What Is a Green Card Application?

A green card application is a form that's filed by a family or individual that allows the applicant to obtain legal documentation as a lawful permanent resident of the United States. The legal status of an immigrant determines which form should be filled out; these forms include Form I-90, Form I-130, Form I-485, and Form I-175. All applications have an applicable fee. Once obtained, a green card provides many of the rights of American citizens.

A green card is also known as Form I-551 Permanent Resident Card or Alien Registration Card. Anyone who has a green card must carry it with them at all times.

Why Is a Green Card Application Important?

The green card is an immigrant's first step toward naturalization and citizenship. It allows the cardholder to obtain employment, travel freely both domestically and abroad, and live in the United States legally. To get consideration for a green card, a person must belong to a category in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Eligible categories include:

  • Employment
  • Family in the U.S.
  • Investment
  • Refugee Status

When applying, an individual cannot have any criminal, legal, or health issues. Otherwise, the application may be denied by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). In some cases, the applicant may have to secure an immigrant visa before applying for a green card.

What Are the Types of Green Card Applications?

There are several ways for a person or family to obtain a green card.

  • Green Card Renewal - Form I-90:
    • Green cards are only valid for 10 years. Six months before expiration, a permanent resident must fill out a Form I-90 to renew their green card. However, if the card expires, the holder will not lose permanent resident status. 
  • Marriage-Based or Engaged-Based - Form I-130 or Form I-485:
    • Both same-sex and opposite-sex partners that are not U.S. citizens are eligible for a green card. These immigrants receive sponsorship from their spouse who is already a U.S. citizen. For engaged individuals, the foreign citizen must first obtain a K-1 visa. The spouse or fiancée will also need to file a Petition for Alien Fiancée, or Form I-129F. After marriage, they can then apply for a conditional green card. After a few years of marriage, an Adjustment of Status form is necessary for a permanent green card. However, once the application is filed, the beneficiary may live and work in the U.S.
    • If married to a current green card holder, the foreign citizen can file for a V1 or V2 non-immigrant visa that allows the foreigner and their children to travel and stay in the U.S. while completing the application process.
    • If filed outside the U.S., the application process takes six to eight months. The beneficiary must stay outside of the U.S. until the application is completed.
    • If filed inside the U.S., the beneficiary can live in the country. This process usually takes eight to 12 months.
  • Employment-Based:
    • If a qualifying employer finds a candidate that isn't a U.S. citizen, they can sponsor that individual for an employment-based green card. However, the applicant must receive a Labor Certification before receiving a green card. Both the employer and employee must then file separate forms for a green card. Advantages of this green card include:
      • You don't need a college degree.
      • You don't have to be in the U.S. to apply.
      • The employer pays all fees.
      • You don't have to currently be an employee to obtain a green card.
    • A total of 140,000 employment-based immigrant visas are available each year. However, most are available for skills in short supply in the U.S., professionals, and people of extraordinary ability.
  • Green Card Lottery:
    • Officially known as the Diversity Visa Program, the Green Card Lottery awards 55,000 green cards to immigrants each year. Started in 1990 by the U.S. Immigration Act, this lottery allows you to avoid lengthy application processes. If selected, you and your family can live, work, and study in the U.S. To apply for the lottery, you must fill out the Electronic Entry Form, or eDV.
    • The lottery is conducted by the U.S. Department of State under Section 203(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). The drawing happens annually at the beginning of each fiscal year.
    • Winners are drawn by a computer-generated, random lottery. The lottery takes candidates from six geographic regions and centers on bringing in immigrants from low immigration rate countries. No country may receive more than 7 percent of the total number of immigrants.
  • Removing Conditions from a Green Card - Form I-751:
    • Green card holders who wish to immigrate through marriage have cards that are only valid for two years. This is known as a conditional green card. Ninety days before the expiration of the conditional green card, an application for permanent residency without conditions must be filed.
  • Adjustment of Status - Form I-485:
    • Immigrants that came to the country on an immigrant visa can use an Adjustment of Status application to get a green card. To get forms for this application, go to a USCIS office or call 1-800-870-3676. Some of these forms require a fee that's paid with the forms.
  • Green Card Replacement - Form I-90:
    • If a green card has been mutilated, damaged, lost, or stolen, applicants can get a replacement with a Form I-90.
  • Family-Based - Form I-130:
    • Family members of U.S. citizens or green card holders are eligible for a green card if sponsored by a sibling, spouse, parent, or child. If the sponsor holds a green card, only a spouse or child is eligible for to be a sponsor. Sponsors must be able to provide financial support for applicants.
  • Other Forms:
    • Outside of the previous forms, there are several other green card applications. Some of these include:
      • Green Card for Multinational Executives and Managers
      • Unskilled Labor Application
      • Green Card for Domestic Employee

It's important to note that a green card application, green card renewal, and green card replacement are all different processes. Remember that each application requires:

  • Photocopied documents. Do not use the originals because you won't get them back.
  • English language or translation to English.
  • Paper clips instead of staples.

What Happens After Filing a Form I-90?

Once you file a Form I-90, it takes up to six months to receive your green card. Before getting the card, expect this timeline on your application:

  • One to Three Weeks - Receipt of Application: After one to three weeks, applicants get a receipt of application. This is also known as the Form I-797C, or Notice of Action. If the form is filled out incorrectly, applicants receive a Notice of Action rejection. This may come with a Request for Evidence, which requires that you submit further documentation. Applicants should save this Notice of Action and write down the 10-digit receipt number. This number can be used to check the status of the application online. Applicants can also check their status with the 10-digit number by calling 1-800-375-5283.
  • Three to Five Weeks - Appointment Notice for Biometrics: Also known as a biometrics screening, this appointment is when the USCIS collects fingerprints, a signature, and a photograph. These appointments take place at an Application Service Center (ASC). This is for a security clearance and a criminal background check. If the applicant can't attend the appointment, they must contact the USCIS to reschedule.
  • Five to Eight Weeks - Biometrics Appointment: Applicants need to bring the biometrics appointment letter and acceptable identification. This includes a current green card, driver's license, passport, military ID, or state-issued ID card. This appointment usually lasts only 30 minutes.
  • Five to Six Months - Receipt of Green Card: After the biometrics screening, the USCIS processes the Form I-90. You will eventually receive a green card in the mail. Green cards can only be mailed to U.S. addresses or the port of entry. If there's an address change, applicants must notify the USCIS within 10 business days of the move. If the application is denied, the USCIS sends a letter explaining the reason for denial.
  • After Six Months: If you don't receive a green card after six months, you can make a case inquiry to find the status of the application.

In some instances, the USCIS may require an interview to grant a new green card. During this interview, applicants take an English language and civic knowledge test.

What Do I Need for a Marriage-Based Green Card?

The application for a marriage-based green card requires documentation, forms, and other evidence.

The petitioner, or spouse who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, must provide:

  • Copy of current, valid green card if a permanent resident
  • U.S. passport
  • Birth certificate


  • Certification of Naturalization

The beneficiary, or person applying for a green card, must provide:

  • Birth certificate
  • Copy of all passport pages
  • Copy of I-94, which is issued by customs to foreigners entering the United States

Other documents to include with the application are:

  • A death certificate or divorce documents if previously married.
  • Employment verification from the petitioner's employer.
  • Copies of three most recent tax returns with W-2s or pay stubs.
  • Two passport-style photos of petitioner.
  • Copy of marriage certificate.
  • A check made out to the Department of Homeland Security for the filing fee.
  • Six passport-style photos of the beneficiary taken within the last 30 days. Each photo must have the name of the beneficiary printed on the back.
  • Medical examination records from a civil surgeon, which is valid for 12 months from the date of the exam. These records must show any and all immunizations.

Aside from these documents, further evidence is required. The more you provide, the more likely it is that an application will be accepted. Examples of some types of evidence include:

  • Both driver's licenses with matching addresses
  • Phone records between spouses
  • Email exchanges between spouses
  • Correspondence between spouses
  • Copies of children's birth certificates
  • Two copies of wedding pictures or family photos with date and location on the back
  • Wedding correspondence to attendees about the date of wedding
  • Affidavits from friends or family that can vouch for the wedding
  • Recent joint bank statements
  • Property registered in both spouses' names
  • Utility bills with matching addresses
  • Receipts for expensive items purchased by both spouses
  • Insurance policies with both spouses' names

Family-Sponsored Green Cards

If you're filing with a family member as a sponsor, you're either a preference relative or immediate relative. There's an important difference between the two:

  • Preference Relative
    • If you're married or over age 21 and your parents or siblings are U.S. citizens, or your parents or spouse are green card holders, you qualify as a preference relative. Your U.S. relative must petition on your behalf and provide financial support. Obtaining a visa as a preference relative is a lengthy process and may take years to complete.
  • Immediate Relative
    • If you're unmarried and under 21 and your parents are U.S. citizens, you qualify as an immediate relative. This is also the case if your spouse is a U.S. citizen or you have a child over 21 who is a U.S. citizen. Gaining a green card as an immediate relative is usually a quicker process than it is for preference relatives.

Petitioners, or the current green card holder or U.S. citizen, will need to file a Form I-130. Along with this form you need to include:

  • Proof of legal status
  • Proof of family relationship
  • USCIS filing fees
  • A G-28, or Notice of Appearance for the Attorney or Representative, if represented by a lawyer
  • Form FC-029

Approved petitions demonstrate a qualifying relationship. It doesn't grant any benefits. Once approved, the Form I-130 goes to the Department of State's National Visa Center (NVC) until a visa number is granted. The NVC will notify the beneficiary. As a sponsor, you don't need to contact the NVC unless there is a:

  • Change of address
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Death of a spouse

Once the visa number is available, the beneficiary can apply for an Adjustment of Status as long as they've maintained legal residency since April 30, 2001.

Employment-Based Green Cards

When an applicant wishes to obtain a green card through employment, they receive an immigrant visa number. This number indicates preferences on their job skills, and it may impact the success or length of time it takes to receive a green card.

  • First Preference:
    • Specialized workers, researchers, professors, or distinguished academics get first preference treatment for a green card. They must present evidence such as an athletic award, Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or professional publications.
  • Second Preference:
    • Advanced degree holders or talented workers receive second preference. This also includes those interested in a National Interest Waiver.
  • Third Preference:
    • Also known as an EB-3 green card, third preference candidates include skilled workers with two years of job experience and professionals with degrees from accredited universities.
  • Fourth Preference:
    • This preference includes special circumstance workers. Valid applicants are NATO-6 employees, religious workers, member of global organizations, military personnel, and translators
  • Fifth Preference:
    • The fifth preference is for foreign nationals willing to invest at least $500,000 in a business that creates at least 10 jobs for U.S. citizens or other green card holders.

Some jobs may qualify you for a temporary work visa. H1B visas are the most popular temporary work visa, allowing you to work in the U.S. for several years at a time.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much do I have to invest to obtain a green card?

The U.S. government allows investors to obtain a green card for a $1 million investment in the creation or expansion of a U.S.-based business. In blighted areas, this figure falls to $500,000. The investment-based green card is also known as an EB-5 green card.

  • Can I get a green card with a job offer from a U.S.-based company?

With the right background, experience, and qualifications, you can obtain a green card with employment. However, the employer must prove no U.S. worker fits the job description or qualifications. Before getting a green card, most employers offer an H-1B work visa. This visa allows you to stay and work for several years.

  • What is a Special Immigrant green card?

In some circumstances, individuals are eligible for a special immigrant green card. Retired military personnel, medical workers, clergy, foreign juveniles in foster care, refugees, and others are all considered for this visa.

  • Military Personnel: If you served in the U.S. military for 12 years or more, you're eligible for a green card.
  • Clergy: Foreigners that have worked for a religious organization for two years can obtain a green card.
  • Foreign Medical Workers: If you graduated from a foreign medical school, live in the U.S., and came to the U.S. before January 10, 1978, you're up for a green card.
  • Refugees: Individuals that fear persecution in their home country based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or social group may be eligible for a green card based on asylum. These individuals can apply for a green card after one year of asylum in the U.S. Asylum seekers based on family planning practices are limited to 1,000 per year. Asylum seekers are currently in the country, while refugees are abroad.
  • Juveniles in Foster Care: If you care for a foreign juvenile who is a dependent, they may be eligible for a green card. This is known as a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status green card.
  • Former Employees of the Panama Canal Zone
  • Foreign Workers Employed by the U.S. Government
  • International Broadcasters
  • Retired Employees of Certain International Organizations
  • Employees of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong That Have Been Employed for Three Years or More
  • What is Temporary Protected Status?

If a person is traveling in the U.S. and conditions in their homeland become dangerous, they may file for temporary protected status. This is similar to political asylum, but it's only temporary.

  • What is a green card for amnesty?

Illegal aliens residing in the U.S. since January 1, 1982, are eligible for green cards for amnesty. This was made law by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

This Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 also provided green cards for agricultural laborers who worked in the field for at least 90 days. Dates worked must have been between May 1, 1985 and May 1, 1986. Although the filing deadline was November 30, 1988, some applicants may still be eligible for consideration.

  • What if I've lived in the United States for over 10 years?

If you've lived in the country illegally for over 10 years and your children are U.S. citizens, you can obtain a green card. You must show that your children would face extraordinary hardship if you were deported. In this situation, it's important to hire a lawyer. Failure to do so may cause your deportation.

Another situation, called a registry, allows you to gain permanent residency if you have lived in the U.S. since January 1, 1972. You must show good moral character to receive this type of green card. Time spent on a visa counts toward this application process.

  • Do I have to wait between filing a visa and a green card application?

If you have a relative who is a citizen, you can file for both at the same time. Refugees and asylum seekers don't need a visa and can apply directly for a green card.

  • How do I check my application status?

If your application number is available, you can check the priority date against the State Department's Visa Bulletin

  • Where can I apply for a green card?

If you're outside the United States, you can apply for a visa at an embassy or consulate. The National Visa Center will contact you after your petition is approved. The consulate will ask you to get a medical exam, conduct a phone interview, and then do an in-person interview. When you get the visa to enter the country, you'll need to apply for the green card within six months.

For those inside the U.S., apply at a USCIS office. 

  • Who can apply for a green card?

Foreign individuals that don't outstay the date on their Form I-94 can apply for a green card. However, if a relative or a spouse of a U.S. citizen stays past the date when they were supposed to leave, they are still eligible to apply.

Filing for a green card is a tricky process. If you feel overwhelmed or don't know where to turn, try posting your legal need on UpCounsel for all your green card questions and concerns.