Obtaining a Green Card is a crucial first step to gaining legal permanent residency in the United States.  While a Green Card does not grant you full citizenship, with permanent residency you gain certain rights and privileges, including: the right to work in the U.S., the right to apply for a Social Security Card, and receive a state issued driver’s license.

The application steps may vary according to your specific situation. Additionally, there are certain factors that may determine whether you are eligible to apply for a Green Card and there are important conditions to keep in mind after you have been issued a Green Card in order to maintain your lawful permanent resident status.

Eligibility For Applying For The Green Card

Typically, the application process requires either a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident to file a petition for immigration (or a petition for sponsorship) on your behalf. As an immigrant, you may be eligible to apply  for a Green Card if you fall in any of the following three general categories.

  • Family-Based Green Card: You may be eligible to apply as an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, which means you are the spouse or unmarried minor of an U.S. citizen or you are the parent of an U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old.  
    • You also may be eligible as a relative of an U.S. citizen or relative of a lawful permanent relative. This includes a family-based preference category, which means family members are categorized and prioritized.

Under this category, you also may be eligible to apply if you are the fiancé(e) of a U.S. citizen, a widow or widower of a U.S. citizen, or are a VAWA self-petitioner.

  • Employment-Based Green Card: Your employer may apply on your behalf based on your  status as a skilled alien worker or entrepreneur.
  • Special Individuals or Circumstances: Examples of these include:
    1. Religious worker, special immigrant juvenile, certain Afghan or Iraqi national, certain international broadcasters or certain international organization family member or employee;
    2. Asylee or Refugee;
    3. Human Trafficking Victim or Crime Victim;
    4. Individuals subject to Special Programs allowing permanent residence;
    5. Continuous residency in the U.S. since January 1972;
    6. Individuals born in the U.S. under diplomatic status; and
    7. Diversity Visa Program (DVP).  The DVP—otherwise known as the Green Card Lottery—gives foreign nationals of specific countries with low immigration to the US. These foreign nationals get the opportunity to participate in a lottery to receive one of up to 50,000 immigrant visas awarded annually.

If you are an immigrant who is a special individual or has a special circumstance as outlined above, you may be permitted to apply for the Green Card directly. The steps there are generally more complex and difficult than the standard family-based or employment-based application.

What Can Make You Ineligible to Apply For The Green Card?

There are numerous reasons that may disqualify you for applying for the Green Card even if you meet one of the eligibility requirements above. While not exhaustive, here is a list of things that may generally disqualify you or complicate your application for the Green Card:

  • You have been convicted of a criminal offense or have engaged in criminal activity;
  • You have worked in the U.S. illegally;
  • You are no longer legally in the country; and/or
  • You previously have been deported.

What are the Important Steps in the Application Process for a Green Card?

Your eligibility requirements above will determine how you may apply for the Green Card, but it usually involves a two-step process. You first file an immigration petition, and, depending on the result of that filing, then you file a Green Card application, known as Form I-485—Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.  A refugee or asylee will first need to be designated that status before filing the application.

The application requires supporting documentation and an application fee. If the USCIS approves your immigrant petition, and there is a visa available in your category, then you may apply for a Green Card application.

You will schedule a biometric appointment to provide fingerprints, photos, and a signature and you will receive an in-person interview. Thereafter, you will receive a decision on your application.

What Should I Keep in Mind after Receiving the Green Card?

If your Green Card is issued with an expiration date (typically 10 years) it is important that you renew your Green Card before it expires to maintain your legal permanent residency status.

Or, in the case where you have been granted conditional status (i.e. as the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder), you must apply to remove the 2-year condition on your permanent resident status. You are required to carry your Green Card with you at all times.
You can have your Green Card revoked and lose your lawful permanent residency status. It is important that you avoid civil and criminal violations and do not leave the country for extended periods. 

Do I Need to Hire an Attorney To Help With The Application For A Green Card?

The Green Card application process can be fairly straightforward if you can clearly establish that you meet the criteria for eligibility. However, if you believe you may not qualify or have other issues/concerns, then they may be best handled by an experienced immigration lawyer near you.