Filing for a Green Card: Process Overview

There are numerous legal bases upon which one can become a U.S. lawful permanent resident and receive a green card, and a number of procedural methods by which to do so.

By , J.D.

An immigrant to the United States who has been granted the right to live and work in the U.S. permanently receives a "green card," more formally known as a permanent resident card. But no one receives it right away. In fact, delays are a source of complaint for many immigrants.

Of course, not everyone has the same experience with the application process. That's partly because there are numerous legal bases upon which one can become a permanent resident and receive a green card, and a number of procedural methods by which to do so.

For most applicants, there are two to five major steps toward receiving a green card, as described here.

Make Sure You're Truly Eligible for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence

U.S. law contains many categories of green card, though all are strictly defined. For an overview of the basic categories and eligibility rules, see:

For Employer Petitions Only, File for Labor Certification

Before an employer can so much as contact the U.S. immigration bureaucracy about the possibility of getting a green card for a foreign worker, the employer must conduct an advertising and recruitment process that results in failure to find a U.S. worker who is qualified, willing, and available to take the position. If there is a suitable U.S. worker, that person must get first priority for the job.

Then, the employer must submit a labor certification request to the U.S. Department of Labor, on Form ETA 9089 and wait for it to be approved. This is a process known as "PERM."

For Family and Employer Cases Only: Filing an Initial Petition

Your employer or relative must start the process of communicating with the immigration decision makers by filing a petition on your behalf, using Form I-140 (by employers), I-130 (by family members), or I-129F (by U.S. citizen fiancés).

Other common ways of getting a green card 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 willing to put a large sum into a U.S. business that you'll be actively involved in (in which case you'd start by filing your own petition on USCIS 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 petition on Form I-360), and so forth.

After submitting the initial petition, you can expect a wait of several months before you get an answer. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) gets really backed up at times; you can look at its average processing times for various applications online.

For Asylum Cases Only: File an Application With USCIS

If you are physically within the United States, and you are afraid to return to your country because you have been the victim of persecution there or have a well-founded reason to think you would be upon return, you can apply for asylum one year after your arrival. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1158.) See How to Get Asylum in the U.S. for more about the application process, which starts with preparing and submitting USCIS Form I-589 along with supporting documents (but no fee).

Wait Until a Visa Is Available

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 I-130 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 two 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 in the various categories).

File Your Own Application for a Green Card

At last, after your priority date is current (or in the case of asylees, one year has passed since your approval), 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 either submit your green card application. You will send it either to a USCIS office (if you're allowed to "adjust status" in the U.S., which not everyone is; particularly not those who entered the U.S. without inspection or have worked without authorization) or to a U.S. consulate in your home country. Also see See Getting a Green Card: Consular Processing vs. Adjustment of Status.

As part of your application, you will need to have a medical exam done by a U.S.-government approved physician.

Then you wait for several weeks or months to be called in for an interview. (In the United States, you'll be asked to attend a biometrics appointment first, at which time your fingerprints will be taken.) Your local consulate might be able to tell you its average wait time for an interview. For adjustment of status interviews (in the U.S.), check USCIS's Check Case Processing Times web 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 U.S. immigration authorities want you to supply more documents or information first.

Another common hitch in the application process is when an applicant appears to be "inadmissible" to the U.S., for criminal, security, health, or public charge reasons. In some cases, you might be given time to supply additional evidence showing that you are not inadmissible, or to apply for a waiver (legal forgiveness).

Enter the United States

If you are applying from another country and all goes well, you will receive a visa with which to enter the United States, which has a time limit on it. Only after you use it for U.S. entry do you actually become a permanent resident (or if the marriage that was the basis for the green card is less than two years old at that time, a "lawful conditional resident," with a status that you'll need to apply to make permanent after another two years of your marriage has passed.)

Your actual green card should arrive some weeks or months later.

Getting Legal Help

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 can analyze your situation, prepare the paperwork, and accompany you to USCIS interviews. The attorney might also suggest strategies to make sure nothing goes wrong during the long wait, such as having more than one person file petition for you (if, for example, you have a U.S. citizen brother as well as a spouse), thus giving you a backup if one petitioner dies or if you divorce.

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