A permanent resident of the United States is an individual who has been granted the right to stay in the U.S. permanently. Permanent resident status gives the right both to live in the U.S., as well as work here. Permanent residents are not citizens of the United States, and do not have the privileges accorded citizens, such as the right to vote in U.S. elections.

Acquiring Permanent Resident status is the same thing as obtaining a green card. Foreign nationals can acquire green cards through a number of different routes. The process can be quite lengthy and complex, depending particularly upon the person’s country of origin, whether they have any immediate family members who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, and whether they are employed in the U.S., among other possible factors.

Who Can Apply for a Green Card?

Below are some of the most usual categories of foreign nationals who acquire green cards:

  • Family Sponsorship: Foreign nationals may be sponsored for a green card by a family member, spouse or fiancé who is a U.S. citizen. The categories of relatives which provide the fastest path to acquiring a green card are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens including their spouses, their unmarried children under the age of 21, and their parents (if the sponsoring citizen is at least 21 years of age).
    • Immigration marriage laws allow foreign nationals to apply for green cards after marrying a U.S. citizen. In general, closely related persons take priority over other types of relationships.
    • Spouses, children and parents of citizens, as described above, take first priority. Other relatives, such as married children over 21, and siblings, will take longer to get green cards. Relatives of permanent residents will also have longer waiting periods than relatives of citizens.
  • Employment: Permanent resident status may also be obtained if an individual has certain employment-related skills that are valued in the U.S.
    • For instance, those with special abilities in the arts, sciences, business, education and athletic fields may be granted permanent resident status.
    • Doctors and other individuals with advanced degrees are also more likely to get green cards. There is also a category of immigrant investors who receive preference in the green card process.
  • Special Immigrant: This category includes religious workers, certain juvenile immigrants and international broadcasters, among others.
  • Refugee/Asylum: Those who fit into this category are typically requires to prove that they are fleeing harsh circumstances in their country of origin.
  • Victims of Human Trafficking and Other Victims of Crime: Including abuse, rape, and other crimes that intend to injure or victimize innocent individuals.
  • Miscellaneous: There are a variety of other categories which individuals may fall into that may enable them to apply for green cards. An immigration attorney can discuss these and all of the above categories with you.

What Does the Green Card Application Process Involve?

As described above, green cards are issued based on preferences for certain categories of foreign nationals. There must be a green card available for you to apply for. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can always apply for a green card.

However, for those who do not fall into this category, there are a limited number of green cards that will be issued in a given year. This is why getting a green card can be such a long process (10 years or more) for those who do not fall into the highest preference categories. Visa are also limited per country, so even if you qualify, if your country has reached its max limit of visa applicants then you must wait until the next year to apply.

There are several steps to follow when applying for a green card:

  • Determine Whether You are Eligible: You must fit into one of the categories of people who are permitted to file for green cards.
    • Generally, you must have a sponsor (for example, your immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen, or your employer).
  • Submit an Application: Applicants for permanent resident status must file petitions for their request to be processed.
    • If you are already in the U.S. legally, you may file for adjustment of status. In your country of origin, you may file at the U.S. consulate or embassy in that country. You must also submit any required accompanying documentation.
  • Admissibility: Even for those who meet the category requirement, it may not be possible to obtain permanent resident status because of other factors.
    • For instance, if a person has a criminal record in their country of origin, then they may be deemed ineligible for a green card.
  • Next Steps: Applicants must attend any interviews that are scheduled, and provide any further documentation requested.

Are There Alternatives to Getting a Green Card?

Yes, one of the most common of these is the Green Card Diversity Lottery. Up to 50,000 visas are made available through this program annually. They are meant for immigrants from countries that have low rates of immigration to the U.S. An application form is still required. This program, as the name “lottery” suggests, is not a very likely way to acquire a green card, but it is a possibility.

Should I Consult an Immigration Lawyer for My Issue with My Green Card?

The rules and regulations surrounding the process of applying for a green card are complex. If you have difficulty with the process, an immigration lawyer can assist you in figuring it out. Attorneys who are experienced with this process can help you avoid mistakes and delays.