What Is a Green Card?

A green card is proof that the holder of the card has lawful permanent residency in the United States. This includes permission to live and accept employment in the U.S. It is officially called a permanent resident card, but is sometimes referred to as an alien registration card. Green cards expire 10 years after being issued, which means you will have to renew your green card to maintain your status as a permanent resident.

What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and a Visa?

A visa is a stamp or paper that gives you permission to present yourself at the border or any port of entry into the United States. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer has the final say on whether or not you are allowed into the country. However, being issued a visa is usually a good sign that you'll be allowed to come into the country.

There are two main types of visas in the U.S., immigrant and non-immigrant visas. Non-immigrant visas do not give the holder any rights to work in the country, while immigrant visas are the pathway to permanent residency. All immigrant visas must be petitioned for by a U.S. citizen.

A green card is the physical card given to permanent residents of the United States and allows entry into and out of the country. Green card holders are no longer considered immigrants because they now hold permanent residency in the country. This means that they are able to work and are not tied in any way to a specific employer or career.

A Green Card Is Not a Tourist Visa

Do not expect to use your green card as a way to travel easily into and out of the United States. If your plan is to live outside of the U.S. and use your green card just to visit whenever you want, the United States government will figure this out and cancel your green card. Legally, you have abandoned your U.S. residence.

What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and Citizenship?

Green cards are proof that the holder has the right to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. They can travel and return and sponsor certain close family members to also receive green cards.

Green card holders are different from U.S. citizens in the following ways:

  • They cannot vote in U.S. elections. 
  • They cannot remain outside the U.S. for unlimited amounts of time or make their home elsewhere. 
  • They can lose their residency rights under certain circumstances:
    • If they fail to advise U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of any changes in their address.
    • If they commit a crime or acts of espionage or terrorism.
    • If they are out of the country for more than 180 days within a 12-month period (due to circumstances within their control).
    • If it is later discovered that they concealed important information and provided fraudulent information on their green card application.

In most cases, an immigrant must hold a green card for several years before being able to apply for U.S. citizenship through the naturalization process.

Are You Eligible for a Green Card?

If you can answer yes to one or more of these questions, you may be eligible to apply for a green card.

  • Are you engaged to marry a U.S. citizen?
  • Are your parents, your husband or wife, or your children over 21 citizens of the United States?
  • Are your parents or your brothers and sisters citizens of the United States?
  • Are your parents (if you're unmarried) or your husband or wife U.S. green card holders?
  • Do you live in a country outside the United States where you have faced or fear persecution, either by the government or by forces beyond the government's control, and is that persecution due to either your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group?
  • Are you in the United States now but fear returning to your home country because you have faced or fear persecution, either by the government or by forces beyond the government's control, and is that persecution due to your race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group?
  • Do you have a job offer from an employer in the United States?
  • Do you have $1 million or more to invest in the creation or expansion of a U.S. business?
  • Are you a member of the clergy or a religious worker who wants to come to the U.S. to work for the same religious organization that you already work for? (For this to apply, you must have been working for that organization for at least two years.)
  • Did you graduate from a foreign medical school and come to the United States before January 10, 1978, and still live in the United States?
  • Are you a former overseas U.S. government worker or a retired employee of an international organization who has worked at least half of the last seven years in the United States?
  • Are you helping a child who is living in the U.S. and has been declared a dependent in a juvenile court and is eligible for a long-term foster or state agency care?
  • Have you served in the U.S. armed services for a total of 12 years or more after October 15, 1978?
  • Have you lived in the U.S. continuously since January 1972?
  • Have you been adopted by a U.S. citizen and are under the age of 16?
  • Are you highly talented in science, the arts, business, or academia?

You can also enter the green card lottery, officially known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. This program is run by the U.S. Department of State and awards 50,000 green cards each year to applicants from under-represented countries.

How to Get a Green Card

The way you apply for a green card will depend on who is sponsoring your application.

  • Immigrants who are married to a U.S. citizen or Permanent Resident can be sponsored by their spouse. This process involves filing form I-130 and form I-485. The process is the same for same-sex marriages.
  • If you are being sponsored by a family member who already holds a green card or U.S. citizenship, you will need to fill out form I-130. You may also be required to fill out form I-485.

The Benefits of Having a Green Card

These are some of the many benefits of being a green card holder in the United States:

  • The ability to enter and leave the U.S. whenever you would like without the risk of being denied entry by an immigration officer.
  • The right to apply for government-sponsored financial aid for higher education.
  • Permission to work for any company located within the United States and its territories (except for companies that only hire U.S. citizens).
  • The ability to work for companies that require employees to have a security clearance that only green card holders and U.S. citizens can get.
  • Permission to start your own business and create a corporation.
  • Access to social security benefits when you retire if you have worked for at least 10 years.
  • The ability to sponsor a spouse or an unmarried child under the age of 21 to get their permanent residency in the U.S.
  • Immunity against future immigration law changes that could hurt a temporary visa holder.
  • The ability to make political campaign contributions.
  • A better chance of being approved for a mortgage loan and health or life insurance.
  • Eligibility to apply for U.S. citizenship.
  • The legal right to own property, cars, and firearms.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I renew my green card?

If your 10-year green card has expired or will expire within the next six months, you should fill out form I-90. If the 2-year green card that you received after marrying a U.S. citizen or green card holder has expired, you will need to fill out form 1-751

  • I lost my green card, what should I do? 

If you lost your green card before it expired, you should apply for a new card using form I-90 on the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services website. Follow the same process if your green card was stolen or damaged or if the information on your green card becomes outdated.

If you need help with U.S. green cards, you can contact one of our quality immigration attorneys for assistance. 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, Stripe, and Twilio.