If you are at the beginning of learning about whether and how you might become eligible for a U.S. green card, here is an overview of the possibilities. But there's much more to learn about this complex area of U.S. federal law, so for more detailed information, be sure to check out the articles we have filed under green cards.
(Want to see the most common eligibility options? Check out this quiz).
A green card allows immigrants to live and work permanently in the United States, and to travel in and out (so long as they maintain their primary home in the United States). It is an important step on the path to U.S. citizenship, for those who are interested. Almost no one can go straight from having no U.S. status to having citizenship (despite common misconceptions). You must, in most cases, have a green card first.
Some people live in the U.S. all their lives with a green card; others find that they prefer to become citizens in order to gain voting rights, access to U.S. government jobs, security from deportation, and more.
A green card should not, however, be viewed as a handy entry document for someone whose real home is outside the United States. If you are seen as having abandoned your U.S. residence, the green card can be revoked (cancelled and taken away).
The most widely used categories of green card eligibility include:
The first two categories, family- and employment-based green cards, require that you have a preexisting relationship in the U.S. -- a close family member or employer who is willing to petition for (or as some say, "sponsor") you. Applicants for asylum and refugee status, as well as the lottery, can file on their own behalf, assuming they meet the eligibility criteria.
It's important to realize that simply having a person or an employer willing to sponsor you for a green card is not, by itself, enough to qualify you. Each category of green cards has narrow eligibility criteria, and you must fit within them. For example, no one can qualify for a green card through adoption unless the adoption took place when they were below a certain age. And although parents of a U.S. citizen can apply for a green card, they must wait until the U.S. citizen child reaches age 21 first.
All U.S. green cards take months to receive, because of lengthy and complicated application processes. For example, while marrying a U.S. citizen makes a person living overseas immediately eligible for a green card, the U.S. citizen must first file Form I-130 on that person's behalf, and wait weeks or months for its approval; after which the U.S. consulate in the person's home country must process the immigrant for an immigrant visa, including calling the applicant in for a personal interview. All of this can add up to several months, or in difficult cases, years, between the first application and being approved for U.S. residency.
But for some green cards, there's an added wait built into the process, because of annual limits on the number of green cards (or in technical language, "visa numbers") given out in that category. For example, the sibling of a U.S. citizen can wait nearly decades before a visa number becomes available to him or her, allowing the person to proceed with the green card application. For information on how this waiting system works, see "Keep Track of Your Priority Date for a Green Card or Visa."
Every application for a green card involves a number of steps, typically requiring submitting filled-in forms, along with documents, fees, photos, and in many cases the results of a medical exam and proof of financial capacity, to immigration-related agencies of the U.S. government; having fingerprints taken and passing an FBI check of your record; and attending a personal interview.
However, what exactly you (or your petitioner) will have to prepare, where you'll have to send things (most applications are submitted by mail these days), and where you'll attend your personal interview depends on what category of green card you're applying for, where you are living now, and additional factors. For more on the application process itself, review the articles on this site pertaining to your particular category of green card eligibility, or see "Filing for a Green Card: Process Overview."