If you are a foreign-born person eligible for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) through a family member or an employer, and you are just beginning the application process, it may help to have a preview of what’s ahead.
You’ll be dealing with some huge government bureaucracies, and the process can be slow and frustrating if you just jump in headfirst.
Warning: The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long delays in every part of the immigration process. As of May 2020, there is no way to complete the green card process regardless of whether you are living in the U.S. or overseas, due to U.S. government office closures to in-person visits. Even after they reopen, expect unusual delays.
Make Sure You're Eligible for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence
For an overview of the basic eligibility rules, see:
1. Can You Get a U.S. Green Card? Eligibility Quiz
2. Who Is Eligible for a Family-Based Green Card?
3. Best Types of Jobs To Get an Employment-Based Green Card
Your Next Steps and Considerations
The main steps you’ll most likely need to take include the following:
- Decide whether you’ll need a lawyer’s help. If you can afford it, this is often worthwhile. Immigration law is highly complex and paperwork-intensive, and it helps to have professional help during the often-lengthy application process.
- If applying through an employer, wait while the employer completes a “prevailing wage” request and receives a prevailing wage determination (PWD) from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). The PWD tell the employer how much money is normally paid to people in similar jobs. Next, your employer will need to recruit and attempt to hire an American worker for the position and then, assuming that fails, file a labor certification on your behalf. You’ll probably be asked to supply some information to your employer during this process, but you yourself won’t submit any applications or sign any forms.
- Sit back a bit longer, while either your U.S. family member or your employer fills out what’s called a "visa petition" for you. (Form I-130 for family, Form I-140 for employers). The petition shows either that you are the petitioner’s family member or that you have been offered a job and received labor certification. It can take months or even years for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to approve the petition.
- If, in the category under which you’re applying, only limited numbers of visas or green cards are given out every year, you’ll need to wait until the people in line ahead of you have received their green cards (which can take years). This is based on your “priority date,” which comes from the date that either your labor certification or your I-130 petition was first received at the appropriate government office.
- Finally, you get to fill out your own set of application forms and collect various documents. You will submit these to either a U.S. consulate in your home country (if you're doing "Consular Processing") or to USCIS in the United States, depending on where you live and, if you live in the United States, whether you’re eligible to use the “Adjustment of Status” application process. Adjustment of status would allow you to apply for a green card without returning to your home country first, but many people are not eligible to adjust status, particularly if they entered the U.S. without inspection. See Getting a Green Card: Consular Processing vs. Adjustment of Status
- Many applications get lost or delayed, so expect to spend some time tracking yours through the system. Fortunately, the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov has a “Check Case Status” feature, which you’ll want to get familiar with.
- You, and in some cases your petitioning family member, will need to have a medical exam done by a U.S.-government approved physician. If you're in the U.S., you'll also need to attend a biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment.
- You will attend an interview at either a U.S. consulate in your home country or a USCIS office. At this interview, your application will be reviewed and you will answer questions. If you’re in the U.S. and don’t speak English, be sure to bring an interpreter. (This can be a friend or relative.)
- If all goes well, you will receive either a visa to enter the U.S. (at which point you become a permanent resident) or a letter of approval (if you’re adjusting status in the U.S.). Your green card will arrive some weeks later.
Help With The Process
As you can see, the process takes a long time just to describe, and even longer to get through. Hiring an attorney can be a wise move. Or, if you’re still uncertain whether you’re eligible and want more information on U.S. immigration matters, see the book, U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray, J.D. (Nolo).