An immigrant usually has to go through a three-step process to get the green card, which entitles him/her to live and work permanently in the United States. The whole process may take several years depending on the type of application and the country of origin.
In the first step, USCIS approves the immigrant petition by a qualifying relative, an employer, or in rare cases such as with an investor visa, the applicant.
Second, unless the applicant is an “immediate relative”, an immigrant visa number through the State Department must be available. This number might not be immediately available even if the USCIS approves the petition because the amount of immigrant visa numbers is limited every year. There are also certain additional limitations by country. Thus, most immigrants will be placed on lengthy waiting lists. Those immigrants who are immediate relatives are not subjected to the limited quotas of immigrant visas and may proceed to the next step immediately. Immediate relatives are defined as spouses and children under 21 of U.S. citizens, and parents of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or over.
Finally, when an immigrant visa number is available, the applicant must apply with USCIS to adjust their current status to permanent resident status. If the applicant is outside the U.S., he/she has to apply for an immigrant visa at the nearest U.S. consulate before being allowed to come to the U.S.
What is a Visa?
If you’re a citizen of a foreign country, in most cases you’ll need a visa to enter the United States.
A visa doesn’t permit entry to the U.S., however. A visa simply indicates that your application has been reviewed by a U.S. consular officer at an American embassy or consulate, and that the officer has determined you’re eligible to enter the country for a specific purpose. Consular affairs are the responsibility of the U.S. Department of State.