U.S. Permanent Resident vs. U.S. Citizen: What's the Difference?

Green card holders can in theory stay in the U.S. indefinitely, but it's not as secure a status as U.S. citizenship. Learn more about the distinctions, including application process, eligibility, and more.

By , J.D.

The terms "permanent resident" (or "green card holder") and "U.S. citizen" are often confused with one another. It's true that both confer rights to live legally in the United States, potentially for one's entire life. Nevertheless, they mean very different things as far as the nature of one's immigration status, the ability to petition for other family members to immigrate, and the level of protection against the possibility of deportation. For the most part, holding a green card is simply a stepping stone on the path to the more secure status of U.S. citizen, as described below.

What U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident Status Means

A lawful permanent resident is someone who has been granted the right to live in the United States for an indefinite time; possibly their entire life. Permanent residents are given what's known as a "green card," which is a photo ID card that proves their status.

What Rights Come With U.S. Permanent Resident Status

A grant of permanent residence includes the right to work in the U.S. and to petition for close family members (spouse and unmarried children) to receive green cards and join you. However, your family members will be considered "preference relatives," meaning that only a limited number of immigrant visas are available to such people per year, and a waiting list usually develops (based on "priority date"). Your relatives could spend around five years on a waiting list before being allowed to enter or remain in the United States or get a green card (though wait times have been less in recent years, with no wait at all for spouses and minor children).

After a certain length of time (five years in most cases) permanent residents who have shown good moral character and can speak, read, and write English and pass an exam on U.S. history and government can apply for U.S. citizenship (to naturalize).

What Restrictions Limit the Benefits of U.S. Permanent Resident Status

Permanent residents remain citizens of another country. So every time you travel outside the United States, you must carry the passport of that country with you, as well as your U.S. green card. You will use your green card to reenter the United States.

If you leave the United States with the intention of making your home elsewhere, you will be considered to have abandoned your residence and given up your green card. Contrary to popular myth, you can abandon your residence in as little as one day, based on your intentions upon departure. However, it's true that immigration authorities will take an especially close look if you spend more than six months outside the United States.

And if you spend more than a year outside the United States, the authorities will definitely presume that you have abandoned your residence. You will have an uphill battle convincing them otherwise. If you plan to leave the U.S. for a period exceeding 12 months, it's a good idea to obtain a reentry permit first.

Upon return from foreign travel, you will be subject to the same grounds of inadmissibility as you faced when you first got the green card. So, for instance, if you have been receiving financial-need based government assistance or welfare, you could be excluded at the border as a likely public charge.

There are other important limitations on lawful permanent residents' rights. You do not have any rights to vote in U.S. elections, and can be prosecuted and lose your chance at U.S. citizenship if you do so.

Another important limitation on lawful permanent residents is that they are subject to the grounds of deportability. If you commit certain crimes or security violations, or even fail to advise USCIS of your changes of address, you can be placed in removal proceedings and deported from the United States.

Who Is Eligible for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence?

The main eligibility categories for obtaining a U.S. green card are based on:

Also see our Can You Get a U.S. Green Card? Eligibility Quiz. More obscure categories exist, however, and the qualification criteria are highly complex. Your best bet would be to hire a lawyer for a personal analysis.

How Much Does It Cost to Apply for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence?

Regardless of which eligibility category you apply in, expect significant costs. For example, the basic family-based immigrant petition that opens the green-card application process comes with a fee of $535 (2022 figure) and (if the immigrant is already living legally in the U.S.) the subsequent adjustment of status fee is, for most people, $1,225 (2022 figure) or $325 if the immigrant is coming from overseas after a consular interview.

One exception is the asylum application, which is free to file; though applicants are still expected to cover various other costs, including that of an attorney if they choose to hire one. (Fortunately, many low-cost or free legal services will help asylum applicants; see Applying for U.S. Asylum: How Much Will It Cost?.)

And then there various associated costs (depending on the exact green card application process), such as for fingerprinting, photos, and medical exams, travel costs for interviews, and possibly an attorney (recommended in most cases).

What Is the Application Process to Become a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident?

The exact steps in the green card application process depend on many factors, such as the category of green card, where the immigrant lives, and whether the immigrant already has some other valid immigration status in the United States. However, in most cases the process involves a U.S. petitioner (family or employer) starting the process by filing a visa petition and proof of the family or employment relationship, then the immigrant following up with an application and various documents and attending an in-person interview.

Asylum applicants don't need a petitioner, but must already be in the United States when they apply, and must also attend an in-person interview (and later, immigration court proceedings if the first interview didn't result in approval).

What U.S. Citizenship Means

Citizenship is the highest immigration status available in the United States and offers many benefits, as further described below.

People can become U.S. citizens by either:

What Rights Come With U.S. Citizenship

A U.S. citizen is eligible to receive a U.S. passport, which is issued by the U.S. State department. Many countries allow visa-free travel for U.S. citizens. A U.S. citizen can leave and reenter the U.S. at any time without being subject to the grounds of inadmissibility or requiring a reentry permit. There are no restrictions on the number of days a citizen can remain outside the United States.

U.S. citizens can vote in U.S. federal and local elections, hold certain government jobs, and serve on juries. Many federal and state government grants, scholarships, and other benefits are available only to U.S. citizens.

As a U.S. citizen, you can petition for a number of your relatives to immigrate. Your spouse, unmarried children under age 21, and parents will be considered immediate relatives, and will be eligible to immigrate just as soon as you can get through all the paperwork and interviews. Your married children and children over age 21, as well as your brothers and sisters, are considered preference relatives, and can be put on a waiting list to immigrate. (This can take several years, however, especially for the siblings.)

U.S. citizens cannot be deported from the United States; unless, that is, they committed fraud in order to obtain their green card or citizenship.

Who Is Eligible for Naturalized U.S. Citizenship?

Before applying for U.S. citizenship, a lawful permanent resident must:

  • be at least 18 years old
  • have possessed a green card for the past five years (in most cases; it's three years for some spouses of U.S. citizens)
  • have continuously resided in and been physically present in the United States for those five years (or three years, if applying early as the spouse of a U.S. citizen)
  • be able to read, write, and speak basic English
  • have demonstrably good moral character
  • be able to pass a test covering U.S. history and government, and
  • be loyal to the principles of the U.S. Constitution and willing to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States.

For details, see Who Is Eligible to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?.

(If you are interested in naturalized U.S. citizenship, read these articles on the naturalization process and dual citizenship.)

What Restrictions Limit the Benefits of U.S. Citizenship

A U.S. citizen is expected to follow U.S. law, and not take any actions that would show greater loyalty to a foreign government (called "expatriating" acts), such as joining the military force of a country that's fighting the U.S. or committing treason against the United States. (For details, see When U.S. Citizens Can Lose Their U.S. Citizenship.)

Although U.S. citizens are safe from deportation, they can be stripped of their status if the U.S. government discovers they committed fraud during the immigration process.

How Much Does It Cost to Apply for U.S. Citizenship?

The citizenship application process is fairly straightforward, involving only one application form, the N-400. The filing fee for this is $640 plus an $85 biometric fee in most cases, for a total of $725. If you decide to hire a lawyer, this will involve a fee of around $1,000. Hiring a lawyer is an excellent idea if your case presents any complications, but also useful in order to double check that you're eligible and to get help filling out the paperwork and monitoring your case through the interview and approval.

What Is the Application Process to Become a Naturalized U.S. Citizen?

In brief, you will need to submit Form N-400 and any applicable documents, then later attend a biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment, followed later by an in-person interview. At the interview, your application will be reviewed and you will be tested on your knowledge of English as well as U.S. history and government. Finally, once approved, you will attend a swearing-in ceremony, where you take the U.S. oath of allegiance. This process often takes a year or more.

For details, see Steps to Become an American Citizen.

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