1. What is a Permanent Resident Card? 
2. Why is a Permanent Resident Card Important? 
3. Reasons to Consider Not Using a Permanent Resident Card
4. Reasons to Consider Using a Permanent Resident Card 
5. What Could Happen When You Obtain a Permanent Resident Card? 
6. What Could Happen When You Don't Obtain a Permanent Resident Card?
7. Frequently Asked Questions
8. Steps to File

What is a Permanent Resident Card? 

A permanent resident card, also called a green card, allows the holder to work and live in the United States indefinitely. It does have an expiration date, which is 10 years from the date it was issued. But unless the U.S. government revokes the holder's status or the holder abandons the green card, it is valid.

The expiration date is a newer aspect of the permanent resident card and its purpose is to prevent fraud and maintain a more current photograph on the card. It's called a green card because at one time, the card sent to recipients was green. 

At this time, the card is yellow in color and has a magnetic barcode that stores information about the cardholder. In 2010, the new version of the card began including advanced security media that has a digital photo, human characteristics, and other physiological characteristics.

The card also has a radio frequency identification tag, which allows Customs and Border Protection officers to compare personal information on the card with the characteristics of the cardholder upon arrival to a U.S. border. Other security measures of the card include laser-engraved fingerprints, high-resolution micro-images, and holographic images.

A permanent resident card has a card number, also called a document number. The card shows 13 alphanumeric digits, which are unique to each card and allow employers and USCIS representatives to easily track cardholders.

With a permanent resident card, the holder enjoys many of the same rights as U.S. citizens, such as: 

  • The ability to be employed at any legal work of the holder's choosing
  • To vote in local elections that do not require citizenship
  • To live permanently in the United States
    • One exception to this allowance is if the permanent resident cardholder commits any actions that violate the immigration laws under section 237 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Violating these laws would make the cardholder deportable.
  • To enjoy protection under the laws of the United States, as well as those held by local jurisdictions and state governments within the state of residence

To be eligible to receive a permanent resident card, an applicant must fit into one of the categories listed in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The main categories include:

  • Employment
  • Investment
  • Family
  • Refugee status
  • Marriage 

Those applying for permanent residence in the U.S. must have no criminal, health, or security issues, and proof of a clean record. Results of a health exam are often required as part of the application process. If the applicant must apply for a U.S. visa prior to receiving permanent residency, the visa process must be complete before he or she applies for a permanent resident card.

The process of applying for a permanent resident card is often very complex. There are several ways that someone could apply, and there is no one path to gain permanent resident status. Some applicants marry U.S. citizens, while others have their family members sponsor them and apply on their behalf. Asylum and refugee programs can also help individuals obtain permanent residency. Some employers will file applications on behalf of potential employees to help them gain permanent resident status. There is also a lottery held each year. 

Regardless of which category the applicant falls under, he or she will have to submit a complete and accurate application, required documentation, and the filing fee.

If applying for permanent residency based on marriage to a U.S. citizen, there are several steps involved in this process as well. Step one is filing and receiving approval for a K-1 visa, which allows a fiancé(e) of a citizen to enter the country. The conditions of this visa require the couple to marry within 90 days of the alien's arrival in the U.S. After the marriage, the fiancé(e) will receive a conditional green card. When the couple has been married for several years, the fiancé(e) can then file to change the status from conditional to permanent.

A permanent resident card lasts for 10 years. The holder should keep track of the expiration date to make sure that it doesn't expire prior to renewal, since this can lead to the risk of deportation. Before it expires, the holder will need to file form I-90 to extend the status.

Applying for a permanent resident card is often confusing and overwhelming. There are many forms that applicants and their sponsors must complete to keep the process moving. Small and unintentional mistakes on the forms can lead to significant delays. In some cases, a mistake on the application could cause the alien to lose the opportunity to immigrate to the United States permanently. Working with an immigration attorney can help an applicant know which forms to fill out, how to complete them correctly, and how to track the status of each one. 

It's also important to keep the information on the card current. Permanent resident cardholders must notify USCIS of any changes to the legal name, address, and other information on the card. If the permanent resident card form or documentation changes at any time, holders must submit a new form to have their cards replaced with the most current version.

The application process also includes biometrics, or fingerprinting. Upon approval of an application for a permanent resident card, USCIS will schedule an appointment for fingerprints and send the time and date information to the applicant. He or she must bring photo identification and a copy of the appointment letter to the fingerprint appointment.

Why is a Permanent Resident Card Important? 

If an alien wants to permanently relocate to the United States, the permanent resident card is the best way to achieve this goal. It does expire after 10 years, but the renewal process is easier than the initial application process. The expiration helps USCIS keep track of permanent residents and prevent fraud and abuse. While there are other options for relocation, such as applying for various types of visas, these alternatives are often short-term and will expire within a year or two.

To obtain legal employment and enjoy other benefits and protections of living in the U.S., a permanent resident card is necessary. The only other option that offers similar protections is applying for U.S. citizenship.

Reasons to Consider Not Using a Permanent Resident Card

Alternatives to applying for a permanent resident card include applying for non-immigrant visas or immigrant visas. The process of receiving a permanent resident card can take months. If the applicant needs temporary evidence of the pending status, such as for travel outside the U.S. or to get a job, the USCIS representative can stamp the passport to indicate the pending status.

If a cardholder does not receive his or her card in the mail within 30 days of the postmarked date, it is necessary to file a case with USCIS. If the information on the card is incorrect, due to an error by a USCIS representative, the holder will need to file a case. 

If an application is denied, the applicant can submit a motion to reopen the case, which will have to include new facts, documents, affidavits, and other evidence. The other option is to submit a motion to reconsider, which must show that the original decision was based on incorrect application of USCIS policies or laws.

This process can be lengthy and confusing, and applicants may want to avoid it altogether.

Reasons to Consider Using a Permanent Resident Card 

If a resident of another country wishes to live in the U.S. permanently, he or she should consider applying for a permanent resident card. This process allows the cardholder to live and work in the U.S. without the risk of deportation, as long as he or she follows the terms and conditions under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

When applying for jobs, the permanent resident card can be used as proof of legal right to work in the country.

What Could Happen When You Obtain a Permanent Resident Card? 

With a permanent resident card, the holder is legally authorized to live and work in the United States. Holders of these cards can remain in the U.S. as long as the card is valid. Renewing the card is now required every 10 years, but the process is easier as long as the card hasn't expired. 

If an immigrant filed in the 1970s or 1980s and has a permanent resident card that does not expire, the card is still valid for accepting employment and completing form I-9. USCIS officials have talked about implementing a rule that requires non-expiring permanent resident cards to replace their cards with cards that do expire, but this rule is not currently in effect.

One of the problems with the non-expiring permanent resident cards is that the information and photograph often become outdated. If traveling outside the U.S., the Customs & Border Protection officer must be able to identify the cardholder based on the photo. Without the ability to verify the cardholder's identity, he or she could be detained. Global Entry kiosks also require newer permanent resident cards, as they cannot read the old format of the previous cards. Those who travel frequently should replace their non-expiring green cards.

What Could Happen When You Don't Obtain a Permanent Resident Card?

Without a permanent resident card, it will be much harder to get a job and live a comfortable life in the U.S. Security at the borders is increasing, making it harder for people to get into the country without legal documentation. However, there are alternative options to applying for permanent residency. These include:

  • Applying for citizenship
  • Applying for an immigrant visa
  • Applying for a non-immigrant visa

Before 1997, the Immigration and Naturalization Service Division of the Department of Justice provided Resident Alien Cards, which were alternatives to permanent resident cards. They do not include document numbers and are peach, not green, in color. The card does include an expiration date, but it will have lapsed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • If I have a permanent resident card, can I travel outside the U.S.?

Yes, but the cardholder must bring his or her passport from the country of citizenship along with the permanent resident card to show when returning to the U.S.

  • What is the cost to renew a permanent resident card?

The current fee to file an application for renewal of a permanent resident card is $540. While this may feel like a major expense, it is important to keep the permanent resident card current at all times while living and working in the U.S. The renewal process takes about 4-6 months, so cardholders should get started early to avoid having the card expire.

  • What happens if a permanent resident card does expire?

Having an expired permanent resident card can pose several problems. The first will arise if the cardholder tries to apply for a job. Employers typically require proof of permission to work in the U.S. It could also become impossible to obtain a professional license to work as a nurse, insurance agent, realtor, or other role that requires licensure. 

It will also cause a problem if the cardholder tries to travel outside the U.S. and then come back. Customs & Border Protection officers will require proof of lawful permanent resident status, and an expired card does not count.

If the card expires during travel, the holder must file form I-131A to request a boarding foil, which allows for re-entry to the U.S. Upon return, the cardholder must immediately begin the renewal process.

To apply for a mortgage loan, immigrants must also show proof of legal residency in the country, so an expired card will not work in this case either. The cardholder also won't be able to apply for or renew a driver's license with an expired permanent resident card.

Stay vigilant about the expiration date of your card. Make sure to file form I-90, Green Card Renewal Form, to extend the status.

  • What should I do if I lose my permanent resident card?

If a permanent resident card is lost, damaged, or stolen, or the information becomes outdated, the owner will need to file for a green card replacement.

Steps to File

The steps to file for permanent residency in the United States vary depending on the category under which the applicant will file as well as whether the individual lives in the U.S. Most applicants will need to file form I-485, which is the application to register permanent residence or adjust status. However, if a family member is applying on behalf of an alien relative, he or she will use form I-30. 

Because there are several options to obtain a permanent resident card, it's best to work with an immigration attorney to make sure that the right forms are completed and filed. Working with a lawyer can help expedite the process and avoid costly mistakes.

If you need help with a permanent resident card, you can post your legal need or concerns on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.