Getting a green card is an essential step toward becoming a U.S. citizen. If you want to take the path to citizenship, or even if you simply want a green card without eventually gaining citizenship, here’s everything you need to know about forms, supporting documents, the green card timeline and how the process works.
What is a Green Card?
A green card is an identification document that indicates that a person is a lawful permanent resident of the United States. A person who has a green card can live and work in the U.S. without restrictions, so it provides a great deal more freedom than a visa would. Still, green card holders don’t enjoy all the same rights and responsibilities that U.S. citizens (naturalized or natural-born) do.
Fast Facts About Green Cards
Green cards are technically called Lawful Permanent Resident Cards, but they’re green in color – that’s where they get the nickname green card. These cards are official government documents, and on paper, they’re called Form I-551.
Here’s what else you need to know:
- Green cards can be conditional. For example, if you have a green card based on your marriage to a U.S. citizen, your green card will only be valid for two years. Within 90 days of the green card’s expiration date, you must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to remove the conditions on your card. If you fail to do so, the condition won’t be removed – and you’ll lose your permanent resident status.
- You don’t have to sign your green card if you’re under the age of 18 or you’re physically disabled. Your green card will say “Signature Waived” where the signature usually goes if you meet either of those conditions.
- Green cards expire after 10 years. You must renew the card to keep your lawful permanent resident status. If you don’t, you lose your status and can be removed from the United States.
Who is Eligible for a Green Card?
Not everyone is eligible for a green card. In order to be eligible, you must meet certain requirements – and those requirements vary based on the immigrant category you’re applying under. Those categories include green cards through:
- Special immigrant status
- Refugee or asylee status
- Human trafficking and crime victim programs
- Abuse victim programs
- Other categories
Here’s a closer look at each green card category. You can also take our Green Card Eligibility Quiz to find out whether you may qualify.
Green Cards Through Work
You can apply for a green card based on your employment in these ways.
|Immigrant Worker||Are a first, second or third preference immigrant worker. That means you have extraordinary ability in science, art, education, business or athletics, that you are an outstanding professor or researcher, or you’re a multinational manager or executive who meets certain criteria. It can also mean that you’re part of a profession that requires an advanced degree, you’re a skilled worker or professional, or you’re an “unskilled” worker, which means you’ll perform unskilled labor that requires less than 2 years of training or experience.|
|Physician National Interest Waiver||You must agree to work full-time in a clinical practice (in most cases, for at least 5 years).|
You must work in primary care or be a specialty physician.
You must serve in a Health Professional Shortage Area, a Mental Health Professional Area, a Medically Underserved Area, a Veterans Affairs Facility or a Physician Scarcity Area.
You must obtain a statement from a federal agency or a state health department that has knowledge of your qualifications as a physician, and that states your work is in the public interest.
|Immigrant Investor||You must have invested – or be actively in the process of investing – at least $1 million in a new commercial enterprise in the U.S. that will lead to at least 10 full-time jobs. You can invest as little as $500,000 if you’re investing in a targeted employment area.|
Green Cards Through Family
You can get a green card based on your familial connections – provided that you meet admissibility requirements. Check out this table, which explains the family relationships that can open the door to a green card.
|Immediate relative of a U.S. citizen||If you’re the spouse, unmarried child (under the age of 21) or parent of a U.S. citizen, you can apply under this category.|
|Relatives of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent resident||You can apply under this category if you’re the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen and you’re over the age of 21; you’re the married child of a citizen; or you’re the sibling of a citizen who’s at least 21 years old. Likewise, you can apply if you’re the spouse or unmarried child of a lawful permanent resident.|
|Fiancé of a U.S. citizen (or the fiancé’s child)||You can apply for a green card if you’re admitted to the U.S. as the fiancé of a U.S. citizen (or the child of someone who is going to marry a U.S. citizen).|
|Widow or widower of a U.S. citizen||If you were married to a U.S. citizen spouse at the time your spouse died, you are eligible to apply for a green card under this category.|
|VAWA self-petitioner||You can apply under this category if you’re an abused spouse of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, or if you’re an abused child (unmarried and under 21) or parent of a U.S. citizen.|
Green Cards Through Special Immigration Status
Special immigrants are those that fall into these categories and meet the following conditions.
|Religious worker||You must be a member of a religious denomination who’s coming to the U.S. to do nonprofit work related to your religious organization.|
|Special immigrant juvenile||If you were abused, abandoned or neglected by your parent while you have special immigrant juvenile status, you can ask for a green card under this category.|
|Afghanistan or Iraq national||People who served as Afghan or Iraqi translators for the U.S. government, or who were employed by or for the U.S. government in Iraq (on or after March 20, 2003) for at least a year can apply under this category. Likewise, if you were an Afghan employed by the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, you can apply under this green card category.|
|International broadcaster||You can apply under this category if you’re coming to work in the U.S. as a member of the media.|
|Employees of international organizations and their family members||If you’re a retired officer or employee of certain international organizations, including NATO, you (and in some cases, your family members) can apply under this category.|
Green Cards Through Refugee or Asylee Status
As a refugee or asylee, you must wait one year from the time you’re granted that status in the U.S. Then, you can apply for a green card.
Green Cards Through Human Trafficking and Crime Victim Programs
If you have a T nonimmigrant visa or a U nonimmigrant visa, you can apply for a green card under those circumstances.
Green Cards Through Abuse Victim Programs
The United States offers several protection programs for immigrants. These are the categories and conditions that may apply to you.
|VAWA self-petitioner||If you’re the abused spouse of a citizen or lawful permanent resident, you’re an abused child (unmarried and under the age of 21) of a citizen or permanent resident, or an abused parent of a U.S. citizen, you can apply for a green card under this category.|
|Special immigrant juvenile||As a child who was abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent while under special immigrant juvenile status may apply for a green card.|
|Abuse victim who falls under the Cuban Adjustment Act||If you’re an abused spouse or child of a Cuban native or citizen, this category provides you a way to petition the government for a green card.|
|Abuse victim who falls under the Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act||If you’re an abused spouse or child of a lawful permanent resident who got a green card based on the Haitian Refugee Immigrant Fairness Act, you can apply for a green card.|
Green Cards Through Other Categories
You may also be able to apply for a green card under one of these categories:
- Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness
- Diversity Immigrant Visa Program
- Cuban Adjustment Act
- Dependent Status under the HRIFA
- Lautenberg Parolee
- Indochinese Parole Adjustment Act of 2000
- American Indian born in Canada
- Person born in the U.S. to a foreign diplomat
- Diplomat status
You could be eligible to register for a green card if you have resided in the United States continuously since before January 1, 1972.
Do Families Automatically Get Green Cards?
Families – including children – don’t automatically get green cards. Unmarried kids under the age of 21, as well as some adopted children and stepchildren, and spouses can receive a green card at the same time the main applicant does. Married children are only eligible to obtain a green card if they’re related to a U.S. citizen, which means that a green card holder who has married children will have to get his or her citizenship before applying to get lawful permanent resident status for the children.
How to Apply for a Green Card
Many people choose to work with an immigration attorney through the process of applying for a green card. Because you need several documents – and because the process can take a long time – it’s often helpful to have a knowledgeable professional in your corner.
Forms You Need to Apply for a Green Card
To apply for a green card, you’ll have to complete Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Most people have to complete other forms, as well, but don’t worry. Your attorney can complete them for you. In some cases, another person has to file forms for you, such as when you’re using:
- Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
- Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker
- Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition
- Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
About the Green Card Application Process
The process of applying for a green card varies based on a person’s situation. Usually, though, these are the steps:
- You file a form with USCIS to petition the government for lawful permanent resident status.
- You attend a biometrics appointment to have your fingerprints and photo taken, and you provide USCIS with your digital signature.
- You attend an immigration interview.
- USCIS makes a decision on your petition.
How Long Does it Take to Get a Decision from USCIS?
It can take a significant amount of time for USCIS to process your green card application and provide you with a decision. Some people receive decisions in as little as 7 months, while others wait nearly 3 years to get an answer. In some cases, such as family preference green cards, processing can take up to 10 years.
Can You Track Your Green Card Application Status?
You can track your green card application status if you have your receipt number here. If you’re working with an attorney, he or she can keep tabs on your case, as well.
What Happens if Your Green Card Application is Denied?
If the U.S. government denies your green card application, you’re subject to removal proceedings.
Important: If this happens to you, contact an attorney as soon as you can.
What Happens if Your Green Card Application is Approved?
If the government approves your application, you’ll receive a welcome notice in the mail. Shortly after that, you’ll receive your green card in the mail.
Differences Between Visas, Green Cards and U.S. Citizenship
|Can you travel outside the U.S.?||Yes, but you may be subject to certain restrictions depending on the type of visa you have.||Yes, you can travel outside the U.S. for up to 364 days. If you have prior approval, you may be able to stay outside the U.S. for up to 2 years.||Yes. There are no restrictions on international travel when you’re a U.S. citizen.|
|How long is it valid?||Visas can be short duration, lasting up to 90 days, or they can be longer-term and last a few years. However, visas are always temporary.||Lawful permanent resident status is unlimited, but you must renew your green card every 10 years.||Once you’re a citizen, you’re always a citizen. There are some exceptions, such as for those who are convicted of treason, but these are few and far between.|
|Are there work restrictions?||Some visas allow you to work, while others do not.||There are no work restrictions if you’re a green card holder.||U.S. citizens have no work restrictions.|
|Are there higher education restrictions?||Some visas allow you to attend colleges and universities (such as F and M visas).||There are no restrictions on higher education for green card holders. In fact, green card holders can also qualify for in-state tuition rates after having a green card for a year.||There are no higher education restrictions on U.S. citizens.|
|Can you be called for jury duty?||You cannot be called for jury duty if you’re in the U.S. on a visa.||You cannot be called for jury duty if you’re a lawful permanent resident with a green card.||You can be called for jury duty.|
|Can you become a U.S. citizen?||Eventually, you can become a U.S. citizen. However, you’ll need to get a green card first.||You can become a U.S. citizen after 5 years, during which you were present in the U.S. most of the time. If you are married to a U.S. citizen, you only have to wait 3 years.||Not applicable|
|Can you collect Social Security?||Some visa types allow you to collect Social Security pension money if you have paid into Social Security in the past.||You can collect Social Security if you’re a green card holder.||You can collect Social Security if you’re a U.S. citizen.|
|Can you join the military?||You cannot join the U.S. military if you’re in the country on a visa.||You can join the military as a green card holder, but you may have fewer job choices.||You can join the military if you’re a U.S. citizen.|
|Can you receive Medicare?||Usually, visa holders are not entitled to Medicare. However, there are exceptions (such as for refugees and asylees).||You are entitled to Medicare after you live in the U.S. for 5 years.||U.S. citizens are entitled to Medicare.|
|Do you have the right to vote?||You cannot vote in elections if you’re in the U.S. on a visa.||You can vote in certain elections.||There are no restrictions on voting for U.S. citizens.|
Do You Need Help Applying for a Green Card?
If you’d like to become a lawful permanent resident of the United States, or if you’ve received notice that your petition was denied, we can help you. Call us right away – we have offices in Dallas and Houston, and our skilled, knowledgeable and compassionate green card attorneys will be happy to give you the legal advice you need.
About Davis & Associates:
Davis & Associates is the immigration law firm of choice in Houston & North Texas including Dallas, Fort Worth, Plano, Frisco, McKinney and surrounding areas. Their attorneys provide expert legal counsel for all aspects of immigration law, including deportation defense, writs of habeas corpus and mandamus, family-sponsored immigration, employment-sponsored immigration, investment immigration, employer compliance, temporary visas for work and college, permanent residence, naturalization, consular visa processing, waivers, and appeals. Attorney Garry L. Davis is Board Certified in Immigration and Nationality Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.
Dallas Contact Info:
Address: 17750 Preston Road Dallas, TX 75252
Houston Contact Info: Address: 654 N Sam Houston Pkwy E, Suite 100 Houston, TX 77060
Phone: (832) 742-0066