What is a visa?
A visa is obtained from the U.S. State Department and is presented at the U.S. border or other point of entry such as an airport when the holder attempts to enter the country. In order to get a visa, you will need to apply through the American consulate or embassy in your home country.
Be aware that while a visa is necessary to enter the United States, it is not sufficient. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection may not allow someone to enter even with a visa. That being said, if you have a visa, chances are quite high that you will be allowed entry.
One exception to the need for a visa is if you are a citizen or national of certain designated countries. In that case, you may be eligible for the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which is administered by the DHS. If you qualify for the VWP, you will be allowed to travel for work or as a tourist within the United States as long as your stay is not longer than 90 days. To see a list of countries that qualify for this program, please look up the FAQ at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection site.
Typically, a visa will be assigned to you as a stamp in your passport. When you are told to go to a U.S. consulate or embassy to pick up your visa, you might get this stamp, or you will get an equivalent document.
Types of US Visas
There are two broad categories of visa – immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas. An immigrant visa is much more difficult to obtain and is part of the process for getting a green card.
The holder of an immigrant visa becomes a permanent resident of the United States immediately upon entry into the country. He or she will receive a green card soon after entering and can remain in the U.S. for life unless he or she is convicted of a deportable offense. The Department of Justice has a list of reasons an immigrant can be deported. These include domestic violence, drug or firearms trafficking and other crimes.
The process for getting an immigrant visa is usually quite extensive. Often the holder has been sponsored by a family member. While an immigrant visa grants permanent residency rights, it does not in and of itself does not guarantee a path to citizenship for the holder.
People who are granted a non-immigrant visa are only allowed temporary residency in the country. Their visa only allows them the legal right to visit and stay in the United States for a specific purpose and amount of time.
The purpose of the visit might be for work, education, a medical reason, for tourism or for a business trip. A departure date will be specified on the I-94 given to the person by Customs and Border Protection when they enter the country. The expiration date varies.
For tourists assigned a B-2 visa or business people assigned a B-1 visa, the legal period will be measured in months. For H-1B work visas or student (F-1 or M-1) visas, or for exchange visitor/scholar (J-1) visas, the expiration date might be measured in years.
What is a Green Card?
The term “green card” is actually slang for the plastic photo identification card that a person receives soon after they are approved as a lawful permanent resident of the United States. It is sent via mail. This document allows the holder to live, work and travel anywhere within the U.S.
People who enter the United States with an immigrant visa automatically qualify for a green card. Those who have come into America without an immigrant visa can later apply for their green card but their request must be approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Approval is not guaranteed. However, if a notice of approval is received, then the green card usually follows via mail.
Lawful permanent residents of the U.S. are referred to as “green card holders”. In some cases, this designation is given to lawful conditional residents, whose status will expire in two years.
Green card holders can pursue citizenship after three to five years residency in America. Among the types of green cards that can be issued are those based on family connections, those based on employment, and those provided for humanitarian reasons.
While most of the time non-immigrant visas, which include everything from a B-2 tourist visa to an H-1B temporary specialty worker visa or an F-1 student visa, can only be obtained from an overseas U.S. consulate, there are exceptions.
If someone is already in the U.S. legally, he or she can ask for a “change of status” by applying directly to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency (USCIS). For example, someone attending graduate school in the United States might apply for a change of status from an F-1 visa to an H-1B visa if he or she is offered a job with an American company after graduation.
If the person’s application for change of status is approved, he or she will not receive an actual visa since this is an entry document which is provided by a consulate or embassy outside of the United States. Instead, the person receives a “visa number”. This number designates the new status.
If, however, someone who obtained a change of status leaves America, he or she will need to stop by a U.S. embassy or consulate before once again entering the country in order to get an actual visa.
It is possible for temporary visa holders to change their status to permanent (immigrant) visa holders or green card holders without having to depart and re-enter the country.
Green Cards are Limited in Number
There are no guarantees that someone can get a green card even if they have lived and worked in the United States for several years. While H-1B visas, for example, can apply for an immigrant visa and then a green card, there is a chance their request will be denied.
When someone applies for a green card while living in the United States, even though they won’t need an entry visa they are still allocated a visa number by the U.S. State Department in order to keep track of the individual. Since there are a limited amount of these visa numbers per immigration category, there are no guarantees an applicant will be able to get one.
Why do Green Cards have Expiration Dates?
Typically a green card expires after ten years. However, the person’s status does not expire at this time. A green card holder is a lawful permanent resident of the United States unless he or she has violated the law and committed a deportable offense.
However, U.S. authorities require all green card holders to regularly submit an application, USCIS Form I-90, in order to get a new card.
The exception to the rule is the green card assigned to lawful conditional residents. These are people who enter the country via marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or as category EB-5 investors. These individuals will receive two-year conditional residency.
As the deadline for expiration approaches, these individuals must prove that they qualify for lawful permanent residency status. If they lose their status, they lose their right to remain in the U.S.
Common Misconceptions about Green Cards
One common misconception about a green card is that it guarantees permanent resident status for the holder in the United States. However, as we have seen, this is not true. If someone commits a crime, he or she may face revocation of legal residency rights.
Another misconception is that the green card holder may travel frequently to and from America without having to reapply for a visa. This is not true, either.
Green card holders still need to apply for a visa when re-entering the country. Additionally, if their primary home is in another country so that they are not resident in the U.S. for a certain length of time, the U.S. government may cancel their green card.
If that happens, the individual can reapply for another green card, but they must make it clear that they intend for the U.S. to be their primary home.
To avoid this type of hassle, if an individual marries an American citizen or permanent resident but will be shuttling to and from their home country quite a bit during the first few years of their marriage, he or she may want to wait to apply for permanent status until they are ready to settle in the U.S.
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