Getting Immigrant Status: Paths to U.S. Permanent Residency


When a foreign national wishes to enter the U.S., they will normally apply for one of two general types of visa, an immigrant visa or a non-immigrant visa. Non-immigrant visas permit an alien to enter the United States on a temporary basis. Immigrant visas may be sought by people who want to gain legal permanent residency and live permanently in the United States. Legal permanent residents are sometimes referenced as LPRs" or "Green Card holders".

Why Seek Legal Permanent Residency

Some of the key benefits of legal permanent residency include:

  • Employment - A legal permanent resident may lawfully obtain employment within the United States, or start and operate a business inside of the United States.

  • Travel - Subject to some limits on lengthy periods of absence from the United States, a legal permanent resident may enter and leave the United States.

  • Sponsoring Family Members - A legal permanent resident can sponsor a spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 for legal permanent residency.

  • Citizenship - A legal permanent resident gains the right to apply for U.S. Citizenship after five years of LPR status.

Common Paths to Legal Permanent Residency

The most common paths to legal permanent residency include family-based immigration, employment-based immigration, the Diversity Visa (DV) lottery, and asylum or refugee status.

Family-Based Immigration

United States Citizens may sponsor immediate members of their families for permanent residency. Visas for immediate relatives are not limited in number. Immediate relatives include the spouse of a U.S. Citizen, an unmarried child under the age of 21 of a U.S. Citizen, an orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen, an orphan to be adopted inside the United States by a U.S. Citizen, and the parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old. Citizens under the age of 21 cannot sponsor their parents.

United States Citizens may also sponsor family members with whom they have more distant relationships. Immigrant visas for these relatives are limited in number, and the waiting period for immigration can be very long based on the family member's preference category. Legal permanent residents may petition for the immigration of a spouse, an unmarried child under the age of 21, or an unmarried child of any age. Spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21 are in a higher preference category than unmarried children over the age of 21. The preference categories for these Family Preference Immigrant visas are:

  • First Preference (F1) - Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any.

  • Second Preference (F2) - Spouses, unmarried minor children under the age of 21, and unmarried sons and daughters over the age 21, of legal permanent residents. (Close to 80% of available visas in this category are issued to spouses and children under the age of 21)

  • Third Preference (F3) - Married children of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.

  • Fourth Preference (F4) - Siblings of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years of age.

Priority dates for each preference category, reflecting the waiting period for approval, can be reviewed in the U.S. State Department's Visa Bulletin.

Employment-Based Immigration

Immigrant visas based on employment are divided into five preference categories,

  1. Priority Workers - The first preference category includes three subcategories of worker, (1) Persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics; (2) Outstanding professors and researchers with at least three years of experience in teaching or research and who are recognized internationally; and (3) Multinational managers or executives who have been employed for at least one of the three preceding years by the overseas parent, subsidiary, branch, or affiliate of the U.S. employer.

  2. Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability - The second preference category includes, (1) Professionals holding an advanced degree beyond a baccalaureate (bachelor's) degree, professionals with a baccalaureate degree and at least five years of progressive experience in their profession, and (2) Persons with exceptional ability -- a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered -- in the sciences, arts, or business.

  3. Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers - The third preference category includes, (1) Persons whose jobs require a minimum of two years of training or work experience that are not temporary or seasonal; (2) Professionals who are members of a professions whose jobs require at least a baccalaureate degree from a U.S. university or college or its foreign equivalent degree; and (3) Unskilled workers (other workers) who are persons capable of filling positions that require less than two years training or experience and that are not temporary or seasonal.

  4. Certain Special Immigrants - The fourth preference category includes a wide variety of subgroups. Broadly speaking, the person must be the beneficiary of an approved Form I-360 (Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant), with the exception of certain employees or former employees of the U.S. government abroad.

  5. Immigrant Investors - The fifth preference category allows for immigration for foreign investors based on capital investment in new commercial enterprises in the United States that provide job creation.

Most employers sponsoring employees for immigrant visas must obtain a labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor, a process of proving that there are no qualified U.S. available for the position being offered.

Some employees who enter the United States on H-1B visas may be sponsored for permanent residency by their employers.

The Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery

The Diversity Visa lottery provides an opportunity for applicants to gain the opportunity to enter the United States and obtain permanent residency. The diversity visa is intended to bring immigrants to the United States from nations deemed to be underrepresented among U.S. immigrants during the prior five years. To be eligible for a Diversity Visa the applicant must be a citizen of qualifying nation, have the equivalent of a high school diploma or have, within the past five years, at least two years of employment experience in a job position that required at least two years of training. Diversity visas are distributed among six broad geographic regions, and in any given year no single country may receive more than seven percent of the available Diversity Visas issued.

Refugee or Aslyum Status

Refugee status is intended for people who are outside of their country, and who are unwilling or unable to return home because they have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of five protected grounds, (1) Religion, (2) Political Opinion, (3) Race, (4) Nationality and (5) Membership in a particular social group. A person seeking U.S. refugee status must be deemed admissible to the U.S. and must not be firmly resettled in a third country. Applicants outside of the United States may seek refugee status. Applicants within the United States may seek asylum which, if granted, will protect them from deportation. A person with approved status as a refugee or asylee may seek adjustment of status to legal permanent residency after one year of post-approval U.S. residency.

This article provides a quick survey of options that may allow a would-be immigrant to gain U.S. legal permanent residency. If you believe you are eligible to gain U.S. legal permanent residency, and have a family member or employer who is willing to sponsor you for LPR status, you should investigate further to confirm your eligibility and the amount of time it might take you to obtain permanent residency, or consult an immigration lawyer.

Copyright © 2015 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Jan 22, 2015.