Steps to Get a Green Card in the United States

Are you a foreign-born person eligible for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence) through a family member or an employer? Here's a preview of the application process.

By , J.D.

If you are a foreign-born person who has become eligible for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), most likely through a family member or an employer, here's a preview of what's ahead.

Also, a warning: You'll be dealing with huge government bureaucracies, and the process can be slow and frustrating if you just jump in headfirst. Advance planning is key.

Make Sure You're Truly Eligible for U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence

U.S. law contains many categories of green card, though all are strictly defined. The most commonly used categories are based on being either a spouse or family member of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, having a job offer from a U.S. employer who can't find local workers (in most cases for skilled work) or having such highly sought-after skills that no job offer is required, winning the diversity visa lottery, making a large investment in a U.S. business in which one will be actively involved, or fitting into a "special immigrant" category.

For an overview of the basic categories and eligibility rules, see:

Your Next Steps and Considerations When Getting U.S Lawful Permanent Residence

The main steps you'll most likely need to take to apply for U.S. residence include the following:

  1. Decide whether you'll need a lawyer's help. If you can afford it, this is often worthwhile. Immigration law is complex and paperwork-intensive, and professional help can reduce delay and frustration during the lengthy application process.
  2. If applying through a U.S. job, 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 tells the employer how much money is normally paid to people in similar jobs. Next, the employer will need to recruit and attempt to hire a U.S. worker for the position and then, assuming that fails, file a request for labor certification on your behalf. You'll probably be asked to supply information to your employer during this part of the process, but you yourself won't yet submit any applications or sign any forms.
  3. Wait while either your U.S. family member or your employer fills out what's called a "visa petition" for you. (It's Form I-130 for family, Form I-140 for employers). The petition is intended to show U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 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 USCIS to approve the petition. There are limited situations in which a person can file a petition on their own behalf. For example, someone seeking a national interest waiver because their work would greatly benefit the U.S. may self-petition directly with USCIS on Form I-140. Or, the battered spouse of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident can self-petition using Form I-360.
  4. Wait for your priority date to become current. 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; or there's a separate list for diversity visa lottery selectees. Track priority dates on the State Department's Visa Bulletin.
  5. When your priority date is current (or if you're in a category where there's no waiting, such as for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens), you 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" process. Adjustment of status allows applying for a green card without returning to one's home country first, but many people are not eligible for it, particularly if they entered the U.S. without inspection or have worked without authorization. See Getting a Green Card: Consular Processing vs. Adjustment of Status
  6. Expect delays and to spend some time tracking your application through the system. Fortunately, the USCIS website offers a "Case Status Online" feature, which can help track the progress on cases that aren't being handled by a consulate.
  7. Have a medical exam done by a U.S.-government approved physician.
  8. If you're in the U.S., you'll also need to attend a biometrics (fingerprinting) appointment.
  9. Attend a personal interview at either a U.S. consulate in your home country or a USCIS office. Here, a government officer will review your application and ask you questions. If you're in the U.S. and don't speak English, bring an interpreter. (This can be a friend or relative.)
  10. If all goes well, you will receive either a visa with which 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 actual green card should arrive some weeks or months later.

Help With the Immigration Application Process

As you can see, the process of applying for permanent residence takes a long time to summarize, 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).

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