Must You Leave the U.S. to Wait For Your Green Card?

An important question for many people applying for U.S. lawful residence while already living or staying in the U.S. is: Will you need to leave the United States while you wait for your application to be processed?

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

An important question for many people applying for U.S. lawful residence (a green card) while already living or staying in the United States is: Will I need to leave the United States while waiting for my application to be processed?

The short answer is: It depends.

Some people can stay in the United States for the entire period of applying for a U.S. green card. Others must leave the United States, either while they wait for a visa to become available (which can take years in some cases) or in order to attend their immigrant visa interview, which is the last major step in the immigration process. We'll address both these situations below.

Note: If you are not already living in the United States, then this article doesn't apply to you. The immigration authorities prefer that you wait outside the U.S. for the entire period of applying for the green card, and ultimately attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in your home country, where you will receive an immigrant visa. With that visa, you can enter the U.S. and become a lawful permanent resident, or green card holder.

Green Card Applicants Waiting for Current Priority Dates Might Need to Leave the U.S.

The first issue to consider is: Is an immigrant visa or green card immediately available to you? This depends on which category you are applying under and which country you are from.

People for Whom Visas Are Immediately Available

An immigrant visa is immediately available if you are the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen petitioner (you are the citizen's spouse, parent, or unmarried child under 21) or if you are applying based on having received asylum or refugee status in the U.S; or if you are applying for residence certain other family members (in the so-called "preference" categories) or through a U.S. employer in a category where there are fewer applicants each year than the number of available visas.

In the above cases, the question of whether you need to leave the United States for further application processing is simply a question of whether you're allowed to apply for your green card through the procedure known as "adjustment of status" rather than using consular processing, which we'll discuss in the next section, below.

People for Whom Visas Are NOT Immediately Available

If, by contrast, you are applying for a green card through a family member or employer and your eligibility category makes you a "preference" beneficiary, then a visa is NOT immediately available to you unless there are enough in supply to give out that year. The issue is that annual limits on visas in these categories often create a waiting list.

Your petitioner (family member or employer) will have started the green card application process for you, by filing a petition on Form I-130 or I-140 with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Once that petition is approved, you will receive a "Priority Date," or a place on the waiting list. See How to Determine Your Priority Date for Immigration Purposes to better understand this process. The key thing to realize is that you don't receive any right to remain in the United States while you wait for your Priority Date to become current.

Unless you already have a visa or immigration status that allows you to remain in the United States legally, you must (as a preference beneficiary whose Priority Date isn't current) leave the U.S. and wait to apply for your green card through a U.S. consulate (consular processing).

If you don't leave, and you spend time in the United States unlawfully, you put your very right to receive the green card at risk, and could be found inadmissible when applying for U.S. residence (at least for a period of years).

Green Card Applicants Must Be Eligible to Adjust Status to Avoid Attending Visa Interview at Overseas U.S. Consulate

Let's say you are not only eligible for a U.S. green card, but you have a current Priority Date or are otherwise immediately eligible for a visa (and thus a green card). That doesn't necessarily mean you will be allowed to complete the application process in the United States by "adjusting status." In order to be eligible for adjustment of status:

  • You must currently be in the United States.
  • You must not have entered the U.S. as a foreign national crewman, in transit without a visa ("TWOV"), or under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).
  • If your eligibility is based on asylum or refugee status, you must have waited one year since either your asylum approval or your entry into the United States with refugee status.
  • You must not have entered the U.S. without inspection (illegally). (There's an exception for asylees.)
  • You must (with some exceptions) be in valid visa status (including that you not have violated the terms of your visa, for example by dropping out of school if you were on an F-1 student visa, or by working without authorization), and not have stayed past the expiration date of your permitted stay. One of the major exceptions is for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, who are allowed to adjust status even if they have violated the terms of or overstayed a visa (but not if they entered the United States without inspection).

If you aren't eligible to adjust because of an illegal entry or other visa violation, there's a tiny chance you can still adjust if you fit within an old law called 245(i). It allows adjustment status, upon payment of a $1,000 penalty fee, to people who were:

  • the beneficiary of an immigrant visa or labor certification petition (including I-140, I-130, I-360, or I-526) that was filed on or before April 30, 2001, or
  • if the petition was filed between January 14, 1998 and April 30, 2001, and the applicant can also prove having been physically present in the U.S. on December 21, 2000.

If you are, in fact, eligible to adjust status, then you will have a right to remain in the United States just as soon as your application has been submitted to USCIS and it has acknowledged receipt.

Assuming you applied for a work permit on Form I-765 (employment authorization document or EAD) along with your adjustment of status application, USCIS should send you one fairly soon, allowing you to work while you wait for the AOS interview where your application will be decided upon.

If you are out of status at the moment (have no legal right to be in the U.S.) and are planning to apply for adjustment of status however, try to get your application in quickly. Otherwise, if you are arrested, you will have to present your application in immigration court and could be deported.

This is a difficult area of law, and figuring out whether you fit within one of the above exceptions is best done with the help of an attorney.

If You Need Help

Look for a qualified and experienced immigration attorney who routinely handles adjustment of status cases and can explain to you the rules and your rights and assist you with the paperwork. Also see Is an Immigration Lawyer Worth the Cost?.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
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