How to Get a Green Card

The ultimate guide to getting a green card

How to Get a Green Card provides people guidance on the most readily obtainable forms of U.S. lawful permanent residence.  Find out how to work with U.S. officials, prepare and present the right documents, and work your way through the bureaucratic maze; and what to expect at every step of the way.

Whether you're living in the U.S. or another country, learn about these immigration possibilities:

  • visas for spouses, fiancés, and other family
  • green card lotteries
  • U visas
  • asylum or refugee status
  • other non-work based categories

See below for a full product description.

Available as part of Nolo's Immigration Bundle

  • Product Details
  • The U.S. immigration system is an enormous bureaucracy, so it’s vital that you understand it before attempting to apply for a green card. Making a mistake can lead to delays and hassles or even ruin your chances for success.

    How to Get a Green Card provides everything you need to know about qualifying for permanent U.S. residence if you don’t have an employer sponsoring you.

    Find out how to work with U.S. officials and prepare and present the right documents at the right time to get a green card through:

    • parents, siblings, or adult children
    • a U.S. spouse or fiancé
    • green card lotteries (diversity visa)
    • political asylum or refugee status
    • a U visa for crime victims, or
    • another category you might qualify for.

    The 16th edition covers the latest income requirements for family-based green card applicants, additions to the list of countries whose citizens may obtain Temporary Protected Status, and more.

    “Green card seekers: Look no further…”—Asian Week

    “A definitive book that is also easy to read.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram


    Number of Pages
    Included Forms

    Sample Filled-In Forms

    This book comes with these downloadable sample forms. The link to the URL is in the Appendix.

    • Sample Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status
    • Sample Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e)
    • Sample Form G-1145, e-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance
    • Sample Form I-134, Declaration of Financial Support
    • Sample Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
    • Sample Form I-130A, Supplemental Information for Spouse Beneficiary
    • Sample Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence
    • Sample Form N-600K, Application for Citizenship and Issuance of Certificate Under Section 322
    • Sample Form I-600A, Application for Advance Processing of an Orphan Petition
    • Sample Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
    • Sample Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition
    • Sample Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant
    • Sample Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
    • Sample Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
    • Sample Form I-765, Application For Employment Authorization
    • Sample Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the INA
    • Sample Form I-864A, Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member
    • Sample Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status
    • Sample Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card
  • About the Author
    • Ilona Bray, J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

      Ilona Bray, J.D. is an award-winning author and legal editor at Nolo, specializing in real estate, immigration law and nonprofit fundraising. 

      Educational background. Ilona received her law degree and a Master's degree in East Asian (Chinese) Studies from the University of Washington. She is a member of the Washington State Bar. Her undergraduate degree is from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in philosophy. She actually viewed law school as an extension of her philosophy studies, with its focus on ethics, fundamental rights, and how people can get along in society—of particular concern to her as the daughter of a WWII refugee. 

      Working background. Ilona has practiced law in corporate and nonprofit settings as well as in solo practice, where she represented immigrant clients seeking asylum, family-based visas, and more. She has also volunteered extensively, including a six-month fellowship at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle and a six-month internship at Amnesty International in London. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association (AILA), the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE), and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). 

      Working at Nolo. Ilona started at Nolo in 2000 as a legal editor. Since then, she has not only continued to edit other writers' books and online articles, but also has taken an active role in planning and authoring new Nolo books. Many of these have become consistent Nolo bestsellers and award-winners, among them Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, and Selling Your House.  Ilona particularly enjoys interviewing people and weaving their stories into her books. She also won the 2012 "Best Blog" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE). 

      Spare time. (What spare time?) Ilona enjoys swimming, gardening (though she's still looking for a vegetable the squirrels won't eat every last morsel of), cooking gluten- and sugar-free meals, and writing children's books.

  • Table of Contents
  • Your Immigration Companion

    1. Types of Green Cards We Cover
    2. How Much You Can Do Without a Lawyer
    3. Using This Book

    1. All Ways to Get a Green Card

    1. Family-Based Relationships
    2. Employment-Based Relationships
    3. Special Immigrants
    4. Entrepreneur Immigrants
    5. Asylum and Refugee Status
    6. Diversity Visa Lottery
    7. Amnesties
    8. Private Bills

    2. Short-Term Alternatives to a Green Card

    1. How Do Foreign Nationals Enter the United States?
    2. Types of Visas
    3. Tourists Who Can Visit Without a Visa
    4. The Importance of Staying Legal
    5. How to Extend a Visitor Visa
    6. Changing Your Reason for Staying
    7. What to Do If USCIS Denies Your Extension Application
    8. Tips on Filling Out Form I-539

    3. Will Inadmissibility Bar You From Getting a Green Card?

    1. What Is Inadmissibility?
    2. The Possibility of Waiving Inadmissibility
    3. Most Troublesome Grounds of Inadmissibility
    4. Reversing an Inadmissibility Finding

    4. How Long You’ll Have to Wait

    1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens: No Waiting for Eligibility
    2. Relatives in Preference Categories: Longer Waits
    3. Dealing With the Wait
    4. Can You Predict How Long You’ll Wait?
    5. Revocation of a Petition or Application

    5. Fiancé(e) Visas

    1. Who Qualifies for a Fiancé-Visa
    2. Quick View of the Fiancé-Visa Application Process
    3. Detailed Instructions for the Fiancé-Visa Application Process
    4. How to Bring Your Children on a Fiancé-Visa
    5. Marriage and After

    6. Green Cards Through Marriage

    1. Who Qualifies for Marriage-Based Lawful Permanent Residence
    2. Special Rules in Court Proceedings
    3. Quick View of the Marriage-Based Green Card Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Marriage-Based Green Card Application Process
    5. Bringing Your Children
    6. If Your Marriage Is Less Than Two Years Old
    7. If You Marry Again
    8. Common Questions About Marriage and Immigration

    7. Your Parents as Immigrants

    1. Who Qualifies to Petition for Parents
    2. Who Qualifies as Your Parent
    3. Quick View of the Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process

    8. Child Immigrants

    1. Who Qualifies
    2. Definition of “Child”
    3. Quick View of the Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process
    5. Automatic Citizenship for Some Children

    9. Orphan Immigrants in Non‑Hague Convention Countries

    1. Who Qualifies as an Orphan Child
    2. Who Can Petition for an Orphan Child
    3. Preadoption Requirements
    4. Starting the Adoption Process
    5. After the Petition Is Approved
    6. Filing for an Immigrant Visa
    7. Automatic Citizenship for Adopted Orphans

    10. The Diversity Visa Lottery

    1. Who Qualifies for the DV Lottery
    2. How to Apply for the DV Lottery
    3. After You Win—The Green Card Application
    4. How to Bring Your Spouse and Children

    11. Your Brothers and Sisters as Immigrants

    1. Who Counts as Your Brother or Sister
    2. Quick View of the Application Process
    3. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process
    4. What Happens After Filing Form I-130

    12. Refugees and Asylees

    1. Who Qualifies
    2. Who Is Barred From Qualifying
    3. How to Apply for Refugee Status
    4. How to Apply for Asylum
    5. If Your Asylum Application Is Denied
    6. Asylees Can Bring Overseas Spouses and Children to the United States
    7. Getting a Green Card After Asylum Approval or Refugee Entry
    8. Revocation of Asylee Status
    9. Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
    10. Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)

    13. Military Veterans and Enlistees

    1. Which Military Members Qualify to Apply for Citizenship Without a Green Card
    2. Which Military Members Qualify for U.S. Permanent Residence

    14. Cancellation of Removal: Do Ten Illegal Years Equal One Green Card?

    1. Applying in Immigration Court Proceedings
    2. Who Qualifies for Cancellation of Removal
    3. Who Isn’t Eligible for Cancellation
    4. Preparing a Convincing Case
    5. How to File
    6. Approving Your Application
    7. Additional Types of Cancellation of Removal

    15. Adjustment of Status

    1. Who Is Allowed to Use the Adjustment of Status Procedure
    2. People Who Can’t Adjust Status at All
    3. How to File to Adjust Status
    4. After You Apply to Adjust
    5. Interview and Approval

    16. Consular Processing for an Immigrant Visa

    1. How Your an Immigrant Visa Case Gets to the U.S. Consulate
    2. Forms and Documents You’ll Need to Provide
    3. Attending Your Visa Interview
    4. Approval of Your Immigrant Visa
    5. Arriving in the United States

    17. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

    1. Who Are the DREAMers?
    2. How to Renew DACA

    18. U Visas for Crime Victims Assisting Law Enforcement

    1. Who Is Eligible for a U Visa or Status
    2. How to Apply for a U Visa or Status
    3. Your Legal Status While U Visa Is Pending
    4. Green Card Possibilities After U Visa Approval

    19. Acquiring Citizenship Through U.S. Citizen Parents

    1. Who Qualifies for Acquisition of U.S. Citizenship
    2. Obtaining Proof of U.S. Citizenship
    3. Dual Citizenship Between United States and Other Countries

    20. Filling Out and Submitting Immigration Applications

    1. Don’t Give False Answers
    2. Get the Latest Government-Issued Forms and Fee Amounts
    3. Tips for Filling Out Forms
    4. When Additional Proof Is Required
    5. Submitting Photographs for Identification
    6. Fingerprinting Requirements
    7. Keep Your Own File
    8. Tips for Filing Immigration Applications

    21. Tracking Your Application Through the System

    1. Understanding U.S. Government Culture
    2. How to Track Your Application Online
    3. What to Do When Things Go Wrong
    4. Inquiring About Delays
    5. Speeding Up Processing in Emergencies
    6. Reporting Wrongdoing

    22. Keeping, Renewing, and Replacing Your Green Card

    1. Renewing or Replacing Your Green Card
    2. When U.S. Immigration Authorities Can Take Away Your Card
    3. Planning to Apply for U.S. Citizenship

    23. How to Find and Work With a Lawyer

    1. Where to Look for a Lawyer
    2. Deciding on a Particular Lawyer
    3. Paying the Lawyer
    4. Managing the Lawyer
    5. Firing a Lawyer


    • How to Access the Sample Filled-In Forms on the Nolo Website
    • List of Sample Immigration Forms Available on the Nolo Website


  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 2
    Short-Term Alternatives to a Green Card

    As you know, this book is only about green cards—or, in legal-speak, U.S. permanent residence. However, you probably also know that many people

    who want U.S. green cards will never be able to get one. The green card categories are very limited, and the application process is hard to get through successfully. That’s why this chapter will briefly tell you about other—sometimes easier—ways to come to the United States, even if it’s for a shorter time.

    Want to learn more about the ways to stay temporarily in the United States? See U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

    A. How Do Foreign Nationals Enter the United States?

    The basic rule is that most people may enter the United States only after receiving permission from the U.S. government, through the U.S. embassy or consulate in their own country. The permission or authority to enter the United States is called a “visa,” and is stamped in your passport by the U.S. consul. A major exception is if you are eligible to enter under the Visa Waiver Program; see discussion in Section C, below.

    If you enter the United States without permission, without a visa or a visa waiver, and without being examined by the immigration authorities, you are called “undocumented” within the immigration laws and an “illegal alien” by the general public.

    B. Types of Visas

    There are two kinds of visas an alien can receive from the U.S. embassy or consulate: an immigrant visa and a nonimmigrant visa.

    1. Immigrant Visas

    Just to avoid confusion, we should mention that even those people who are in the process of getting a green card, as discussed in the rest of this book, must get a physical visa first if they’ll be arriving from another country. They receive what is called an “immigrant visa.” They receive the actual green card only after they have arrived in the United States and claimed their permanent residency. People who apply for their green cards from within the United States must also be allocated a visa number, although they’ll never see or receive a physical visa.

    2. Nonimmigrant Visas

    Nonimmigrant visas are the main topic we’ll introduce you to in this short chapter. A non-immigrant visa gives you the ability to stay in the United States temporarily with limited rights.

    A visa that expires in a few years is probably your second choice, given that you’re reading a book on green cards. However, a nonimmigrant visa might serve you in two ways. First, it might allow you to legally visit the United States in order to decide whether you really want a green card, or to make a decision that will lead to your getting a green card. For example, a person might come to the U.S. on a tourist (B-2) visa to visit a U.S. citizen boyfriend or girlfriend and find out whether getting married seems like a good idea.

    Second, a nonimmigrant visa might be your only choice for the moment. If your research, using this book and other resources, leads you to believe that you don’t qualify for a green card, then a nonimmigrant visa might allow you to at least live in the United States for a while, developing U.S. contacts or job skills, hoping that a green card opportunity will open up.

    Unfortunately, nonimmigrant visas aren’t only short-term solutions, but they restrict your life in the United States in other ways. For example, a visitor visa (B-2) doesn’t allow you to work. A student visa (F-1 or M-1) doesn’t allow a student to stop studying in order to work. A temporary worker’s visa (H-1B), given to a professional worker such as an accountant or engineer, doesn’t authorize one to change employers without permission.

    3. Nonimmigrant Visa Classifications

    You will often hear visa classifications referred to in shorthand by a letter followed by a number. The following table summarizes the nonimmigrant visa classifications available.

    A-1 Ambassadors, public ministers, consular officers, or career diplomats, and their immediate families
    A-2 Other foreign government officials or employees, and their immediate families
    A-3 Personal attendants, servants, or employees of A-1 and A-2 visa holders, and their immediate families
    B-1 Temporary business visitors
    B-2 Temporary pleasure visitors
    C-1 Foreign travelers in immediate and continuous transit through the U.S.
    D-1 Crewmembers (sea or air)
    E-1 Treaty traders and their spouses or children
    E-2 Treaty investors and their spouses or children
    E-3 Australians who have at least a bachelor's degree or its equivalent, working in specialty occupations
    F-1 Academic or language students
    F-2 Spouses or children of F-1 visa holders
    G-1 Designated principal resident representatives of foreign governments coming to the U.S. to work for an international organization, and their staff members and immediate families
    G-2 Other representatives of foreign governments coming to the U.S. to work for an international organization, and their immediate families
    G-3 Representatives of foreign governments and their immediate families, who would ordinarily qualify for G-1 or G-2 visas except that their governments aren’t members of an international organization
    G-4 Officers or employees of international organizations, and their immediate families
    G-5 Attendants, servants, and personal employees of G-1 through G-4 visa holders, and their immediate families
    H-1B Workers in specialty occupations requiring at least a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent in on-the-job experience
    H-2A Temporary agricultural workers coming to the U.S. to fill positions for which a temporary shortage of American workers has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
    H-2B Temporary workers of various kinds coming to the U.S. to perform temporary jobs for which there is a shortage of available qualified U.S. workers
    H-3 Temporary trainees
    H-4 Spouses or children of H-1A/B, H-2A/B, or rH-3 visa holders
    I Representatives of the foreign press, coming to the U.S. to work solely in that capacity, and their immediate families
    J-1 Exchange visitors coming to the U.S. to study, work, or train as part of an exchange program officially recognized by the U.S. Department of State
    J-2 Spouses or children of J-1 visa holders
    K-1 Fiancés and fiancées of U.S. citizens coming to the U.S. for the purpose of getting married
    K-2 Children of K-1 visa holders
    K-3 Spouses of U.S. citizens awaiting approval of their immigrant I-130 petition or the availability of a green card
    L-2 Spouses or children of L-1 visa holders
    M-1 Vocational or other nonacademic students
    M-2 Immediate families of M-1 visa holders
    N Children and parents of certain special immigrants
    NATO-1 Principal permanent representatives of member states to NATO and its subsidiary bodies, who are residents in the U.S., and resident official staff members, secretaries general, assistant secretaries general, and executive secretaries of NATO, other permanent NATO officials of similar rank, or their immediate families
    NATO-2 Other representatives to member states to NATO and its subsidiary bodies, including its advisers and technical experts of delegations, members of Immediate Article 3, 4 UST 1796 families; dependents of members of forces entering in accordance with the Status-of-Forces Agreement or in accordance with the Protocol on Status of International Military Headquarters; members of such a force if issued visas
    NATO-3 Official clerical staff accompanying representatives of member states to NATO and its subsidiary bodies, and their immediate families
    NATO-4 Officials of NATO other than those who can be classified as NATO-1, and their immediate families
    NATO-5 Experts other than officials who can be classified as NATO-1, employed in missions on behalf of NATO, and their dependents
    NATO-6 Members of civilian components accompanying forces entering in accordance with provisions of the NATO Status-of-Forces Agreement, members of civilian components attached to or employed by allied headquarters under the Protocol on Status of International Military Headquarters set up pursuant to the North Atlantic Treaty, and their dependents
    NATO-7 Attendants, servants, or personal employees of NATO-1 through NATO-6 classes, and their immediate families
    O-1 People with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics
    O-2 Support staff of O-1 visa holders
    O-3 Spouses or children of O-1 or O-2 visa holders
    P-1 Internationally recognized athletes and entertainers
    P-2 Artists or entertainers in reciprocal exchange programs
    P-3 Artists and entertainers coming to the U.S. to give culturally unique performances in a group
    P-4 Spouses or children of P-1, P-2, or P-3 visa holders
    Q-1 Participants in international cultural exchange programs
    Q-2 Irish Peace Process Cultural and Training Program (Walsh Visas)
    Q-3 Immediate family members of Q-1 visa holders
    R-1 Workers in religious occupations
    R-2 Spouses or children of R-1 visa holders
    S-5 Certain people supplying critical information relating to a criminal organization or enterprise
    S-6 Certain people supplying critical information relating to terrorism
    S-7 Immediate family members of S-5 and S-6 visa holders
    T Women and children who are in the United States because they are victims of trafficking, who are cooperating with law enforcement, and who fear extreme hardship (such as retribution) if returned home
    TN NAFTA professionals from Canada or Mexico
    TD Spouses and children of NAFTA professionals
    U People who have been victims of crimes, have useful information about them, and have been helping U.S. law enforcement authorities with investigating and prosecuting these crimes
    V Spouses and children of lawful permanent residents who had I-130 visa petitions filed for them prior to December 21, 2000, and who have been waiting for three years or more to qualify for a green card

    4. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

    Another short-term alternative to a green card came not in the form of a visa, but as a special program to prevent deportation of people who came to the U.S. when they were very young, and had attended school and otherwise made the U.S. their home. Instituted by President Obama, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program’s future now is embroiled in lawsuits, following attempts by President Trump to cancel it. At the time this book went to print, current DACA holders could renew their status, but no new applications were being accepted. Congress also occasionally considers passing legislation to grant legal status to DACA recipients (also called “DREAMers,” a name drawn from the title of long- promised Congressional legislation) but so far has still failed to come to any agreement.

    5. Nonimmigrant U Visa Can Lead to a Green Card

    One of the visas mentioned on our summary table bears further explanation. The U visa, for people who have been the victims of crimes in the U.S. and suffered as a result, and who are cooperating with law enforcement officials, can ultimately lead to a U.S. green card. For that reason, we cover it in Chapter 18 of this book.

    C. Tourists Who Can Visit Without a Visa

    The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows the citizens of certain countries—that the Department of State (DOS) chooses, based on low rates of visa overstays or abuse—to visit the United States for 90 days without first having a tourist visa stamped on their passports.

    1. What You’ll Need for VWP Travel

    At the moment, 40 countries participate in the VWP. If you’re from one of these countries, and wish to enter the U.S. without a B visa, you’ll need to get these things first, before starting your trip:

    • A passport meeting U.S. government requirements. This means an electronic passport with an integrated chip (e-passport) that is valid for six months past your expected stay in the United States.
    • A ticket for both your arrival to and departure from the United States. Your arrival ticket needs to be with an airline or boat company that is authorized to carry VWP passengers. The exception is if you’ll be entering via Canada or Mexico, in which case, no departure ticket is required.
    • Prior U.S. government authorization. You’ll do this through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), online at https:// You can apply at any time prior to travel. There is a processing charge of $21. Authorizations are generally valid for up to two years, or until your passport expires, whichever comes first. If you don’t receive authorization, you’ll need to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate.
    • Entry fee. Travelers arriving at a land border (from Canada or Mexico) will be required to pay an entry fee.

    Nationals of or visitors to countries with ties to terrorism can’t use the VWP. Congress has prohibited its use by nationals of or recent visitors to “high-risk” countries with ties to terrorism. Nationals of a country on the terrorism watch list who carry the passport of another country that is on the VWP list would thus be excluded from VWP travel. There are minor exceptions, including for people performing military service in a country of concern, or based on law enforcement or national security interests. This isn’t an outright prohibition on U.S. entry: People who can’t travel on the VWP can still apply for a visitor visa at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.

    Example: You want to visit the United States for two months. If you live in a country that is included in the VWP, you first make sure your passport meets U.S. requirements, then get authorization to travel by filling out the online ESTA application, and then buy your round-trip plane ticket to the United States. You don’t need to visit a U.S. consulate to get a tourist visa. You might, however, upon arrival in the U.S., be asked to show your departure ticket as evidence that you are simply visiting and that you will return to your country within the 90-day limit.

    2. VWP-Eligible Countries

    Under the Visa Waiver Program, citizens of the following countries who can present a machine- readable passport are exempted from getting visas before entering the United States:

    Czech Republic
    Great Britain (United Kingdom)
    Holland (Netherlands)
    New Zealand
    San Marino
    South Korea

    To be included in the Visa Waiver Program, the country must have:

    • a very low rate of refusals of tourist visa applications, and
    • few violations of U.S. immigration laws.

    In short, countries whose citizens are least likely to stay too long or work illegally in the United States are most likely to be included in the Visa Waiver Program.

    Disadvantages of Entering the U.S. on the VWP (Without a Visa)

    There could be disadvantages to entering the U.S. under the Visa Waiver Program.

    You can’t change your tourist status to another nonimmigrant status, such as that of student or temporary worker, nor can you request an extension of your 90-day stay.

    With few exceptions, you also can’t change your status to a lawful permanent resident while staying in the United States.

    In addition, should U.S. border officials deny you entry into the United States for any reason, you have no right to appeal. Political refugees who are fleeing persecution and who apply for asylum in the United States are the sole exception. (See Chapter 12.)

    D. The Importance of Staying Legal

    If you enter the United States as a tourist, student, temporary worker, entertainer, or in any other nonimmigrant category, your chances at a future green card depend on your maintaining your legal status and not violating the conditions of your stay in the United States. Don’t overstay the time limits of your visa (usually shown on a Form I-94). Don’t work when you aren’t authorized to work. Don’t change schools or employers without first requesting and receiving permission from U.S. immigration authorities.

    The consequences for breaking the rules controlling immigration can be quite serious: You could be detained in an immigration jail; removal proceedings could be started against you; and, if deported, you could be barred from returning to the United States for the next 5 years or more.

    Even if you aren’t deported, if you overstay by 180 days (around 6 months) and then leave the United States, you will have to remain outside for three years before being admitted again. If you overstay by 12 months and then leave, the waiting period is 10 years before you will be allowed to return. (See Chapter 3.)

    More to the point, by obeying the law, you can make use of almost all the ways enumerated in this book to stay in the United States, as long as your current status is legal.

    If you are running out of time on a permitted stay, one possibility is to apply to extend it (if you can show a good reason for needing more time) or to change your status, for example from tourist to temporary worker. You can apply for extensions or changes of status only (in most cases) if your current immigration status is legal, you aren’t overstaying a visa, and you haven’t worked illegally.

    If, instead, you overstay, your visa will be automatically void—even if it is a multiple entry, indefinite visa. You will then be required to apply for a new visa at the U.S. consulate in your home country, unless you can prove “exceptional circumstances.”

    If there is some issue in your case, or if you need to change status, seek professional advice from an experienced immigration lawyer. (See Chapter 23.) Don’t depend on advice from your friends or relatives, or worse, information on the internet.

    E. How to Extend a Visitor Visa

    Temporary business or tourist visitors—those who hold B-1 or B-2 visas—once admitted to the United States, can apply for an extension of stay. The basis can be business circumstances, family reasons, or any other good reason consistent with your visa.

    For example, a tourist who decides to visit different locations or to spend more time with relatives can seek an extension. (See the USCIS website at for filing details and addresses; you may file electronically on the USCIS website or by mail.)

    The application must include the following:

    • Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status
    • a copy of your Form I-94, which you (unless you’re one of the few people who received a paper I-94 card when entering the U.S.) will need to download from the S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website at
    • a filing fee (currently $420 for an online filing and $470 if submitting on paper); either personal check or money order will be accepted
    • a company letter or other supporting documentation stating the reason for the extension request—for example, more business consultations, ongoing medical reasons, extended family visit with a complete itinerary, or another reason
    • evidence to show that the visit is temporary— particularly, evidence of continued overseas employment or residence and a return plane ticket, and
    • evidence of financial support, such as a bank letter including amounts in accounts. You can also have a family member promise to support you, by filling out USCIS Form I-134, available at

    Also attach an itinerary or a letter explaining your reasons for requesting the extension.

    The extension might not give you as much time as you’d like. Extensions of more than six months are rare. However, you are legally allowed to stay until USCIS makes a decision on your extension.

    USCIS recommends that you file for an extension at least 45 days before the expiration date of your stay, which is shown on your Form I-94. If you procrastinate, at least try to file the request for extension 15 days before the expiration date shown on your Form I-94.

    F. Changing Your Reason for Staying

    If you wish to request a change of status from one immigration category to another or apply for a green card, be aware that applying for the change within the first three months after arriving in America could lead to USCIS denying your application based on the theory of “preconceived intent.” Preconceived intent simply means that you lied about your reasons for coming to the United States.

    For example, if you attempt to change your status from B-2 tourist to H-1B specialty worker soon after arriving in the United States, USCIS could conclude that you had the preconceived intent of working in the United States when you applied for a tourist visa from the U.S. embassy or entered the United States. Your failure to reveal your actual reason for going to the United States could be considered fraud.

    A similar problem can arise for people who want to study in the U.S., but sensibly want to visit some schools and see whether they like them before going through the hassle of filling out application forms. You might think the logical thing would be to come as a tourist and then, after choosing a school, apply for a change to student status.

    However, logic and the immigration laws don’t always match up. USCIS may deny this type of applicant’s request to change status, saying that they lied about their intention to be a tourist (the real, secret intention having been to become a student).

    Fortunately, this is one of the few immigration law traps that one can sometimes get around with advance planning. If, when applying for your tourist visa, you tell the U.S. consular official that you might wish to change to student status after looking around, then you can have a “prospective student” notation made in your tourist visa. After that, you’ll be free to apply to change status without worrying that it will look like you lied.

    G. What to Do If USCIS Denies Your Extension Application

    If USCIS denies your request for an extension of your stay in the U.S., you could contest the denial. However, this will require help from an experienced immigration lawyer. (See Chapter 23.)

    It might be easier to leave the U.S. and apply for a new visa from overseas. This is far safer than staying in the U.S. illegally.

    H. Tips on Filling Out Form I-539

    Most of Form I-539 is self-explanatory; see the filled-in sample at However, on Part 4 of Form I-539, Additional Information, Questions 3 through 15 can act as time bombs if you answer “yes” to any one of them—that is, they could prove fatal to your application. (In the case of 14, however, you’ll be okay if your employment was undertaken while you had a work permit (EAD) from USCIS.)

    Don’t lie and misrepresent your answer as “no” when the truthful answer is “yes.” But if you have to answer “yes” to any of these questions, it is best to consult with an immigration lawyer or another experienced immigration professional first.

    Example: The third question on this part of Form I-539 is: “Are you, or any other person included on the application, an applicant for an immigrant visa?” Answering “yes” is problematic, because it raises the possibility that you don’t have the “nonimmigrant intent” required for a temporary U.S. stay—that is, that you are secretly looking for a way to stay in the U.S. until your green card comes through. Don’t answer “no” if, for example, your U.S. citizen brother filed a relative I-130 petition for you, even if it was 10 years ago, and your immigrant visa is still pending. In all probability, USCIS would discover your fraudulent answer, and you might never get your green card as a result.

    Don’t Bring This Book to the U.S. With You

    Because this book tells you how to stay and work legally in the United States, you shouldn’t have it—or any other book about immigrating to the U.S.—with you when you enter the United States on a tourist or other nonimmigrant visa.

    If the border officials suspect that you aren’t a bona fide tourist, they may detain and question you at the airport or border about your purpose in coming to the United States.

    For the same reason, you shouldn’t board the plane with a wedding dress, a stack of resumes, or letters from your Aunt Mary or cousin John stating that employment has been arranged for you as soon as you arrive in the United States. Should the border officials find such things when you land, you won’t be admitted as a tourist; you might, in fact, be sent back to your home country without being allowed to set foot outside the airport or other port of entry in the United States.

    If this happens, you will be unable to return to the U.S. for five years.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample. The complete book is available for sale here at

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