Issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the coveted green card (yes, it is actually green) allows you to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. You must, however, have grounds for eligibility. The most common green-card qualifications come via family, job or status as a refugee or an asylee.

What Qualifies You?

Family Connections – Family eligibility for a green card can be granted to you as a spouse, child, parent, brother, sister or other relative of a U.S. citizen or green-card holder. For specifics on whether you qualify for family member status, see the Green Card Through Family page on the USCIS website.  

Having a Job – If someone has offered you permanent employment, if you qualify as an Alien of Extraordinary Ability, or if you were granted a National Interest Waiver, you may be eligible for a green card. If you are an investor or an entrepreneur with a company that will create jobs in the U.S., you may also qualify. For more information on eligibility based on employment or investment, check the Green Card Through a Job page

Being a Refugee or an Asylee – Refugees are legally required to apply for permanent resident (green card) status one year after being admitted to the U.S. Asylees are not required to apply one year after asylum was granted, but it may be in your best interest to do so. For more, check the Green Card Through Refugee or Asylee Status page.  

Belonging to a Specialized Category – There are also a number of specialized eligibility categories, information about which can be obtained here

The Green-Card Lottery

If you don’t fit into a previously mentioned category, you can consider the green-card lottery, which is legally known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa program (DV). The DV program issues 50,000 immigrant visas annually, mostly to people residing outside the United States. Only a few lottery winners each year actually live in the U.S., under nonimmigrant or some other legal status.

The sign-up period is limited and registration dates are published here. To sign up you must be a native of an eligible country and meet either an education or work-experience requirement. The U.S. State Department video tutorial on the green-card lottery can be viewed here

How to Apply for a Green Card

There are two avenues of application for your green card. If you are already in the United States, you use a procedure known as Adjustment of Status. If you apply from another country (or if you live in the U.S. but don’t qualify for Adjustment of Status), you use Consular Processing, which takes place at a U.S. Department of State consulate abroad.    

Adjustment of Status

The steps involved with Adjustment of Status include:

  • Filing an Immigrant Petition – Family categories require a Form I-130 to be filed by the sponsoring family member. Employment-based categories usually require your employer to file a Form I-140. If you are an investor or an entrepreneur, you can file Form I-526 on your own behalf. Form I-360 is for special classes of immigrants, such as Amerasian, widow(er) or Special Immigrant class. Humanitarian programs do not usually require a petition.
  • Checking Visa Availability – Once your petition is filed, you must wait until a visa is available in your category. The Visa Availability & Priority Dates page on the USCIS website provides additional information.      
  • Filing Form I-485 – File Form I-485 as soon as a visa is available. Some categories require a different form, but most call for I-485. Be sure to submit all required documentation and evidence. If you fail to do so, your application could be delayed or denied. In some cases you can file Form I-485 at the same time that you file your petition. This is called “concurrent filing.” Most eligibility categories, however, require the petition be filed before Form I-485 is submitted.
  • Going to an Application Support Center – You will be notified when you must appear at an Application Support Center for biometrics collection – your picture, signature and fingerprints. This information will be used to create your green card.
  • Submitting to an Interview – If a USCIS interview is necessary in your case, you will be notified of the date, time and location, and you will answer questions under oath. The relative who filed your Form I-130 petition (if applicable) will likely be required to attend with you. Be sure to bring all original documents submitted on your behalf.
  • Getting Your Green Card – You will be notified in writing about your final status. Either you will be granted permanent residency and receive your green card, or your application will be denied. Additional information, including how to check your status and what to do if your application is denied, can be found on the Adjustment of Status page on the USCIS website.

Consular Processing

If your category requires Consular Processing, which takes place outside the United States, the course of action, which is similar to that for Adjustment of Status, is as follows:

  • Filing an Immigrant Petition – The procedure here is nearly identical to the one followed for Adjustment of Status. Family-based categories require Form I-130. Employment-based categories typically require Form I-140. If you are an entrepreneur or an investor, file Form I-526. Form I-360, if applicable, can be filed by you or on your behalf. Although most humanitarian programs do not require a petition, in certain cases you may need to meet additional requirements if you fall into this category. More information is available on the Humanitarian page.
  • Waiting for a Decision on Your Petition  USCIS will notify the petitioner of its decision. If the petition is denied, your rights to appeal will be explained. If the petition is approved, USCIS will send it to the Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC), pending availability of an immigrant visa number. As before, you can check the Visa Availability & Priority Dates page for more information.
  • Waiting for Notification From the National Visa Center  NVC will notify you and your petitioner when the petition is received and when a visa number is available. You will also be told when to submit immigrant-visa processing fees and when any supporting documents must be provided.
  • Submitting to an Interview – Once a visa is available, the consular office will schedule an interview with you. At that time the consular office will determine if you are eligible for an immigrant visa. You should contact NVC if your personal situation or address changes.
  • Getting Your Visa Packet  If you are granted an immigrant visa, the consular officer will give you a Visa Packet. Do not open this packet. When you arrive in the United States, give the unopened Visa Packet to customs. Following inspection, you will be admitted as a permanent resident of the United States.
  • Getting Your Green Card – Your green card will be mailed to you. If you don’t receive it within 45 days, call the USCIS at 1-800-375-5283 or make an InfoPass appointment with your local USCIS office.

The Bottom Line

The process to obtain a green card may seem daunting. Take your time, read everything thoroughly and make sure you submit all required documents as requested. Many people have already gone where you want to go. They traveled the same road for many of the same reasons. In the end they received what you are seeking – the permanent right to live and work in the United States. (See also: Steps to Replace or Renew Your Green Card.)