Exploring immigration options to the United States is an exciting opportunity to imagine possibilities for your future. Unfortunately, it can also be overwhelming at first glance; the visa categories start to look like alphabet soup to the untrained eye. However, with good advice and some clarity, you should be on your way to mapping out your future in no time.

How to break down U.S. immigration options

The first important concept to understand is the underlying basis for possible immigration options. Immigration benefits in the U.S. are often categorized in one of two ways:

  1. How permanent is the benefit?

  2. What is the basis for the benefit?

Immigrant vs. Non-Immigrant Benefits

Immigrant benefits are those benefits that allow their recipient to live and work permanently in the United States. Examples of immigrant benefits include:

  • Adjustment of Status / Green Cards / I-485

  • Consular Processing / Immigrant Visa Processing / Visa Applications Abroad

  • Employment Visa Petitions / I-140

  • Family Visa Petitions / I-130 for Spouse, Parent, Sibling, and Child, Immigrant Visas (also called Immediate Relative and/or Preference Category Visa Petitions)

  • National Interest Waivers

  • EB-3 Employment Visas

  • EB-4 Special Immigrants – Religious, Widow/Widower, Juveniles

  • EB-5 Investment Visas

Non-Immigrant benefits are those benefits that allow their recipient to temporarily live, and sometimes to work or study, in the United States. Examples of non-immigrant benefits include:

  • B-1/B-2 Visitor and Tourist Visas

  • E-2 Investor Visas

  • F-1 Student Visas and F-2 Spouses and Children of Students

  • H-1B Professional Employees and H-4 Dependent Spouses and Children

  • H-2A, H-2B Seasonal Workers

  • J-1 Exchange Visas

  • L-1A and L-1B Intracompany Transfers

  • O-1 Extraordinary Ability Visas

  • Q Cultural Exchange Visas

  • R-1 Religious Worker Visas

Some non-immigrant benefits can lead to a permanent, immigrant benefit down the road. Many clients opt for a long-term strategy that incorporates a non-immigrant benefit in the short term, with an eye toward the long-term options. Just make sure to get credible legal advice before building a strategy like this, so that you can be sure you’re not inadvertently hurting your future chances of success—there are many complicated rules about how to pursue immigrant status lawfully.

Family-Based, Employment-Based, and Other Categories

Both immigrant and non-immigrant benefits require some underlying basis that qualifies the applicant to receive the benefit. For example, an applicant might seek an employment-based green card, or if they have a qualifying family member, they might apply for a family-based green card. Some applicants might even apply for a humanitarian based green card, such as with asylees or VAWA recipients. When first exploring your U.S. immigration options, you might want to consider what underlying basis you want to use as your starting point. Ask yourself some introductory questions:

  1. Do I have any U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident relatives?

  2. Do I have any job offers or educational programs available to me in the U.S.?

  3. Could I make a substantial investment or start a business in the U.S.?

  4. Do I have any current U.S. immigration status that contributes to my case?

  5. Do I have any special qualifications or experience that might allow me to petition for myself?

  6. Might I qualify for some humanitarian benefits based on my country of origin or my personal circumstances?

Family based benefits work just like they sound: if you have a qualifying family member, that person can petition for you to receive an immigration status in the U.S. Employment based benefits work similarly; they require a prospective employer or educational program to function as the petitioner or sponsor. Humanitarian benefits might apply for people seeking asylum, people who were victims of a crime in the U.S., or victims of domestic violence by a U.S. citizen spouse or parent. Some people are not able to return to their home countries due to natural disasters or political unrest, and others have immigration hearings they must attend. Each case is unique and each applicant should consider all of their circumstances when exploring their U.S. immigration options.

Once you have an idea of which direction you want to move with your case, the next step is to get expert legal advice so that you know exactly what to expect from the process. A quality consultation with an expert immigration attorney will give you the road map you need to move toward your goals.