What is a Green Card?

Perhaps no document is more symbolic of the immigration process than the coveted green card. But for folks who find themselves researching the often confusing world of immigration law for the first time, the simple question might arise: just what is a green card? This page was designed to provide information for those interested in understanding who is eligible for a green card, what is meant by the phrase ‘permanent residence’, green card sponsorship, and some of the steps involved in applying for a green card.

It is important to remember that while immigration law is discussed here, this page is not a substitute for speaking with a immigration law lawyer. The process of obtaining a green card, and immigration law in general, can be daunting and complex. An experienced legal professional will provide the guidance necessary to help the immigrant and his or her family get solid grasp of the subject.

Green Card Basics

Lawful permanent resident

What is a green card? In simple terms, a person issued a green card is granted the status of lawful permanent resident. Since the middle of the last century, this identifying document has been the physical proof of an immigrant’s permission to live and work in the United States. Though its color has changed through the years, it is once again green following a 2010 redesign.

An applicant seeking permanent residence who wishes to obtain a green card is often “sponsored” by a family member or an employer who will file a petition with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on the applicant’s behalf. Green card sponsorship is very important.

What is a Green Card? | OC Immigration Lawyer

Those seeking a green card also file an application to register permanent status (Form I-485). In some cases, this second application can be filed concurrently with the petition, but usually the applicant waits until after filing their petition to be assigned a visa number.

How long is a green card valid?

In some cases an applicant is granted conditional permanent residence, which means their green card is valid for two years. It is the cardholder’s responsibility to file a petition to have the conditions removed during the 90 days before the card expires. If the conditions are not removed, the cardholder loses their permanent resident status.  A non-conditional green card, meanwhile, is valid for 10 years.

Although a green card allows for travel outside of the U.S., if it is determined that the cardholder does not intend to make the U.S. their permanent residence, they could be found to have abandoned their permanent resident status and the card will no longer be valid.

Family Paths to Obtaining a Green Card

Immediate family – Federal immigration law allows U.S. citizens to petition on behalf of qualified foreign relatives who wish to live and work permanently in the country.

What is a green card for immediate family members? Foreign relatives who qualify under this category include: spouses, unmarried children (under the age of 21) or parents of U.S. citizens.

Federal law does not limit the number of green cards issued to immediate family members, and as a result, such family members have special immigration priority. Those in the immediate family category do not wait in line for a visa number to become available before a green card is issued.

Non-immediate Family – What is a green card for non-immediate family members? Immigrants wanting to apply for permanent residence, but who have no immediate U.S. citizen family members, can still be sponsored by non-immediate family. This category is known as “family preference.”

Under family preference, a U.S. citizen can sponsor an immigrant son or daughter (over the age of 21), married children of any age, as well as brothers and sisters (if the U.S. citizen petitioner is over the age of 21).

Because Congress limits the number of relatives permitted to immigrate annually under this category, there can be a waiting period before an immigrant visa number is available.

Special Family Categories– In some cases, applicants can qualify for permanent residence if they belong to certain special categories. These include:

  • A person born to a foreign diplomat in the United States
  • Widow(er) of a U.S. Citizen
  • A fiancé of a nonimmigrant
  • Spouses or children of a permanent resident
  • Battered spouses or children

Employment Paths to Obtaining a Green Card

What is a green card for employers? There are multiple ways an applicant can become a permanent resident through employment. Such circumstances include:

Job Offer – Offers of permanent employment in the U.S. can qualify immigrants for resident status. Typically, an employer will be required to obtain a labor certification as well as file a document known as an Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker (Form I-140) on your behalf.

Investor Visa –  What is a green card for investors? Entrepreneurs who invest at least $1,000,000 in commercial enterprise in the U.S., and who plan to create or preserve 10 permanent, full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers, can apply for a green card. It is important to understand that these full-time jobs cannot apply to immigrant members of the entrepreneur’s family (although spouses and unmarried children under 21 may also be eligible for resident status). For more information visit our Investor Visa EB5 page.

A smaller investment of $500,000 may qualify the foreign entrepreneur for permanent residence if the investment occurs in a targeted area (such as high unemployment or rural area). Congress has allowed up to 10,000 investment visas, or EB5s, to be authorized each fiscal year.

Extraordinary Ability – What is a green card for people of extraordinary ability? In some cases, an applicant can file for resident status on his or her own behalf — an option available to “aliens of extraordinary ability.” This classification applies to immigrants who work at the top of their field, (science, art, education, business or athletics), intend to continue working in that field, and have been recognized for their work. Qualifications include: having authored scholarly articles, receiving national or international awards for excellence, or having work displayed in artistic exhibitions and showcases. For more information visit our Advanced Degree EB2 page.

Special Categories  – Certain employees who have performed work on behalf of the U.S. in foreign countries during certain time frames can be granted permanent residence. Such work includes:

  • Afghan/Iraqi Translator
  • Armed Forces Member
  • Iraqi Who Assisted U.S. Government
  • Afghan Who Assisted U.S. Government
  • Panama Canal Employee
  • Religious Worker

Special immigration requirements vary widely. If you believe you qualify under this category, and would like to know more, an immigration lawyer might be able to help. You can also visit our employment based immigration page for an overview.

Refugee And Asylum Paths to Obtaining a Green Card

What is a green card for a refugee? What about someone seeking asylum? A refugee admitted to the U.S. can apply for permanent residence one year after entry into the country. Those granted asylum can apply for permanent residence one year after being granted asylum status. Do you meet the definition of a refugee? Click the above links to learn more.

The Difference Between Refugees and Asylum Seekers

According to USCIS, refugee status is generally granted to people outside of their own country who are unable or unwilling to return because they fear serious harm. Asylum status may be granted to a refugee, someone who is already in the U.S. or someone who seeks admission at a port of entry to the U.S.

Diversity Immigrants Program

What is a green card lottery? The diversity immigrants program operates as a lottery, which grants permanent residence for up to 50,000 immigrants annually. The winners of this lottery are randomly selected from the pool of applicants hailing from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

How Do I Get A Green Card? Green Card Sponsorship

If you are seeking permanent residence, you must first determine which of the above categories you belong to (family, employment, special category, refugee, etc.). Then, the proper sponsor must file the appropriate petition on your behalf. Green card sponsorship is extremely important. Your sponsors application will determine what is a green card for you.

In family-based situations, a U.S. citizen is required to file a Form I-130 on behalf of the applicant. This is known as a Petition for Alien Relative. Your family member is your green card sponsorship ticket.

In cases of special categories of family, such as widow(er) or fiancée of a non-immigrant, the individual can either apply on their own behalf or a family member can file for them. The specific document filed in a special category case is Form I-360, otherwise known as a Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) and Special Immigrant.

In employment-based cases, the U.S. employer files Form I-140 on the applicant’s behalf. Entrepreneurs planning on investing in a U.S. company file Form I-526, also known as Immigration Petition by Alien Entrepreneur.

In humanitarian cases involving refugees or asylum seekers, an underlying petition usually doesn’t need to be filed. However, certain requirements might still need to be met before permanent resident status is granted. If you feel you or someone you know qualifies, an immigration attorney might be able to help you understand your particular situation better.

Application For Permanent Residence

What is a green card visa? Once the correct category-specific petition is filed, the green card applicant must submit Form I-485, also known as the Application to Register Permanent Status or Adjust Status. In cases involving immediate family, this form can be filed concurrently with the petition. However, most non-immediate family cases require the applicant to first receive approval of their petition and are assigned an immigrant visa, before filing form I-485.

Visa Availability

The availability of immigrant visas depends on a variety of factors. As mentioned earlier, the number of immigrant visas for immediate family is unlimited, and there is no wait.

However, the U.S. Department of State generally limits the number of visas issued under the family-sponsored category (non-immediate) to 226,000, while employment-based visas are limited to 140,000 per year.

When the demand for visas in a given year is higher than availability, a waiting list forms. Priority dates are issued based on a variety of factors. In order to help determine you or your loved one’s priority for an immigration visa, it might be helpful to contact an immigration lawyer.

Approval of Permanent Status (Green Card)

Prior to final approval, USCIS will record your fingerprints, signature and photo. An interview might also be conducted. You will receive notice of final approval through the mail.

What if My Application is Denied?

Your mailed decision will inform you of your right to appeal. If you have the right, you must file your appeal within 30 days of service of the decision. If you are unsure whether or not you have the right appeal in your specific case, contact an immigration attorney.

What is a Green Card? Do I Need An Attorney?

In many cases family members or employers are required to file petitions on behalf of green card applicants, and in some cases, applicants can file on their own behalf. If you’re on this webpage because you searched, “What is a green card?”, you can obviously see that there are many answers to that question.

An attorney can help guide an applicant through the complex immigration process, helping them to avoid mistakes that result in valuable time wasted navigating the bureaucratic maze. To find out if an attorney can help you in your specific immigration case, call this office for a consultation.