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What Is the Process to Obtain a US Green Card?

Legal Assistant Immigration Law, International Law

For many immigrants, a Green Card is the first step toward full US citizenship. This highly sought-after document grants you lawful permanent residency in the United States. Although a green card holder is not considered a citizen, it allows you to live and work indefinitely, anywhere in the country, without restriction.

So how do you obtain a US Green Card? Here’s everything you need to know.

What Is a Green Card

A Green Card is a legal document issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency charged with overseeing lawful immigration to the United States. It grants non-US citizens the right to become lawful permanent residents, allowing them to live and work in any state before qualifying for full US citizenship in 3-5 years.

Green Card vs. Visa

The words “Green Card” and “visa” are often used interchangeably. While their definitions may overlap in some aspects, it’s important to note that the two words don’t refer to the same thing.


Visas are legal documents prepared and issued by the US Department of State (DOS) and sent out to its various embassies or consulates in countries around the world. A visa grants a non-US national the right to present themselves at a US port of entry or border and seek entry into the country.

A visa does not always guarantee entry. The decision ultimately comes down to the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer at the airport or border. They make the final decision on whether to allow you into the US. More often than not, having a visa will usually grant you entry. From a physical standpoint, a visa is a stamp in one’s passport.

A non-US citizen may be issued with one of two types of visas – immigrant or nonimmigrant visa.

A US immigrant visa allows an individual to become a permanent resident upon entry into the country. Such persons will usually receive a Green Card shortly after, allowing them to stay in the country for life – unless they commit an offense that warrants deportation.

On the other hand, a nonimmigrant visa is temporary. The individual is required to leave the country by the date shown on the I-94 issued by the CBP at the port of entry or border.

Different nonimmigrant visas have different expiration durations depending on the individual’s purpose for visiting the United States. For instance, work visas and student visas are usually valid for several years compared to tourist visas that might be valid for a few months.

USCIS Green Card

A Green Card is a US Permanent Resident Card that allows non-US citizens to enter, exit, live, and work in the US for the rest of their lives. Eventually, Green Card holders can apply for naturalized US citizenship.

Types of Green Cards

There are several categories of Green Cards. Here’s an overview of the common types.

Family-Based Green Cards

Close family members of existing Green Card holders and US citizens can apply for their own permanent residency. Eligible family members include children, spouses, parents, siblings, and the children and spouses of those adult children, spouses, and siblings.

Widows and widowers who were married to US citizens at the time of their demise are also eligible to apply for family-based Green Cards. They do need to prove to the authorities that their marriage was authentic.

Extended family members like aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents do not qualify under this category.

Employment-Based Green Cards

This category of Green Cards contains multiple subsets of workers who can apply for permanent residence. In some instances, children and spouses of these workers may also qualify. You may be eligible to apply if you fall into any of the following categories:

  • Immigrant worker: This applies to first, second, and third preference immigrant workers as defined by the USCIS.
  • Physician: If you’re a physician working full-time in a designated underserved practice area, you are eligible on a National Interest Waiver basis.
  • Immigrant investor: If you’ve invested or are in the process of investing at least $500,000 in what would be deemed a targeted employment area, or $1 million in a US-based commercial enterprise that will provide full-time employment to a minimum of 10 eligible employees.

H1B to Green Card allows employers to file a petition to the USCIS for highly educated non-citizen professionals in specialty occupations to apply for permanent residency.

Humanitarian Green Cards

Refugees and asylum seekers who have been persecuted in their home country or fear persecution upon their return, on the basis of their political opinion, race, nationality, or religion, can seek protection in the US. Once they’ve been in the country for at least a year, they can then apply for a Green Card.

Victims of human trafficking living in the US lawfully or unlawfully can apply for a T visa that will allow them to stay in the US for up to 4 years. This visa is issued on the condition that they must work with law enforcement authorities to help investigate the individuals responsible for their trafficking. They can then apply for a Green Card once the mandatory 3-year period from the date the visa was issued lapses.

Diversity Lottery Green Cards

Every year the US government randomly picks up to 50,000 people from various countries across the world in geographic regions like Asia, Africa, and Oceania. It is dubbed the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, informally known as the “US Green Card Lottery.”

While most applicants reside in their home countries at the time they submit their entries, those who already live in the US under a different immigration status can also apply.

Longtime-Resident Green Cards

Undocumented immigrants living in the US can apply for permanent residency through a special process known as “registry.” To qualify, the individual needs to meet the following criteria:

  • They have good moral standing in the society, meaning they have not committed certain crimes such as fraud;
  • They have not committed crimes or violations that could potentially get them deported. These include drug trafficking, drug abuse, and marriage fraud;
  • They have not committed crimes or violations that would render them inadmissible for permanent residency application. For instance, staying in the country for more than six months with an expired visa or unlawful entry into the United States;
  • They have not left the country since they first arrived;
  • They meet the eligibility criteria for US citizenship through naturalization; and
  • They need to provide an I-94 travel record to prove they entered the US before January 1, 1972.

How to Get a Green Card

US flag in Washington DC.

Image source: Unsplash

The US immigration laws provide various ways through which non-citizens can apply for a Green Card. There are two main questions you need to keep in mind before you start:

  1. Are you eligible for a Green Card?
  2. Are you applying from within or outside the US?

Are You Eligible for a Green Card?

First, you need to ensure that you meet the eligibility requirements for the specific type of Green Card you’re applying for. These vary depending on the immigrant category you intend to apply under. Once you’ve established that, you can then begin the application process.

In most cases, you’ll need to fill out two forms – a Green Card application form, also known as Form I485, and an immigrant petition form. The petition form is usually filed by someone else. This is often referred to as “sponsoring” you. In some cases, you can file the petition yourself. The most common petition form is the I130 – Petition for Alien Relatives.

If you’re already in the United States and meet certain eligibility requirements, you can concurrently file Forms I130 and I485. The I130 and I485 concurrent filing criteria are:

  • You applying for a special immigrant visa as a member of a specific branch of the US military;
  • You are a self-petitioning battered child or spouse, and the person responsible for the abuse is your parent or spouse, who is a US citizen;
  • You are a special immigrant minor;
  • You are being sponsored by an immediate US citizen relative, parent, or child over the age of 21.

Are You Applying from Within or Outside the US?

If you’re already living in the country, you’ll need to file an application for Adjustment of Status. Applicants will then need to file Form I485 – Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status if they already have an approved immigrant petition. Applicants without one will need to file Form I130 and I485 concurrently once they establish that they meet the eligibility criteria for the Green Card category they’re applying under.

Once your immigrant petition is approved, you’ll need to file a Green Card application, go to a biometrics appointment to provide your photos, fingerprints, and signature. Once this is done, you’ll go for an interview to determine whether or not your application will be granted.

If you live outside the US, you’ll need to go through Consular Processing with the State Department. A consulate officer in your home country will ask you a series of Green Card interview questions to determine your basis for wanting to immigrate to assess whether you’re eligible for an immigrant visa.

If your application is approved, you’re required to pay a Green Card application fee for the USCIS to process your immigrant “Visa Packet” and Green Card. You’ll need to do this before departing to the US.

Keep in mind that permanent resident cards expire after 10 years while conditional permanent resident cards expire after two years. The Green Card renewal guidelines set out by the USCIS require individuals to file a petition 90 days before the expiry date. Failure to do this might result in you losing your permanent resident status.

Green Card FAQs

How long does it take to get a Green Card?

Once your petition is approved, you can check your Green Card status online via the USCIS website. More often than not, it takes 90 days from the date you paid the application fee.

What does lawful permanent resident mean?

It is the right granted to a non-US national to work and live in the United States indefinitely while still holding the citizenship of their home country. As a lawful permanent resident, you will be issued with an “alien registration card” – informally referred to as a “Green Card.” You can then use this card to apply for a social security card and prove employment eligibility.

Is a Green Card holder a lawful permanent resident?

Yes, they are. Having a Green Card gives you the right to live and work anywhere in the United States indefinitely. Keep in mind that it is possible to lose your permanent residency. If you violate certain guidelines tied to your immigration status or commit certain crimes, the USCIS may initiate removal proceedings against you (read deportation).

Can I travel outside the US as a Green Card holder?

Yes, you can. You will need to travel with a valid passport from your home country and present a valid alien registration card at a US port of entry or border upon your return. Keep in mind that the same grounds of inadmissibility you were subject to when you were first approved for permanent residency still apply each time you return to the US. These include certain criminal activities, health-related concerns, false claims to US citizenship, willful misrepresentation, etc.

How long can I stay outside the US?

Staying outside the US for extended durations (typically more than six months at a time) can jeopardize your permanent resident status. The USCIS may presume that you are no longer interested in making the US your permanent home and, as such, have abandoned your quest for permanent residence and subsequent citizenship. In most cases, overturning that presumption is impossible.

If you intend to stay outside the US for an extended period, it would be a good idea to apply for a re-entry permit before leaving the country. These are valid for two years. While a re-entry permit does not guarantee entry into the country, it will help establish your intention to reside in the US permanently.

Am I eligible to vote in US elections as a permanent resident?

No, you are not. Only US citizens have the constitutional right to vote in a US election. Once you are granted US citizenship, only then can you vote.

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