How to Get a Green Card by Brette Sember, J.D.

How to Get a Green Card

Obtaining a green card is a dream for many immigrants. The process is complex and can be time-consuming. Find out how to qualify and how to apply.

by Brette Sember, J.D.
updated September 09, 2015 · 4 min read

A green card allows a non-U.S. citizen to become a lawful permanent resident in the United States who can live and work here. It is also a step on the path to citizenship. However, actually getting a green card can be challenging.

Green Card Procedure

There are many ways to get a green card depending on your eligibility type, which are discussed later in this article. The green card process requires several steps. To get the process started you or the person sponsoring you files a petition with the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship (BCIS). You may also need to have a medical exam and file other paperwork, depending on your eligibility type. Once all the paperwork is submitted you may have an interview with the Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship.

How long does it take to get a green card? Different categories of applicants have vastly different wait times (weeks to many years, depending on the priority of the category).

Family Eligibility

If you have a family member that is a U.S. citizen, you may be eligible to apply for a U.S. green card. If you are married to a citizen, if you are under 21 and unmarried and have a parent that is a citizen, or if you have a child older than 21 who is a citizen, your relative can file a green card application on your behalf (this is called Petition for Alien Relative, form I-130).

This is considered an immediate family application and has highest priority (a wait time of a few weeks). If you are already in the country you then must go through the Adjustment of Status procedure to become a green card holder. If you are not already in the country, you would apply for a visa through the U.S. Department of State to enter the country. It is also possible for a relative who is a permanent resident to apply for you as well, but the process will take longer.

You may apply for a green card if you are the spouse of a citizen or permanent resident, if you are a married adult child of a citizen or if you are an unmarried adult child of a permanent resident or citizen. Siblings of U.S. citizens may also apply. Wait times for applicants in these situations are much longer (several years).

There are special family circumstances that also allow you to apply for a USA green card, such as if you are the widow or widower of a U.S. citizen or you are the child of a foreign diplomat.

Work Eligibility

The highest priority for a green card based on employment goes to workers with highly specialized skills that are unusual, such as people who have won highly distinguished international awards, professors, respected international executives, and specialized scientific researchers. Certain highly sought after job categories (such as translators in languages like Afghani) create priority to apply for a green card based on employment or skills (form I-360 is used in this special instance).

If you don’t fall into one of these unusual situations you may wonder how to get a green card through your job. If you have been offered a permanent job in the U.S. you can apply. You need to file a labor certification from your employer along with form I-140, called Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. If you are an entrepreneur who has invested $500,000 or more to create at least 10 U.S. citizen jobs you can apply using Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur (form I-526). Entrepreneurs have the lowest priority in the application process based on employment and it may take many years to be approved.

Refugee or Asylum Eligibility

It is possible to get a green card if you are in the U.S. as a refugee or through asylum. If you are granted asylum in the U.S., you are eligible to begin the green card application process one year after that status is granted. It’s not required that you apply, but it is a good idea since conditions in your home country could change which would affect your asylum status. You need to file form I-485 as well as a medical exam report and vaccination records.

If you are wondering how do I get a green card as a refugee, you need to be admitted to the country as a refugee, and then after one year has passed you are required to apply for a green card. A long list of forms are required to apply as a refugee, which can be found here.

Other Methods

There are several other ways to apply for and obtain a green card. The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (sometimes called the green card lottery) admits 50,000 immigrants each year, randomly chosen from immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S. There are millions of applicants in this category, making it a long shot. You can find information here.

The K-nonimmigrant program allows fiancés (and their minor children) of US citizens to apply. The special immigrant juvenile program permits minors who have been abused or abandoned by their parents to apply for a green card but they can never apply for a green card on the parents’ behalf if it is granted through this program. You can find information here.

Obtaining a green card takes patience and attention to detail, but the end result is usually worth the wait and the red tape.

If you're ready to apply for a green card, LegalZoom can help. LegalZoom can put you in touch with an immigration professional who can discuss your situation, give you an estimate on getting a green card, and can even help you file the paperwork if you proceed.

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Brette Sember, J.D.

About the Author

Brette Sember, J.D.

Brette Sember, J.D. practiced law in New York, including divorce, mediation, family law, adoption, probate and estates, … Read more