An immigrant to the United States who has been granted the right to live and work in the U.S. permanently receives a permanent resident card, also known as a “green card.” But no one receives it right away. In fact, delays in the process, whether they come from the slow grinding of the immigration bureaucracy, or built-in issues like numerical limits on the annual supply of visas, are a top complaint by many immigrants.
You can become a permanent resident, and receive your green card in a number of ways. The most likely ways including having an employer, or a family member who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, petition for you.
For most applicants, there are two to four major steps toward receiving a green card on one of these bases, as described here.
Before an employer can contact the immigration bureaucracy about the possibility of getting a green card for a foreign worker, the employer must first conduct an advertising and recruitment process, and fail to find a U.S. worker who is qualified, willing, and available to take the job. Then, the employer must submit a labor certification request to the U.S. Department of Labor, on Form ETA 9089.
Your employer or relative must start the process of communicating with the immigration decision makers by filing a visa petition on your behalf, using Form I-140 (by employers), I-130 (by family members), or I-129F (by U.S. citizen fiances).
Other common ways of getting a green card may require starting the process by yourself, for example if you are a refugee or seeking asylum within the United States (both of which can eventually lead to getting a green card), you are an investor (in which case you'd start by filing your own visa petition on Form I-526), you are the spouse of a U.S. citizen who is abusive and isn't cooperating with helping you obtain a green card (in which case you'd start by filing your own visa petition on Form I-360), and so forth.
After submitting the initial petition, you can expect a wait of several weeks or months before you get an answer. When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is really backed up, it sometimes puts I-130s by Preference Relatives (who are subject to annual visa limits that make getting a green card impossible for several years after their initial I-130 submission anyway) at the bottom of the pile.
If you're submitting a refugee or asylum application, the process moves much faster. Asylum applicants in the United States attend their interview, at which they may be approved, within weeks of turning in their application (Form I-589).
If you're in a category where visas are subject to annual limits, you'll have to wait until your "Priority Date" -- which comes from the date your visa petition was first received by USCIS -- comes up on a waiting list. This can take years, depending on your category and which country you're from. Spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents, for example, often wait around five years. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens tend to wait the longest, upwards of 20 years.
Check the State Department's Visa Bulletin for a list of the Priority Dates just becoming current. If you count the length of time between the current Priority Date in your category and today's date, you'll get a rough idea of how long people like you usually wait between I-130 approval and visa availability (though this can, of course, change year by year, depending on how many people apply).
At last, you can actually submit the application for a green card. This too is likely to take several weeks or months, depending on where you apply. The process starts when you submit your green card application, either to a USCIS office (if you're allowed to "adjust status" in the U.S., which not everyone is) or to a U.S. consulate in your home country. Then you wait for several weeks or months to be called in for an interview. (In the U.S., you'll be asked to attend a biometrics appointment first, at which time your fingerprints will be taken.)
Your local consulate may be able to tell you its average wait time for an interview, or you can check the "Visa Wait Times" page of the State Department's website. For adjustment of status interviews (in the U.S.), check the USCIS website's "Check Processing Times" page.
At the interview, your visa or green card should be approved (or denied). However, sometimes you won't receive an answer that day, because security checks on you have not been completed, or the immigration authorities want you to supply more documents or information first.
Hiring an experienced immigration attorney can help you to make sure things move as swiftly as possible and that there are no unexpected hitches along the way. The attorney may also suggest strategies to make sure nothing goes wrong during the long wait -- for example, having more than one person petition for you (if, for example, you have a U.S. citizen brother as well as a spouse), so that you have a backup if one petitioner dies or if you divorce.