A lot of people mistakenly believe that green cards are nothing more than work permits. 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. Let’s review those here.
People all over the world have heard of green cards. This is the unofficial term for the Alien Registration Card, which years ago were green in color. The cards have gone through various color changes over the years, including pink and white, but today are green again.
The card’s main function is identifying its holder as a lawful permanent or conditional resident of the United States.
While green card holders do give you the right to work legally in the U.S. where and when you 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 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 may be revoked or you may 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, and consult a lawyer if you know you'll need to spend more time away than that.
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, who married a U.S. citizen and applied for a green card soon after) always carry a two-year expiration date. In their case, their status actually will expire if they don’t take steps to convert to permanent residence close to the end of those two years.
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 applications pending before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Work permits may 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, 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), students who will be doing optional practical training or working off campus based on unforeseen economic need, spouses of J-2 exchange visitors, spouses of E-1/E-2 treaty traders and investors and L-1 intracompany transferees, applicants for suspension of deportation, 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 need to apply for a work permit, the application is made on USCIS Form I-765, available for download on the USCIS website.
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 you are uncertain whether you qualify for a green card or a work permit, or need help with the applications, consult an immigration lawyer.