How Can I Get a Green Card?

Understanding how to get a green card, or permanent residence status, gives you the ability to legally work and live in the United States. It is also a step toward becoming a U.S. citizen. You can apply for a green card through family, an employer, investment, a visa lottery, and through several other means. 

Ways to Get a Green Card

There are several ways to get a green card in the United States.

  • Family Members: If any of the following relatives live in the United States as U.S. citizens or green card holders, they may petition to have you join them.
    • Your spouse
    • An unmarried child under the age of 21
    • An unmarried stepchild under the age of 21
    • An adopted child under the age of 18 
    • A parent or stepparent
    • An unmarried child over the age of 21
    • A married child of any age
    • A brother or sister
  • Job offer: You can apply for a green card after receiving a formal offer to work in the United States.
  • Making an investment: If you are going to establish a business venture that creates new jobs in the U.S., you can apply for a green card. You must prove that you have the funds available to make this investment and that the money is legitimate.
  • Self-petition: Distinguished people with exceptional abilities, or specific people who are granted a National Interest Waiver, can file a green card petition for themselves.
  • Special Category: If you are a worker in an established special immigrant category, such as broadcasters, international employees, and certain religious workers, then you can apply for a green card.
  • Green Card Lottery: Also called the Diversity Visa Program, this is a lottery system that people from certain countries can apply for. If they are chosen and their visa application is processed in time, they will able to immigrate to the U.S. and apply for a green card.
  • Adoption: If you are under the age of 16 and are adopted by U.S. citizens or green card holders, then you can apply for a green card.
  • Registry: If you have lived continuously in the U.S. since January 1, 1972, you can apply for a green card.
  • Private Bill: You may be able to get a green card if Congress (either the House of Representatives or Senate) believes there are compelling humanitarian reasons to allow you to stay permanently in the U.S. and the USCIS cannot grant permanent resident status in any other way.
  • Diplomats: High-level diplomats on A-1 visas who are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or a fear of persecution can apply for a green card.
  • Asylum: This category covers people who are already in the U.S. and are unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social or political group.
  • Refugee: People displaced by war, famine, or civil and political unrest or those unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or a fear of persecution may be able to get a green card.

Green Card Preference Categories

Some green card categories offer shorter wait times than others due to visa quotas. To find out how many visas are available in your category, check the monthly Visa Bulletin published by the U.S. Department of State.

Employment-Based Visa Categories

If you are seeking a green card through employment, you can apply from your home country. You will then be assigned an immigrant visa number, which is organized based on the following:

  • First Preference: People with special abilities, distinguished academics, professors, researchers, and international executives are able to receive First Preference Permanent Residency or an immigrant visa. You can demonstrate that you fit into this category by showing proof of a Pulitzer or Nobel Peace Prize, Athletic Awards from Professional Associations, or peer-reviewed articles that you have published.
  • Second Preference: Professionals with advanced degrees or workers with exceptional talent will receive second preference. This also includes foreign nationals interested in a National Interest Waiver.
  • Third Preference: Skilled workers and professionals are eligible for third preference EB-3 green cards. You are required to have at least two years of experience, and professionals usually need university degrees.
  • Fourth Preference: People under special circumstances — such as translators, members of the armed forces, NATO-6 employees, certain religious workers, and Employees of global organizations — receive fourth preference.
  • Fifth Preference: Immigrant investors who are able to invest between $500,000 and $1 million in a venture that creates at least ten new jobs for U.S. citizens or other lawful permanent residents receive fifth preference green cards.

Family-Based Visa Categories

The length of time you will have to wait to get a green card under the family-based visa categories depends on how you are related to the person petitioning for your visa and what their visa status is in the United States. 

  • Children under 21, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens have the easiest path. Immigrant visas are available to them immediately, with no quotas.
  • Spouses and children under 21 of U.S. permanent residents will receive the next preference.
  • Currently, adult unmarried children of permanent residents are getting visas before the adult unmarried children of U.S. citizens who apply at the same time. 
  • Married adult children of U.S. citizens and the brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens currently have the longest wait for green cards.

The EB-5 Path to a Green Card

The EB-5 visa program allows foreigners to invest in hotels, condominiums, office towers, and public and private works in order to get a green card.

With this program, a foreigner can invest between $500,000 and $1 million into a project that they can prove will create at least 10 jobs, and then apply for a green card. The family of the investor, including any dependent under 21, can apply for a green card. It usually takes between 22 and 26 months to get legal residency through this program versus the several years it can take for other visa programs.

Marriage-Based Green Card Applications

If you marry a U.S. citizen, you are immediately able to apply for a green card. Simply fill out forms I-130 and I-485 to begin the application process. If you are in the U.S. when you apply, you must be sure that you have entered the country legally and that you remain there legally.

If your new spouse is a permanent resident, you will have to wait until the priority date becomes current so that you can apply for your green card. Currently, this wait is several years. You cannot legally live or work in the U.S. until you get your green card. If your spouse becomes a U.S. citizen before the date becomes current, you can immediately apply for a green card.

Applying for a Green Card

  • Step 2: Background check. Once your paperwork has been filed, you will receive a notice telling you to go to an Application Support Center for an appointment. There you will be fingerprinted, have your picture taken, and have your signature taken. The center will use this information to do a background check. 
  • Step 3: Interview. In some cases, you may be called in for an interview with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office to answer questions about your application. If you receive a notice, make sure you go to the appointment. The notice will include the date, time, and location of the interview. The family member who filed your green card petition may be asked to come to the interview as well. Be sure to bring your travel papers, passports, and any other relevant documents to the interview.

Entering the U.S. for the First Time on a Green Card

After a successful interview appointment, you will have up to six months to enter the U.S. When you enter the United States as a green card holder for the first time, you will go through the "U.S. Citizens and Green Card Holders" line.

At the airport, you will be required to provide your fingerprints, which will then be printed on your physical green card. You'll also get a stamp in your passport that will act as your visa until you get your actual green card in the mail.

You can start working as soon as you arrive in the U.S. You don't have to make the U.S. your permanent residence on the first trip. You do, however, need to have an address in the United States for the delivery of your green card. When you enter the U.S. for the first time, you'll need to give the officer a U.S. address so that they can mail you your green card. You will get a Notice of Action that will tell you when you should expect your green card to arrive in the mail. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What should I do if I am planning to travel abroad while I'm in the process of adjusting my immigration status? 

Before you leave the country, you have to get advance permission from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in order to return to the U.S. without any problems.

  • I have a green card, but I plan to leave the country for over a year. What should I do?

If you think you will be gone for over a year, but plan to return to the U.S. to live, you need to get a re-entry permit before leaving the U.S.

  • My marriage-based green card is only valid for two years. What should I do when that expires?

Marriage-based and investment-based green card holders who are only given two-year green cards have to apply during the 90 days before their second anniversary to remove the conditions on their residence. You can do this with form I-485.

  • How do I renew my green card?

If your 10-year green card is due to expire, you can apply for a renewal up to six months before it expires. You'll need to fill out form I-90. This is also the form you should fill out if you have lost your green card and need a replacement or when the information on your green card becomes outdated.

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