When you have a green card, you become a lawful permanent resident (LPR)—an immigration status that, as it implies, allows you to live permanently in the United States. However, the process of obtaining a green card is often misunderstood.
You’re only eligible for a green card if you fit into a handful of specific categories. Most green cards are either family-based or employment-based, although they can be available to other individuals as well, such as certain refugees.
For each category, getting a green card starts with filing for an immigrant visa from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The specific forms you must complete and the exact process differ depending on the type of green card you’re applying for.
This guide on how to get a green card provides an overview of what you should know if you’re a prospective immigrant curious about your options. We discuss the different categories, filing processes required by the U.S. government, costs and getting your green card.
Green card eligibility categories
Getting a green card starts with proving your eligibility. You may be eligible to receive a green card if you fit within one of the established categories discussed below.
If you have a family member who’s a U.S. citizen or LPR, they can sometimes petition to get a green card for you. The person who petitions is known as the petitioner, and the person who doesn’t yet have a green card is the beneficiary.
The government currently issues up to 226,000 family-preference green cards each year. Family-based green card petitions fit into two broad categories:
- Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens
- Other relatives of U.S. citizens or relatives of LPRs
For green card purposes, an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen is the citizen’s:
- Unmarried child under age 21
- Parent of a citizen at least age 21
If you’re the widow or widower of a U.S. citizen, you can apply for a green card as an immediate relative if you file within two years of their death.
Immediate relatives are given the highest processing preference. They aren’t subject to any caps limiting the number of green cards issued in a given year, and the processing time tends to be faster than with other green card categories.
Other relatives of U.S. citizens or relatives of LPRs who may be eligible for a green card are divided into four preference categories based on who the sponsor and beneficiary are.
One of the family-based categories is subdivided, so there are effectively five categories:
- First preference (F1): Unmarried children over age 21 of U.S. citizens
- Second preference A (F2A): Spouses and unmarried children under age 21 of LPRs
- Second preference B (F2B): Unmarried children age 21 or older of LPRs
- Third preference (F3): Married children of U.S. citizens
- Fourth preference (F4): Siblings of U.S. citizens who are at least age 21
Green card processing times tend to be shorter for the first and second preference categories than for other preference categories.
The government issues up to 140,000 employment-based green cards each year. Like family-based immigrant visas, employment-based immigrant visas are divided into five preference categories:
- First preference (EB-1): Persons of extraordinary ability
- Second preference (EB-2): Persons of exceptional ability or holding advanced degrees
- Third preference (EB-3): Skilled workers, professionals and other workers
- Fourth preference (EB-4): “Special immigrants”
- Fifth preference (EB-5): Investors
First preference (EB-1)
Also referred to as a visa for “priority workers,” the EB-1 visa includes:
- People who have “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics”
- Outstanding professors or researchers
- Some multinational executives
People who qualify for the EB-1 visa are often celebrities or otherwise well-known.
Second preference (EB-2)
The second preference category is split between those having advanced degrees and those with exceptional ability. In either case, you must usually have a job offer that uses your degree or exceptional abilities.
Third preference (EB-3)
As the final traditional employment-based visa category, the EB-3 visa is available to:
- Skilled workers
- Other workers (unskilled workers)
All three categories require a job offer from a U.S. employer and proof that the employer can’t find qualified U.S. workers to fill the position.
Fourth preference (EB-4)
EB-4 visas are awarded to “special immigrants”, including:
- Religious workers traveling to the U.S. to work for a nonprofit religious organization
- Special immigrant juveniles (SIJ)
- Afghan or Iraqi nationals who translated or worked for the U.S. government
- International broadcasters traveling to the U.S. to work for the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) or a USAGM grantee
- Retirees of certain international organizations or NATO and their spouses and children
- Members of the U.S. armed forces
- Certain criminal informants
Some EB-4 applicants require sponsorship, while others can file for themselves.
Note that SIJ visas are employment visas that have nothing to do with employment. The government awards SIJ visas to minors living in the U.S. who’ve been abandoned, abused or neglected by one or both parents. A court must find that it’s in the minor’s best interests to continue living in the U.S.
Fifth preference (EB-5)
The final employment-based category is the investor visa. To qualify, you must have invested or be investing at least $1,050,000 in a business that will benefit the U.S. and create and maintain at least 10 full-time jobs. Investing $800,000 in a targeted area or an infrastructure project may also qualify.
Some people qualify for green cards based on humanitarian reasons, including:
- Asylum seekers (“asylees”)
- Criminal informants (S-visa)
- Victims of human trafficking (T-visa)
- Certain crime victims (U-visa)
Additionally, the U.S. offers up to 55,000 green cards yearly through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program. Also referred to as the green card lottery, this program allows people who live in countries with historically low immigration rates to submit an entry. If selected, they become eligible for a green card.
Various provisions of U.S. law also provide pathways to green cards for:
- Physicians who agree to work in underserved areas
- Liberian refugees who’ve been physically present in the U.S. since November 20, 2014
- Cuban nationals and their spouses and children
- Spouses and children of beneficiaries of the Haitian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act
- Lautenberg parolees
- Vietnamese, Cambodian or Laotian nationals paroled into the U.S. on or before October 1, 1997
- People born in Canada with at least 50% Native American blood who live in the U.S.
- Children born to foreign diplomats while the diplomats were stationed in the U.S.
- Foreign diplomats who are unable to return home
- People who have lived in the U.S. continuously since before January 1, 1972
How to file for a green card
If you believe you’re eligible for a green card, you usually begin by asking USCIS to declare that you fit into a specific category. Once you have that declaration, you ask USCIS to issue your green card.
The family-based filing process
Almost every family-based green card begins with a U.S. citizen or LPR petitioning for their relative. To petition for your relative means you’re sponsoring them for a green card.
The petitioner starts by filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative with USCIS. Form I-130 asks the petitioner to prove they have a qualifying relationship with the person they’re sponsoring. In particular, it requests information about both the petitioner and the beneficiary, including:
- The petitioner’s work history
- Where each person has lived in the last five years
- Details about each person’s family
- Information about the beneficiary’s time spent in the U.S., if any
If the beneficiary is in the U.S., the beneficiary may also file a Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. This form asks the U.S. government to “adjust” the beneficiary’s immigration status to that of an LPR. The I-130 must be processed before the I-485, but you may often file them at the same time.
If the beneficiary isn’t in the U.S., after USCIS approves the I-130, the beneficiary applies for their green card through consular processing. Rather than going through USCIS, they provide documents to a U.S. consulate abroad, who then decides whether to approve or deny the request for a green card.
There are two significant exceptions to the rule that the sponsoring U.S. citizen or LPR must file the petition: widows and widowers and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) petitioners. Both can petition on their own behalf by using Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) or Special Immigrant.
A person may file a VAWA petition if they can prove they have a qualifying relationship with a U.S. citizen or LPR who has subjected the VAWA self-petitioner to battery or extreme cruelty. The VAWA petitioner’s relative doesn’t have to approve of or know about the petition.
The employment-based filing process
Some employment-based categories require pre-approval from the Department of Labor, some require an employer to file and some may be filed by the beneficiary alone.
Before filing, an employer must request labor certification from the Department of Labor for all EB-3 and most EB-2 visas. The department must certify that there are no qualified U.S. workers to fill the position the employer is offering.
Those requesting EB-1, some EB-2, EB-4 or EB-5 visas can skip the labor certification step.
The next step is to file a petition requesting a green card. Who files and what form they file depends on the category of green card requested.
An employer usually files for:
- EB-1 visas for outstanding professors or researchers and multinational executives
- EB-2 visas
- EB-3 visas
- EB-4 visas requiring employers
A beneficiary may file their own request for:
- EB-1 visas for people with extraordinary ability
- EB-2 visas with a granted National Interest Waiver
- EB-4 visas not requiring employers
- EB-5 visas
Different categories require different forms:
- EB-1, EB-2 and EB3: Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Workers
- EB-4: Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) or Special Immigrant
- EB-5: Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Standalone Investor
These forms ask for basic information about the beneficiary and sponsor. Sponsors also need to provide details about the work the beneficiary will do, while investors must detail how they have or will invest their money.
Costs of filing
USCIS publishes the filing fees for each form you must file. Currently, those amounts are:
- I-130: $535
- I-140: $700
- I-360: $435 (unless fee exempt)
- I-485: $1,140 plus an $85 biometrics fee for beneficiaries 14 to 78 years of age
- I-526: $3,675
Applying for most humanitarian statuses is free, including submitting an I-360 as a VAWA petitioner, SIJ or Iraqi or Afghan national.
If you can’t afford to pay for an I-485, you can request a fee waiver.
In addition, you may be required to pay consular processing fees if you obtain your green card outside the U.S. Currently, these fees are:
- $325 application fee
- $345 for employment-based petitions
- $205 for petitions based on approved I-360s (except Afghan and Iraqi nationals)
- $330 for petitions based on diversity visas
Getting your green card
The day you submit your green card application becomes your “priority date”. The government regularly publishes a Visa Bulletin that reports what applications it’s currently processing based on priority dates. Some green card categories are severely backlogged, resulting in waits of up to 25 years for a case to be processed for some Mexican applicants.
When the government starts processing your application, they call you in for an interview, either at a USCIS office in the U.S. or a U.S. Consulate abroad. The interviewer usually asks about your employment history, relevant family relationships, immigration history and any details in your file (such as criminal history) that raise questions about how you may behave in the U.S.
At the end of the interview or not long after, the interviewer determines whether you qualify for permanent residence. If they conclude you’re eligible, the government will issue your green card.
If you adjust your status while living in the U.S., USCIS will send you a welcome notice and your green card by mail. You should receive your welcome notice within 30 days of your approval and your green card within 30 days of your welcome notice.
If you obtained your green card through consular processing, the consulate will issue you a temporary green card. You should receive your permanent green card by mail within 90 days of entering the U.S.
Resources to help
Immigration law has earned its reputation as one of the most complicated areas of the law. Even knowing what to file can be tough in the face of so many visa types and filing forms. Thankfully, USCIS provides many resources to assist with the process.
If you’re still struggling to figure out how to get a green card, speaking with an immigration lawyer may help. They can assist with things like:
- Locating and preparing documents
- Submitting forms
- Filing for labor certification
- Responding to questions from USCIS or U.S. consulates
- Explaining to the government why you qualify for specific legal protections like asylum
- Prepping you for your interview
- Staying on top of deadlines