Obtaining an immigrant visa is the first step to migrating to the United States — or to most other countries. These visas can be obtained through family connections, employers or by claiming asylum and/ or refugee status. One can also obtain a visa through a diversity lottery.

The legal immigration process in the United States is widely considered to be broken. Although plenty of businesses that employ immigrants are located within the United States, the process of legally migrating to the states is long and costly. Often times, legal routes to immigration are not available to those who would benefit from it most. Still, there are many legal options for immigrants who meet the right criteria.

In order to obtain a family-based immigrant visa, an aspiring citizen must gain sponsorship from a family member who already has obtained U.S. citizenship or already owns a green card. Since the amount of family-based visas are limited, the length of the wait times can vary depending on the biological proximity of the sponsoring family members. For example, if the sponsor is a U.S citizen and the family member is a spouse, child or parent, the visa is issued almost immediately. Some cases are more extreme. The wait time for a U.S citizen’s brother or sister can exceed 14 years – the worst case scenario being 20 years!

The second way to obtain an immigrant visa is through an employer sponsorship. Businesses that employ immigrants must prove that there aren’t enough qualified workers in the United States to meet their needs. In such cases, the wait can last seven or eight years. This has grown exceedingly hard for employers to do, given the current economic climate and high unemployment rates.  

In order to claim an asylum or refugee visa, an immigrant must be deemed unable to return to his or her home country due to persecution. More specifically, persecution must be based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular political opinion or social group. In general, asylee status is granted within the country, and refugee status granted elsewhere.

Finally, immigrants can obtain a visa by entering the Diversity Lottery. Since the program is aimed to increase immigration from underrepresented countries, the State Department issues a list each year of countries that cannot apply for the Diversity Lottery. Only 50,000 immigrants annually are granted visas from this process.

The process may be tedious, but legal immigration options are available to those who seek them.