can easily miss details or legal developments that can cause application rejection or delay.

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