Breaking the law to get into the US is never recommended, but immigrants from all walks of life will tell you that getting into the country legally is an expensive and time consuming ordeal. And the initial process does not earn you citizenship.
If anything, getting through immigration legally is much like the game of Monopoly. At any point, you might receive a rejection notice that is the equivalent of saying, “Do not pass go, do not collect $200.” From there, you might have to begin the entire process all over again. You cannot go from being a citizen of another country to becoming a citizen of the US overnight. In fact, the process may take as long as a year or more.
Now that you have made the decision, you will need to determine your eligibility and address any concerns that may prevent you from coming to the country legally. You may decide to apply for a visa and stay in the country from a few months to as many as six years before making the transition, or you can apply for a green card (permanent resident status) while living anywhere.
You can come to the US legally if a family member (including a new spouse) sponsors you, an employer sponsors you, or you are seeking asylum as a refugee. The next step is submitting the relevant applications and paperwork, which could take as many as six months to process. An attorney who specializes in immigration can help you submit the appropriate information and, sometimes, expedite the overall process.
Once your application has been approved, you will need to have a medical exam. You will be asked to do this before your interview. This process may take several weeks to complete with all the attendant paperwork. Then, you will need to go to an interview at the embassy in your home country or in the US. If all goes well, you will be given your approval at the end of the interview. When you enter the US, you will have your green card and permanent resident status.
If there are any clerical errors, lost information, or other obstacles, the overall process can take as long as a year. Without legal assistance, the time frame may be longer than normal. The immigration process is complicated and somewhat clunky.
No, you will not be a citizen until you apply for citizenship here. The green card process only provides you with the status of a legal immigrant. After five years of living in the US without any trouble, you will be eligible to apply for citizenship. If you are married to a citizen, the time frame is shortened to three years. Unless you apply for citizenship, you will not be able to vote, obtain social security or the attendant benefits, or hold a passport.
Remember, this is just the process of becoming a legal immigrant. You will also need to think about finding a home, moving your belongings, and finding employment. There may be a period of several months when you need to handle affairs at home and in America before you complete the entire process.