Immigrating to the United States can be an exciting yet daunting process. With over 40 different visa categories, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when determining which one is right for your situation.

In this article, we’ll explore the four main types of U.S. visas—nonimmigrant, immigrant, refugee/asylum, and special program—to help you gain clarity on your options.

The 4 Main Visa Categories

There are two key distinctions to understand when looking at U.S. visas:

  • Immigrant vs. nonimmigrant: Immigrant visas lead to lawful permanent resident status (green card), while nonimmigrant visas are for temporary stays.
  • Dual intent visas: Some nonimmigrant visas allow you to have intent to immigrate permanently, while others prohibit dual intent.

With those key distinctions in mind, let’s look at the four primary visa categories:

Nonimmigrant Visas

Nonimmigrant visas are for those seeking to enter the U.S. on a temporary basis for tourism, business, work, or study. Some common examples include:

  • Tourist visas (B-1/B-2) for short visits or medical treatment
  • Student visas (F-1) for academic studies
  • Work visas (H-1B, H-2A/B, L-1) for temporary employment
  • Exchange visas (J-1) for cultural exchange programs

Nonimmigrant visas do not provide a direct path to permanent residence. Some allow dual intent, while others prohibit it. Length of stay also varies.

Immigrant Visas

Immigrant visas lead to lawful permanent resident status (green card), allowing you to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely. The main pathways are:

  • Family-based – For immediate relatives or other eligible family relationships
  • Employment-based – For workers with certain skills, achievements, or job offers
  • Diversity visa – For applicants from underrepresented countries

Immigrant visas allow you to apply for U.S. citizenship after meeting residency requirements. Processing time varies by visa type.

Refugee & Asylum Visas

Refugees and asylees fleeing persecution or war may qualify for protection in the U.S.

  • Refugee status is sought from outside the U.S.
  • Asylum status is sought by those already in the U.S.

In 2020, the U.S. granted refugee status to around 11,800 people and asylum to about 29,600 people.

Special Program Visas

These visas serve important humanitarian needs or law enforcement goals:

  • T visas aid victims of human trafficking.
  • U visas aid victims of certain crimes in the U.S.
  • S visas grant temporary status to criminal informants.

In 2020, around 1,000 T visas, 12,000 U visas, and 200 S visas were approved.

Now that we’ve covered the main visa categories at a high level let’s look at some of the most popular options in more detail.

Nonimmigrant Visas

Nonimmigrant visas offer many options for those looking to come to the U.S. temporarily. Here are some of the most common types:

Tourist & Business Visas

The B-1/B-2 visitor visa is the most popular nonimmigrant visa, with over 5.7 million issued in 2019. It covers:

  • B-1 visas for short business trips
  • B-2 visas for tourism or medical treatment

B-1/B-2 visas allow a maximum stay of 6 months and do not permit employment. They are relatively quick and easy to obtain, with an approval rate of around 80%.

Student & Exchange Visas

Over 1 million international students studied in the U.S. in 2019. Common student visas include:

  • F-1 visas for academic studies at colleges, universities, etc.
  • J-1 visas for short-term exchange programs

Both allow part-time on-campus work authorization and require proof of financial support. F-1 students may qualify for OPT to gain work experience after graduation.

Temporary Work Visas

For those looking to work in the U.S. temporarily, some options are:

  • H-1B visas for specialty occupations requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • H-2A/H-2B visas for seasonal agricultural or non-agricultural jobs
  • L-1 visas for intracompany transfers of executives, managers, or employees with specialized knowledge

Work visas require employer sponsorship and approval of a temporary labor certification. Annual caps limit the number available.

Diplomatic & NATO Visas

Specialized nonimmigrant visas exist for diplomats, foreign government officials, and NATO personnel:

  • A-1 visas are for ambassadors, public ministers, and their families
  • NATO-1 through NATO-6 visas are for officials, experts, and support staff of NATO and their families

These visas provide a range of privileges and immunities to eligible applicants.

Immigrant Visas

For those seeking lawful permanent residence (green card), here are some common immigrant visa options:

Family-sponsored Green Cards

Receiving a green card through a family member is the most common immigration pathway. Categories include:

  • Immediate relatives – Spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens
  • Family preference – Siblings, adult children, and other extended family of citizens or permanent residents

In 2020, over 537,000 green cards were granted to immediate relatives and 226,000 were granted to family preference applicants.

Employment-based Green Cards

Workers may qualify for green cards if they have certain skills, education, job offers, or achievements. Categories include:

  • EB-1 – For priority workers with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, or multinational managers and executives
  • EB-2 – For professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability
  • EB-3 – For bachelor’s degree holders, skilled workers, and unskilled workers
  • EB-4 – For special immigrants like religious workers or broadcasters
  • EB-5 – For immigrant investors who invest at least $900,000 in U.S. projects

In 2020, around 56,000 green cards were granted across these employment-based categories.

Diversity Visa Lottery

The diversity visa lottery aims to encourage immigration from countries with historically low rates. Around 55,000 diversity visas are available each year through a random selection process open to qualifying applicants.

Refugee & Asylum Visas

For those unable to return to their home country, refugee status and asylum may provide a path to safety.

Refugee Status

Refugees are generally identified and referred for U.S. resettlement by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). To qualify, they must:

  • Be fleeing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular group
  • Be admissible to the United States
  • Not be firmly settled in another country
  • Meet other eligibility criteria

Over 100,000 refugees have been admitted to the U.S. in some recent years. The ceiling was 62,500 for fiscal year 2021.

Asylum Status

To qualify for asylum, applicants must:

  • Be already present in the United States or seeking entry at a port of entry
  • Meet the definition of a refugee
  • File within one year of arrival (with limited exceptions)
  • Not have firm resettlement in another country
  • Meet other eligibility criteria

The asylum process involves USCIS interviews and potential immigration court hearings. In fiscal year 2020, around 29,600 individuals were granted asylum.

Special Program Visas

For victims of crimes or human rights abuses, special U.S. visas may provide immigration protections.

T Visas

T visas are for victims of human trafficking who:

  • Are in the U.S. due to trafficking
  • Cooperate with reasonable requests from law enforcement
  • Demonstrate extreme hardship if removed

Around 1,000 T visas were approved in fiscal year 2020. They lead to lawful permanent resident status after 3 years.

U Visas

U visas are for victims of certain crimes who:

  • Suffered substantial physical or mental abuse
  • Possess information about the crime
  • Were helpful, are helpful, or are likely to be helpful to law enforcement
  • Demonstrate substantial hardship if removed

Over 12,000 U visas were approved in fiscal year 2020. They provide work authorization and lawful permanent resident status after 3 years.

S Visas

S visas provide temporary status to informants needed to assist law enforcement investigations. Applicants must:

  • Possess critical reliable information about criminal organizations or enterprises
  • Be helpful to law enforcement investigations or prosecutions
  • Face danger or risk of retaliation

Around 200 S visas are approved each year. After 3 years, S visa holders can apply for lawful permanent residence.

Find the Perfect Visa Match for Your Goals

The path to a U.S. visa and eventual citizenship may be lengthy, but taking the right initial steps can put you on the road to success. With thorough preparation and guidance from experienced immigration lawyers, like those at the Law Office of Lina Baroudi, your American dream can become a reality.

If you need assistance with your visa application or have questions about the process, contact their immigration attorneys in San Jose, California. Their team has helped countless immigrants navigate the complex visa landscape and can ensure you pursue the ideal option for your situation.