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US Immigration Terms Glossary

When navigating the US immigration system, you’ll often come across complex terminology that can be difficult to understand. Here is a general summary of the most commonly used US immigration terms.

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    US immigration terminology

    The US immigration system is notoriously difficult to navigate, and the use of complex language in official government guidance, documents and forms can make this even more complicated.

    Below is a brief summary and explanation of some of the most common terminology used within the US immigration system.

    If you need any further assistance with understanding US immigration terms, our lawyers are here to help. We offer professional immigration advice sessions in which a dedicated caseworker will answer any questions that you may have in relation to immigration issues.

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    Alien is the official term that the US Department of Homeland Security uses to refer to immigrants.

    An alien is any person who is not a U.S citizen. Green Card holders in the U.S are known as resident aliens whilst those who hold temporary visas that enable them to live in the U.S are known as nonresident aliens.

    The Immigration Reform Bill proposed by Joe Biden could soon see the term “alien” removed from US immigration law and replaced with the word “noncitizen” in order to remove negative connotations and recognize America as a nation of immigrants.

    U.S Citizen

    A U.S citizen is a person with a status that enables them to have specific rights, duties and benefits. Most U.S citizens usually acquire their citizenship by birth if they are born in the territory of the United States, this also includes Guam, Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. A person can also acquire U.S citizenship by birth if they have a parent who is a U.S citizen.

    There are also routes to citizenship available for overseas nationals who have not acquired it by birth. This process is known as naturalization.

    U.S citizens have the right to live and work in the United States, to travel in and out of the U.S, to vote for federal office, to stand for public office and to apply for federal employment.

    U.S citizens also have a responsibility to carry out jury duty if called up for it and must pay federal income tax.

    Under U.S immigration law, those who have attained U.S citizenship through the process of naturalization can retain their previous citizenship and become a dual citizen, but they must renounce their allegiance to the other country.

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    As mentioned previously, naturalization is the process in which a foreign-born national becomes a U.S citizen.

    The main requirement for naturalization is to have been a Green Card holder for at least five years. There are multiple routes to becoming a Green Card holder, including through family members such as spouses, through employment and through refugee status.

    To be eligible for naturalization you must also be at least 18 years old, meet the continuous residence requirement, be able to prove you are of good moral character, demonstrate adequate knowledge of U.S. history and customs and the English language and swear obedience to the Constitution of the United States.

    Naturalization applications are made by filing form N-400.


    An immigrant, also known as a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), is someone who has been granted the right to reside permanently in the United States without being subject to immigration restrictions. Immigrants are granted Green Cards that prove their LPR status.

    There are a variety of immigrant visas, including both family-based immigrant visas and employment-based immigrant visas. Some of the most common immigrant visas include the IR-1 Marriage Green Card, the IR-2 Children Green Card and the EB-3 Workers Green Card. However, there are many other options available.

    There are two ways that you can apply for a Green Card, you can either apply for an adjustment of status to a permanent resident whilst you are in the United States or you can use consular processing if you wish to apply for permanent residency whilst outside of the United States.

    It can be very difficult to obtain an immigrant visa, many of the Green Card categories are subject to yearly caps so you may need to wait a long time for one to become available.


    A nonimmigrant refers to an overseas national who has been admitted to the United States on a temporary basis. There are a variety of nonimmigrant visas that can be used for entry into the United States for tourism, business, work, study or even to join family members. If a person enter the U.S using a nonimmigrant visa, they will be restricted to the activity or reason for which they were granted entry. For example, those in the U.S on a tourist visa are not allowed to work in the country during their visit.

    Some of the most popular nonimmigrant visas include the K3 Spouse Visa, H1B Specialty Workers Visa, H2B Temporary Workers Visa and the F1 student visa.

    To be granted a nonimmigrant visa you will generally need to demonstrate that you have an intention to return to your home country, failure to do this can result in your application being denied.

    Affidavit of support

    An Affidavit of Support is an official document signed by a sponsor that is required for family-based and some employment-based immigrants. The sponsor must be a U.S citizen, national or lawful permanent resident who is over the age of 18, currently resident in the United States and is the petitioner for admission of the immigrant.

    By signing Form I-864 the sponsor agrees to financially support the immigrant and any dependents if necessary.  The 1996 immigration reform law requires sponsors to have an income at 125 percent of the federal poverty level and to maintain the immigrant at that level. If the petitioner has an insufficient income a joint sponsor can also accept financial responsibility for the immigrant by signing Form I-864.


    Undocumented immigrant/alien

    Undocumented immigrants are foreign-born people who do not have a legal right to remain in the United States. Undocumented immigrants may have either entered the U.S illegally, or may have entered using legal means but later broken immigration law by overstaying their visa.

    It is estimated that there are between 10.5 to 12 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States.

    Undocumented immigrants can be liable to deportation by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and entering the US illegally or overstaying a visa can be detrimental to any future visa applications.

    Visa Waiver Program

    The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens from 39 countries to enter the US visa-free for up to 90 days. The VWP can only be used for tourist or business purposes, foreign nationals who wish to do different activities or who plan to stay in the US for longer than 90 days must still apply for a visa.

    Individuals using the VWP must apply for travel authorization prior to entering the U.S using the Electronic System of Travel Authorization (ESTA). An ESTA application determines whether an individual is eligible for entry under the Visa Waiver Program.

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