What Is a Green Card and How Do I Apply for One?

In a Nutshell

A U.S. green card will let you live and work lawfully in the United States as a permanent resident. Lawful permanent resident status is not the same as citizenship. Still, it comes with immigration benefits like work authorization. There are various types of green cards. This article explains what a green card is, the different types of green cards available, who can apply for them, and the green card application process step-by-step.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Written May 12, 2021

What Is a Green Card?

A green card is also sometimes called a permanent resident card. It is the document you receive when you become a lawful permanent resident of the United States. Permanent residence is a type of immigrant visa that allows foreign nationals to live and work lawfully in the United States. Green card holders can also become U.S. citizens after three or five years of permanent residence status. United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is responsible for approving green card applications.

There are many ways to become a U.S. permanent resident, and there are several different green card types. There are family-based green cards, including marriage-based green cards for both same-sex and heterosexual couples. There are also humanitarian green cards, employment-based green cards, and other special categories of green cards. 

What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and Citizenship?

Having a green card does not make you an American citizen. A green card is proof that USCIS has granted you permanent residence in the United States. While in permanent resident status, you can live and work lawfully in the United States but don’t have permission to vote in U.S. national elections. On the other hand, a U.S. citizen can live, work, and vote in all state and national elections. Green card holders can become U.S. citizens through the process of naturalization once they have been permanent residents for three or five years.

What Are Family-Based Green Cards?

Family-based green cards allow immediate relatives of U.S. green card holders and U.S. citizens to live and work in the United States. “Immediate relatives” are close family members, namely spouses, parents, unmarried children, and siblings. Widows and widowers of U.S. citizens can also apply for this kind of green card.

There is not a different process for marriage-based green cards for same-sex couples under U.S. immigration law. As long as you can prove that you have a real and legal relationship with your U.S. citizen or green card-holding spouse, you can apply for the green card.

What Are Humanitarian Green Cards?

The U.S. government also gives some green cards to foreign nationals based on humanitarian reasons. People seeking refugee and asylum status, abuse and crime victims, and human trafficking victims can apply for this type of green card.

In general, the application process for humanitarian green cards is not simple. It would be best if you got an experienced immigration attorney’s guidance with it. The USA.gov website has free and low-cost legal services that you can access.

Humanitarian Green Cards for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

People who enter the United States as refugees and asylum seekers can apply for a green card to allow them to live and work lawfully in the United States. 

By definition, refugees send their applications from abroad to seek protection in the United States from the violence and persecution in their home country. Asylees, however, are those who fled to the United States before officially applying for protection. 

Refugees and asylees can apply for a green card once they have been physically present in the United States for at least one year. Children and spouses of asylees may also get asylum status and eventually, a green card.

Humanitarian Green Cards for Abuse Victims

Through the Violence Against Women Actp.org/learning-center/vawa (VAWA), you can apply for a green card without your abusive relative knowing. The abusive relative could be a violent spouse, parent, or child who is a green card holder or U.S. citizen. USCIS processes VAWA green card cases without letting the abusive relative know.

VAWA applies broadly to any applicant in an abusive situation. This means that not only women, but also LGBT-inclusive and transgender persons, men, children, and parents can apply for a green card under VAWA.

If you, or someone you know, are a victim of abuse, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You will get guidance on action plans and legal assistance. You can call the hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or, if you have a hearing disability, at 1-800-787-3224 (TTY).

Humanitarian Green Cards for Crime Victims

Victims of serious crimes involving major physical and mental abuse can apply for a U visa first, and then a green card. The U visa is a special nonimmigrant visa for documented and undocumented foreign nationals, to seek protection against violent crimes like sexual assault, kidnapping, and torture. 

Law enforcement officials must vouch for your eligibility for the U visa. You also have to agree to help law enforcement investigate and prosecute the crimes you’re seeking protection from.

A person with U visa status can apply for a green card if they pass other eligibility requirements like:

  • Must have lived in the United States for at least three years before applying for the green card.

  • Must not have left the United States between the time they submitted their green card application and when USCIS gave them a decision on their application.

  • Must agree to assist U.S. police with crime investigations between the time USCIS granted their U visa and the time USCIS decided on their green card application.

If you think you qualify for the U visa or if you have a U visa and want to get a green card, talk to an immigration lawyer for assistance with the process. 

Humanitarian Green Cards for Human-Trafficking Victims

Similarly, if you’re a victim of human trafficking in the United States, you can apply for a T visa. The T visa is a special immigrant visa that allows victims of human trafficking to live in the United States for up to 4 years. You can only apply for the T visa if you agree to assist law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting human trafficking crimes. However, if you’re under 18 years old, you don’t have to assist law enforcement in this way.

To qualify for a green card, a T visa holder must meet one of these physical presence conditions:

  • Physically present in the U.S. for three years since receiving the T visa.

  • Physically present in the U.S. for the entire duration of the human trafficking investigation or prosecution that they were the victim of.

They must also meet additional eligibility criteria, including but not limited to, the following:

  • Must not have been involved in criminal activity while in T visa status.

  • Must remain in T visa status at the time they apply for a green card.

  • Must demonstrate that they would experience extreme hardship if the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) asks them to leave to their home country.

You can read the complete list of eligibility requirements on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.

What Are Employment-Based Green Cards?

It is also possible to get a green card through your U.S. employer. This category of green cards allows foreign nationals of “exceptional ability” to live in the United States and contribute to the U.S. workforce and economy. To apply for an employment-based green card, your U.S. employer will have to be the petitioner, except in very few cases.

There are several types of the employment-based green card. The table below lists the subcategories with examples of the kinds of jobs that usually fall under them. You can also learn more about the employment-based green card sub-categories on the USCIS website.

SubcategoryExamples of Qualifying jobs
EB-1: Priority Workers Multinational managers and executives, exceptional professors and researchers, positions that require exceptional ability
EB-2: Professionals with advanced degrees and extraordinary ability & Physicians with a Physician National Interest Waiver Positions that require at least a master's degree, positions that require at least a bachelor's degree and five years of work experience, positions that are in the U.S. national interest (e.g., foreign physicians serving in an underserved part of the U.S.)
EB-3: Skilled, unskilled, and professional workersProfessional positions that require at least a U.S. bachelor's degree or its equivalent, unskilled positions that require less than two years of training, skilled positions that require experience that's not seasonal or temporary
EB-4: Special workersReligious workers and ministers, media professionals, Iraqi and Afghanistan nationals who've served in the U.S. government in a specific capacity
EB-5: InvestorForeign nationals investing at least $1 million in an area that will create at least 10 new full-time jobs for workers in the U.S.

What Are Diversity Lottery Green Cards?

The diversity visa lottery (green card lottery) is another way for foreign nationals to become U.S. permanent residents. Every year, the U.S. Department of State publishes a list of countries whose citizens can participate in the lottery for a diversity immigrant visa. These countries have a low number of immigrants to the United States and only people from countries that are on the list can apply for the lottery. The lottery selects 50,000 people.

If your home country makes it to the list, you can try your luck and submit an entry for the green card lottery. No country gets more than 7% of the total green cards available in the lottery.

What Are Longtime Resident Green Cards?

Foreign nationals who have lived in the U.S. either lawfully or unlawfully since January 1, 1972, can apply for a green card. The U.S. immigration law calls foreigners who fall into this category “longtime residents,” and they can apply for a green card through a process called “registry.”

As a longtime resident, you can apply for a green card if you meet these additional eligibility requirements:

  • You came into the U.S. before January 1, 1972, and you haven’t left.

  • You have maintained “good moral character” by not engaging in serious criminal activity like murder.

  • You have not committed crimes that qualify you for deportation under the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), for example, human and drug smuggling and marriage fraud.

  • You have not committed crimes that disqualify you from becoming a U.S. citizen through naturalization.

What Other Kinds of Green Cards Are There?

Besides the main green card categories discussed in this article, there are still many other kinds of green cards that you can apply for. Some groups called “special immigrants” under U.S. immigration law can apply for permanent residence. Examples include Cuban citizens, employees of specific international organizations, American Indians born in Canada, religious workers, and Iraq and Afghanistan citizens who have served the U.S. government in specific ways.

What Is the Green Card Application Process?

Depending on the eligibility category you are filing under, your green card application process will differ from the next person’s. The processing time for a green card application depends on the USCIS service center or agency handling the application and the specific green card type. It may prolong during the coronavirus (covid) pandemic. Still, most green card applications follow these general process steps: 

Step 1: Sponsor Submits Petition

The first step is usually for the green card sponsor to submit a petition on behalf of the beneficiary (green card applicant). This is typically the case for family-based and employment-based green card petitions. You need to prove that they have a familial relationship or employment relationship with a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or employer that makes them eligible for the green card.

Step 2: Beneficiary Submits Application

After USCIS receives and approves the green card sponsor’s petition, the green card applicant can now submit their green card application. You will either submit an adjustment of status (if applying from inside the U.S.) or a consular application (if applying from outside the U.S.). If the U.S. government has a yearly quota of the green card type you’re applying for, you may have to wait to receive a visa number before submitting a green card application. The visa bulletin on the State Department’s website contains information about the current number of visas available. 

You’ll also have to submit required supporting documents like tax returns, birth certificates, and others with your green card application forms. All of this information is on the USCIS website.

Step 3: Biometrics Appointment

After submitting the green card application, USCIS or your local U.S. embassy will schedule a biometrics appointment for you where they’ll collect your fingerprints, photograph, and signature. The U.S. government runs your biometric information through the FBI’s database to check that you do not have criminal activity on your record. Crimes may disqualify you from getting a green card.

Step 4: Green Card Interview

The green card interview is one of the most critical parts of the green card process. The green card interview will either happen at a USCIS office. or a local U.S. embassy or consulate if you’re applying from outside the United States.

Step 5: Receive Decision on Green Card Application

The U.S. government will either approve or deny your green card application. You will often receive this decision at the green card interview or shortly after the interview. You can check your application case status on USCIS’s website.