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How to Legally Immigrate To America

By Danielle Smyth - Updated January 23, 2019
Statue of Liberty

Immigrating to the United States can be a daunting process. Particularly for those new to the country, language and customs, trying to navigate the tricky waters of immigration and perhaps ultimately citizenship may be overwhelming. Depending on whether you hope to obtain a green card, work visa or citizenship, the time it takes to complete the process can vary widely, as well. Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to help you, many of which come from the federal government directly. As changing legislation impacts the face of immigration, it’s best to get information straight from the source.

Tip

In order to become a legal citizen, you must first become a permanent resident, or holder of a green card. After five years of being a legal resident of the United States, you are eligible to apply for citizenship.

Obtaining a Green Card

One way to gain the right to remain in the United States legally is to obtain a green card. In fact, if you hope to become a legal citizen, you must first become a permanent resident, or holder of a green card. After five years of being a legal resident of the United States, you are eligible to apply for citizenship. Though it may feel like a long time to wait, this is a clearly outlined process.

Usually, the green card process begins with an interview at an office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Most major cities have such an office. To find your local office, visit the USCIS website. The USCIS has the authority to request that you provide fingerprints, a photograph and a signature prior to your interview. These biometrics enable the department to conduct a background and security check on you.

The time from when you apply to when you have your interview can vary, ranging from four to 10 months. You may also be eligible for a green card if you marry a current citizen of the United States. If you live in the U.S. and marry a citizen, the overall process may take two to three years. If you live abroad, things take a bit longer, in the realm of 11 to 19 months. If you live abroad and are married to a green card holder, the process may take you two to three years.

Green cards are valid for 10 years if you are a permanent resident, and just two years if you are a conditional permanent resident. Conditional permanent residents cannot renew their card, but instead must file for permanent residency 90 days before their card is due to expire. There is no difference between a permanent resident and conditional permanent resident aside from the type of card you hold and the clearance it provides you. You will need to complete Form I-485 to apply for permanent residency and your green card. A good place to start is to review the available forms on the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website and find the one that applies to your circumstances.

Relationship to a U.S. Citizen

If you have family in the United States, such as a parent, child or spouse, who is a U.S. citizen, you are eligible to become a citizen after holding green card status for five years (or three years if the citizen is your spouse). To become a citizen, however, you do need to pass the language and civics test. You can expect to wait between six and seven years in total for this process to be completed.

If you are the spouse or child of a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), you are eligible to immigrate to the United States. You can expect to wait an average of 13 years for this process to be completed, and the wait time depends on your home country.

Skilled Laborers and Professionals

If you have a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent with some specialization, either from the United States or from another country, you may be eligible to remain in the U.S. if your employer wishes to keep you on. Steep legal fees may be required, but if your employer can vouch for you and prove that you have special skills, you may be approved to work in the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa (H-1B). From there, you can expect to wait between five and six years for your green card, and then additional time for your citizenship to process. A good place to begin your quest for an H-1B visa is on the United States Citizenship and Immigration website.

About the Author

Danielle Smyth is a writer and content marketer from upstate New York. She holds a Master of Science in Publishing from Pace University. Her experience includes years of work in the insurance, workers compensation, disability, and background investigation fields. In addition to being the content writer and social media manager for Alliance Worldwide Investigative Group, she has written on legal topics for a number of other clients. She owns her own content marketing agency, Wordsmyth Creative Content Marketing (www.wordsmythcontent.com), and she enjoys writing legal articles and blogs for clients in related industries.

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