What Are the Steps to Getting a Green Card?

Understand the paths to permanent residency

By Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on January 26, 2023

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Individuals who want to become lawful permanent residents of the United States must get a permanent resident card, or “green card,” as it’s commonly known.  

Once an individual becomes a permanent resident and lives in the United States for several years, they may go through the naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen.  

The green card application process is handled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  

This article will discuss the various options for obtaining a green card. Once you have an overview of the options, it’s best to speak with an immigration lawyer. 

U.S. immigration law is complex, and getting a green card can be stressful and time-consuming.  “[Get] a good lawyer who’s smart and knows the law and who’s an honest lawyer,” says Philadelphia immigration lawyer W. John Yahya Vandenberg.  

What Are the Benefits of Obtaining a Green Card? 

A green card is officially known as a permanent resident card. It’s called a “green card” because of the original color of the card.  

Many benefits come from having a green card. The main benefit is it allows the green card holder to live, work, and travel in the United States on a legal and permanent basis.  

Who Is Eligible for Permanent Residency? 

There are several categories of green card eligibility under U.S. immigration law. The main categories are: 

  • Family-based green cards 
  • Employment-based green cards 
  • Asylum and refugee-based green cards 
  • Diversity lottery green cards 

You must fit into one of these categories to be eligible for permanent residency. Let’s look at each category in more depth. 

Family-Based Green Cards 

Family-based green cards are designed to unite individuals who are either U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents with their family members who live abroad.  

There are two categories of people who are eligible for family-based green cards: 

  • Immediate family members of U.S. citizens 
  • Extended relatives of U.S. citizens  

Immediate family members of U.S. citizens include: 

  • Spouses 
  • Unmarried children under the age of 21 
  • Parents (if the U.S. citizen child is older than 21) 
  • Stepchildren or stepparents 
  • Adopted children 

There are no caps on the number of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens who can obtain green cards. Since there are no numerical limits, wait times tend to be shorter. The comparative ease of the process for immediate family members reflects immigration law’s priority of reuniting families.  

Unlike immediate relatives, only a limited number of extended relatives are allowed to receive green cards each year. As a result, extended family members often have to wait a long time to obtain a green card. 

Immigration law ranks extended family members in terms of preference:  

  • First preference. Unmarried children (any age) of a U.S. citizen. 
  • Second preference. Second preference family members are divided into two further categories: 
    • 2A: spouses or unmarried children (under age 21) of permanent residents/green card holders. 
    • 2B: unmarried children (any age) of permanent residents/green card holders. 
  • Third preference. Married children (any age) of a U.S. citizen. 
  • Fourth preference. Siblings of a U.S. citizen who is older than 21. 

What Is the Process of Applying for Family-Based Green Cards? 

Whether you are seeking to bring an immediate or extended family member to the United States, the process has the same basic steps:  

  • U.S. Citizen/permanent resident demonstrates relationship. The U.S. citizen or permanent resident who will “sponsor” or host the family member for permanent residency files Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) with the USCIS. This form aims to establish that the green card applicant has an eligible family relationship with a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. 
  • Application review. The USCIS reviews the petition and either approves or denies it. If the USCIS approves the application, the USCIS has certified that the family member fits into one of the categories discussed above and is eligible for a green card. 
  • Family member applies for a green card. Once green card eligibility is approved, the family member applies for a green card through the consulate in their home country or through adjustment of status if they are already in the United States.  

The application process can last months or years, depending on the family member’s status. Generally, applicants must provide evidence and documentation that shows: 

  • The sponsor is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident 
  • The sponsor’s relationship with the individual 
  • The sponsor’s financial ability to support the individual 

It’s best to speak with an immigration lawyer about your situation as soon as you can to ensure the process goes as smoothly as possible. 

Employment-Based Immigration 

Workers who are needed by employers in the United States can obtain permanent residency through one of several employment-based green cards.  

Like green cards for extended relatives, employment-based green cards have annual caps and are allotted by preference. There are several green card categories for employees

  • Priority workers (EB-1). Individuals with extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, academia, athletics, or business. 
  • Professionals (EB-2). Individuals with advanced degrees or skills. 
  • Skilled and unskilled workers (EB-3). Individuals with professional degrees or skills/training. 
  • Special immigrant workers (EB-4). This catch-all category includes religious workers, individuals who enlisted in the U.S. armed forces overseas and served for at least 12 years, foreign employees who worked for the U.S. government, etc. 
  • Investors (EB-5). Individuals who have invested significantly in a U.S. company. 

What Is the Process of Applying for Employment-Based Green Cards? 

There are several steps to getting an employment-based green card: 

  • Employer gets a Prevailing Wage Determination (PWD) from the U.S. Department of Labor. This is an official certification of how much money the job typically makes.  
  • The employer posts and recruits for the job and determines there are no qualified candidates within the U.S. 
  • After posting the job and determining there are no qualified U.S. citizen candidates, the employer files a document called ETA Form 9089 (labor certification form) with the Department of Labor to request permission to hire the foreign individual for the job and awaits approval. 
  • Once permission is granted to hire the individual, the employer files Form I-140 (Petition for Alien Worker) to the USCIS to initiate the green card process.  
  • If Form I-140 is approved, the employee waits for a visa to become available on their priority date. The employee can check the official visa bulletin for timeframes on their priority date. The “priority date” is when the USCIS backlog finally catches up to the date they filed their application. 
  • Once the visa is obtained, the employee can either go through adjustment of status (if present in the U.S.) or consular processing (if in the home country) to finally obtain a green card. Individuals can sometimes file Form I-140 for a visa and the form for adjustment of status simultaneously. 

Individuals Seeking Asylum or Refuge 

“Asylum” and “refuge” are related but distinct concepts: 

  • Asylees are individuals who are already living in the United States for protection 
  • Refugees are individuals who come to the United States for protection 

Both asylees and refugees are unable to return to their home country due to the fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, or affiliations. 

Individuals who file for asylum and “win their asylum case [have to wait] a year and can file for a green card through adjustment of status,” says Vandenberg.  

Additionally, “individuals who are granted a U visa as a victim of crime, or a T visa as a victim of human trafficking” can file for adjustment of status after three years of living in the U.S. from when the visa was granted, he says.  

Diversity Visa Lotteries 

Finally, a limited number of green cards are made available annually through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (DIVP).  

This lottery aims to increase ethnic diversity from regions that are underrepresented in U.S. immigration statistics.  

Winning the lottery can cut through long wait times and is the only way some applicants can get a green card at all. 

What Is Adjustment of Status?  

Adjustment of status refers to the process of applying for permanent resident status once you’re already in the United States on a temporary or nonimmigrant basis.  

For example, perhaps you originally came to the United States on a temporary basis as a worker or student and now want to become a permanent resident. In this case, you would apply for adjustment of status using a document called Form I-485

When filing Form I-485 with the USCIS, applicants will pay filing fees and include various supporting documents, including birth certificates and travel documents.  

Applicants will also undergo a medical examination and a biometric appointment or fingerprinting at a USCIS office. 

A related but distinct process is called consular processing. Whereas adjustment of status happens from within the United States, consular processing occurs when the individual applies for a green card through the U.S. consulate in their home country. 

“Before 1952, when the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) was passed, everyone had to return to their home country to get a green card… [In response to this], Congress decided to create the process called adjustment of status, which is essentially like a consular interview [that would happen in the home country], but it’s done in the United States,” says Vandenberg.  

The adjustment of status interview involves “the same questions that you would get at the embassy, but it’s considered an ‘administrative act of grace’ to allow you to adjust your status in the U.S.,” he says.  

“There are a lot of ways a person can adjust status,” says Vandenberg. Individuals seeking to adjust status “[must first] have an immigrant petition on their behalf—from a family member, an employer, through asylum, as a victim of crime or trafficking, through the visa lottery, or those who make significant investments in the U.S.” 

Whatever path a person takes to permanent residency, adjustment of status “is the last step in the journey to the green card… [it often involves an interview] where USCIS or sometimes an immigration judge will make sure the person is admissible, that they are going to make a good neighbor,” says Vandenberg. 

Questions for an Immigration Attorney 

Many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing you to get legal advice and decide if the attorney or law firm meets your needs. 

To get the most out of a consultation, ask informed questions such as: 

  • What are your attorney’s fees and billing options? 
  • Do I fit in one of the eligible categories for a green card? 
  • What is the best path for me to get a green card (for example, family, employment)? 
  • How much money will it cost to apply for a green card? 
  • How long will it take to complete the process? 

Look for an immigration lawyer in the Super Lawyers directory for help becoming a U.S. citizen.

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