Is a Green Card the Same as a Work Permit?

Although green cards and work permits are both photo identity cards, and they both permit the holder to work in the United States, they represent vastly different statuses.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

A lot of people mistakenly believe that U.S. green cards are nothing more than work permits. After all, they do come with the important benefit of allowing their holder to work in the United States! However, a green card is much more than a work permit, despite both being photo identity cards that permit the holder to accept U.S. employment. Here, we'll discuss the vastly different immigration statuses they represent.

What Is a Green Card?

People all over the world have heard of green cards. This is the unofficial term for the Alien Registration Card or "I-551," and it is green in color. (The cards have gone through various color changes over the years, including pink and white, but today they are green once again.) The card's main function is to identify its holder as a lawful permanent or conditional resident of the United States.

While green cards give people the right to work legally in the U.S. where and when they wish, that is just one of the many rights that come with permanent residence. Green card holders can also travel in and out of the United States, petition for their spouse and unmarried minor children to join them in the United States as fellow green card holders, and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.

If you are eligible for a green card, don't bother applying if all you really want is a work permit, and actually living in the United States long-term is not your goal. When you have a green card, you are required to make the U.S. your permanent home. If you don't, you risk losing your residence on grounds that you "abandoned" it. If you spend only limited periods of time in the U.S., but your true home is elsewhere, your card could be revoked or you could be denied entry to the U.S. next time you try to travel to it.

It's wise not to spend more than six months at a time outside the United States if you want to keep your green card. Consult a lawyer if you know you'll need to spend more time away than that. You might need to apply for what's called a "reentry permit" to facilitate your U.S. return.

All green cards issued to lawful permanent residents since 1989 carry expiration dates of ten years from the date of issuance. This does not mean that the residency itself expires in ten years, just that the card must be replaced.

Green cards issued to lawful conditional residents (in most cases, people who married a U.S. citizen and applied for a green card soon after; or EB-5 investor visa holders) always carry a two-year expiration date. In their case, the status actually will expire if they don't take steps to convert to permanent residence close to the end of those two years.

What Is a Work Permit?

Work permits, more commonly known as an employment authorization documents (EADs), are issued to a wide variety of nonimmigrants (temporary visa holders) and to people with certain applications pending before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), such as for adjustment of status.

Work permits might last for a few months or up to a year (with possible renewals), depending on the visa or other status of their holder.

For example, a person who entered the United States on a fiancé (K-1) visa may apply for a work permit that lasts 90 days, meant to tide the person over until he or she has gotten married and applied for adjustment of status, at which time another, longer-term work permit will be issued to the person.

Among the many other categories of people who need to apply for work permits are asylees, people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), F-1 students who will be doing optional practical training or working off campus based on unforeseen severe economic need, spouses of J-1 exchange visitors (with J-2 visas), spouses of E-1/E-2 treaty traders and investors and L-1 intracompany transferees, people granted withholding of removal, and more.

In some cases, the right to work comes with a person's visa status, so that they do not need to apply for an EAD at all. For people who do need to apply for a work permit, the application is made on USCIS Form I-765, available for download on the USCIS website.

Getting Legal Help

If you seek to work legally in the United States, you will in most cases need to have a job offer, a pending application for a green card, or some other right to remain in the United States, such as asylum or Temporary Protected Status.

If uncertain of whether you qualify for a green card or a work permit, or you need help with the applications, consult an immigration lawyer.

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