For a foreign national to live and work permanently in the U.S., he or she must become a Lawful Permanent Resident. This is a complicated process, requiring permission to immigrate to the U.S. from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If approved, the foreign national becomes the recipient of an immigrant status. Permanent Residents are then issued a Resident Alien Card or what is commonly known as a "Green Card", or form I-551, which indicates his or her eligibility to reside permanently in the United States and to work without restriction.
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In the first step, an immigrant petition for you, I-130 Petition for Alien Relative, must be approved by the USCIS, which is usually filed by a relative (sponsor) for you and must be accompanied by proof of your relationship to the requesting relative.
Second, a visa number, through the State Department must be immediately available to you, even if you are already in the United States. If you receive an immigrant visa number, it means that an immigrant visa has been assigned to you. You can check the status of a visa number in the Department of State's Visa Bulletin.
Third, if you are already in the United States, you may apply to adjust to permanent resident status after a visa number becomes available for you. (If you are outside the United States when an immigrant visa number becomes available for you, you must then go to your local U.S. consulate to complete your processing.)
Family based immigrant visas are divided into preference systems and priority dates. This refers to one of the various categories under which an individual qualifies for U.S. residency, and must wait for a visa to become available.
- First Preference: unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. This category refers to the adult children of U.S. citizens or those who have reached the age of 21 years prior to issuance of the immigrant visa;
- Second Preference: a) spouses and children under the age of 21 of U.S. permanent residents; b) unmarried sons and daughters over the age of 21 of U. S. permanent residents;
- Third Preference: married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens;
- Fourth Preference: brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.
There is also a separate preference for immediate relatives (spouses, mothers and fathers, etc.) of U.S. citizens. An immigrant visa number will be immediately available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
Certain documentation must be submitted with the petition to prove the legal status of the petitioner, and that the stated relationship exists between the petitioner and his/her relative.
When the visa petition is approved, USCIS will tell the person who filed the visa petition (the petitioner). The approved visa petition will then be sent to the Department of State's National Visa Center by USCIS where it will remain until an immigrant visa number is available. The Center will notify you (the beneficiary of the application) when the visa petition is received and again when an immigrant visa number is available. Alien Registration Cards (Green Cards) are issued for ten-year periods.