Paths to Permanent Resident Status

Learn about the most common ways a foreign national can become a permanent resident (get a green card).

For most immigrants who wish to make their home in the United States, becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident is the first step. This status allows the person to live in the U.S. on a permanent basis -- so long as he or she doesn't commit any crimes or other violations that would result in deportation (removal) -- and eventually to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Because a permanent resident is given an identity card that was once green, and is still popularly known as a green card, another common word for permanent resident is "green card holder."

Qualifying for a green card to live in the United States can be a challenge. The law strictly defines the categories of people eligible for green cards, and in some categories, limits the number of green cards that can be given out each year. The application process is also usually lengthy and difficult. Below is a brief overview of the main categories of green cards.

Also realize that, no matter what category you might fall in to, you can be denied a green card if you are found "inadmissible" to the United States. The grounds of inadmissibility found in the U.S. immigration laws are meant to protect the United States from anyone who is a perceived risk due to a criminal or terrorist background, past immigration violations, communicable health problems, inability to support themselves financially, and so on.

Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

One of the most widely used categories of green card eligibility is immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives include:

  • spouses and recent widows and widowers of U.S. citizens
  • children (unmarried under age 21), stepchildren, and stepparents as long as the marriage occurred before the child was age 18, and
  • adopted children as long as the adoption takes place before the age of 16.

There is no limit to the number of immediate relatives who can receive green cards each year.

Preference Relatives of U.S. Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents

A limited number (480,000) of green cards are given out to other relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, referred to as preference relatives. The result is long waits in most categories. The green cards (otherwise known as immigrant visas) are given out on a first come, first served basis, so the earlier an intending immigrant's relative turns in the initial visa petition (Form I-130), the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card.

The wait tends to range from three to twenty four years. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens wait the longest.

The following are the preferences in order of preference:

  1. Unmarried children of a U.S. citizen who are age 21 or older
  2. Spouses and unmarried children of a Green Card Holder (this includes two subcategories, 2A and 2B; children over age 21 are in category 2B, and wait longer than those in 2A)
  3. Married children of at least one U.S. citizen parent
  4. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is at least age 21

See our section on Family Based Immigration for more details on this path to a green card.

Employees and Workers

A total of 140,000 green cards are available each year for people whose job skills are needed in the U.S. market and who offer skills which an employer cannot find from the local market of U.S. workers. In most cases, a job offer is required before the immigrant can seek a green card, and the employer needs to begin, and actively participate in the application process.

In three categories, however, a job offer is not required. These include investors (fifth preference, described below); workers of "extraordinary ability" (a subcategory of the first preference priority workers category described below); and workers with "exceptional ability," a subcategory of the second preference category.

Given the limited number of green cards available to workers, it can take many years to receive a green card through this process, depending on which preference category you're in.

The following are the preferences in order of preference:

  1. People of extraordinary ability in the arts, science, education, business, or athletics; outstanding professors and researchers; and managers/executives of multinational companies.
  2. Professional with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
  3. Professional and skilled or unskilled workers.
  4. Religious workers and various miscellaneous categories of workers, as well as so-called "Special Immigrants" (described below).
  5. Investors willing to put $1 million into a U.S. business, or $500,000 in business that's in a locally depressed area. The investment in the business must create at least ten new jobs.

Green Card Lottery: Diversity Visa

There are 50,000 green cards available each year through the diversity visa, popularly referred to as the green card lottery. Only citizens of certain countries may apply. The countries on the list are those that have, in the past, sent the fewest numbers of immigrants to the United States.

Applications are accepted online for one month, usually toward the end of the year. Applicants must also meet certain educational qualifications. The application process is free. No wonder millions of people apply each year, making the chances of winning quite slim. Also, even if you are one of the lucky few selected, realize that you'll be in a race with other winners to get the process done on time. Many people are left out by the end of each cycle, often because of the slow-moving government bureaucracy.

Special Immigrants

This category contains an odd mix of visa types, many of them too narrow to be useful to more than a few people. Special immigrants include:

  • Religious workers (clergy as well as other people in a "religious vocation," such as religious instructors, cantors, and workers in religious hospitals).
  • Foreign medical graduates who came to the U.S. before January 10, 1978 on an H or J visa and meet various other conditions.
  • Former international U.S. government workers.
  • Retired employees of international organizations.
  • Persons declared dependent on a juvenile court.
  • Servicepeople with 12 years' duty.

Refuge and Political Asylum

The U.S. government offers refuge to people who have a fear of, or have experienced, persecution in their home country based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. government sets a different limit on refugee admissions -- those who come from overseas -- each year. There is no limit on the number of people who can, from within the U.S., apply for asylum each year. Refugees and asylees can apply for a green card one year after receiving their status. See How to Get Asylum in The U.S. for information on eligibility and the application process.

Long-Time Residents - Cancellation of Removal

In some instances, people who have lived in the United States continuously for more than ten years, have good moral character, can show that their spouse or children are U.S. citizens and would face "extraordinary and exceptionally unusual hardship" if the alien were forced to leave the U.S., and have been placed in removal proceedings, can request permanent residence from the judge.

This is not something you can start an application for -- you must already be in immigration court, fighting against efforts to remove you. It is a complicated process and is best handled by an immigration attorney.

Getting Legal Help

The above information is just a brief overview of who might be eligible for a U.S. green card. If you believe you might qualify, you'd do best to consult with an experienced immigration lawyer for a full personal analysis and an explanation of the details of the application process (which can be lengthy, complicated, and easy to do wrong).

Walking into a U.S. immigration office or consulate is not a good strategy, as you may receive inadequate or even wrong information. And if you're in the U.S. illegally, walking into a U.S. immigration office could get you deported.

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