United States Immigration Programs, Explained

Congratulations on deciding to immigrate to the United States! Whether you want to immigrate permanently or temporarily come to the United States, there’s an immigration program for that. Before you begin your immigration journey, you’ll need to understand what the process involves. In this step-by-step guide, we’ll walk you through the entire U.S. immigration process. Continue reading to learn more.

United States Immigration Programs, Explained

To immigrate to the United States means to relocate permanently by obtaining a green card (officially known as an “immigrant visa” or “lawful permanent residence”). It allows unrestricted employment and can be renewed indefinitely. It also provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

However, not everyone is eligible for a green card, and applying for one can be expensive and time-consuming. To permanently move to the United States, you must meet specific requirements, pay government fees, and have your application approved by the U.S. government. That can be complicated and expensive, so knowing what lies ahead is essential.

Many people instead use temporary visas to visit, work, or study in the United States. Such visas (officially called “nonimmigrant visas”) are often renewable and suitable for multiple visits, which might allow you to live in the United States for several years.

This guide focuses on the options for permanent immigration, but we will first give an overview of temporary US visas. However, remember, many people start on temporary visas (such as F-1 or J-1 student visas) before gaining green cards. If you don’t currently qualify for an immigrant visa, consider whether a temporary permit might help you achieve your goals.

What is a Nonimmigrant Visa?

Nonimmigrant visas are meant for those wishing to temporarily come to the United States for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work, or study. However, nonimmigrant visas are temporary; therefore, they cannot be used to live in the United States permanently and usually have an end date or a set amount of time that can be spent in the country.

On the other hand, immigrant visas are for those who intend to live permanently in the United States and usually require family or employment sponsorship. Unless a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, everyone needs a visa to enter and stay in the United States legally. You will require a nonimmigrant visa to come to the United States regardless of age temporarily.

However, some nationals from specific countries do not need visas to travel to the United States for tourism, business, or while in transit for up to 90 days without a visa. This is called the “Visa Waiver Program,” or VWP, and it’s used by nationals of 38 countries and territories, including most countries in the European Union.

Types of Nonimmigrant Visas

These types of visas are usually for short-term employment, study, and temporary visits for tourism or business.

Nonimmigrant visas for employment

Temporary work visas are issued to foreigners who come to the United States for employment that lasts for a fixed amount. The job is usually temporary. Moreover, a petition is still required by a prospective employer, who needs to apply to the U.S. authorities beforehand. The worker then uses an approved petition to obtain a nonimmigrant work visa.

Furthermore, there are several types, although the most common are H visas (H-1B, H-1B1, H-2A, H-2B, H-3) issued to temporary workers in the United States. H-1B and H-1B1 visas are for professional-level jobs requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a specific academic field and an employer sponsor.


The United States is a top study destination for international students who wish to further their academic studies in a foreign country. The United States attracts tens of thousands of students yearly with many world-renowned educational institutions and study programs. However, like in every other country, studying in the United States requires a visa. The F-1 visa is for a full-time student at an accredited U.S. educational institution, including colleges, high schools, seminaries, and conservatories. While on the F-1 visa, you can only have on-campus employment. There is also the F-2 visa for the spouse or children of the F-1 visa holder.

Types of Immigrant Visas

You’ll likely only be able to immigrate if you qualify for one of the following.

  • Family-based green cards
  • Employment-based green cards
  • Humanitarian green cards
  • Diversity lottery green cards
  • Longtime-resident green cards
  • Other green cards

Family-based green cards

The family-based immigrant visa is one of the most common ways people acquire green cards and become permanent residents in the United States. Citizens and permanent residents may petition the USCIS to bring their family members into the country on an immigrant visa... Read more.

Employment-based green cards

Employment-Based Green Cards are issued based on a determination by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) that no American workers can be found to fill a job opening. The principal applicants for Employment-Based Green Cards are employers, who must file petitions for individuals they wish to hire. An employer filing a petition for an alien employee will also automatically grant work authorization. At this point, immigration approval is just a matter of time... Read more.

Humanitarian green cards

Green cards are sometimes issued to refugees, asylees, and victims of human trafficking, abuse, and crime. Getting a visa as a member of one of these groups can be complicated, so speak to a lawyer if you think you might be eligible. Our introductory guide to green cards has more details about humanitarian visas.

Diversity lottery green cards

The United States runs a “green card lottery” that randomly awards immigrant visas to up to 50,000 people yearly. Only applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States are eligible to apply. Check the Boundless guide to the diversity lottery for more information.

Longtime-resident green cards

Green cards can be issued to individuals who have physically lived in the United States, either lawfully or unlawfully, since January 1, 1972. They must have entered the United States before that date and not have left the United States since arriving.

Other green cards

The U.S. government issues many other green cards, including ones for “special immigrants” such as media professionals, religious workers, Afghanistan and Iraq nationals who have assisted the U.S. government, and employees of international organizations. In some situations, green cards are also available to Cuban citizens and American Indians born in Canada.