3 Main Ways to Get a Green Card

If you’re an immigrant, a green card is a key to becoming a United States citizen. The formal term for a green card is a Permanent Residence Card. Having a green card allows you to legally live and work in the United States. 

There are three main ways immigrants can get a green card. You can get one through family members, employers, or as a refugee/asylee. This process is a lengthy one, but we’ll go over what you need to know.

Category 1: Green Card Through Family

Category 2: Green Card Through Employer

Category 3: Green Card as a Refugee or Asylee

Determine Your Eligibility Category

Immigration laws in the United States were written to provide immigrants with various methods for getting a green card. Your eligibility category will determine which path to a green card you should take. 

green card road sign
A green card road sign. If you are unsure which path to take to permanent residency in the U.S., learn about the three most common ways to get a green card.

Category 1: Green Card Through Family

If you’re a close relative to a U.S. citizen or a green card holder, they can petition for you to obtain legal permanent residency. This option is the fastest and most popular path to getting a green card. U.S. citizens are permitted to petition for immediate relatives, including:

  • Spouses
  • Unmarried children under 21 years of age 
  • Parents of U.S. citizens who are over 21 years old

In addition to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens above, there are the following preference categories for relatives of U.S. citizens and green card holders:

  • First Preference: Unmarried, adult sons and daughters over age 21 of U.S. citizens. 
  • Second Preference (2A): Spouses of green card holders, unmarried children under 21 of permanent residents
  • Second Preference (2B): Unmarried sons and daughters over 21 of permanent residents
  • Third Preference: Married sons and daughters (any age) of U.S. citizens
  • Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens

Your relative must legally establish the relationship using USCIS Form I-130 Petition for an Alien Relative. That application is followed by Form I-485, Adjustment of Status (if you are in the U.S.). In some instances, both applications can be completed together. If your relative is a green card holder, this process is the same as for U.S. citizens, but it will likely take longer.

Relatives who are not in the United States will have to go through consular processing. This means their green cards are issued by the U.S. Department of State. Once the Department of State grants them a visa, they will get a green card when they’re admitted into the United States.

U.S. citizens can also petition for siblings and married children over 21. However, that process generally takes a lot longer because these individuals are not considered immediate relatives.

If you get married or turn 21 years old, things change, and immigration law states you will have to wait longer in order to get a green card through a U.S. citizen relative.

There are also a few particular circumstances where you can get a green card using USCIS Form I-360: Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er) of a U.S. citizen, or Special Immigrant. These include being a:

  • Battered spouse or child
  • Widow or widower of a U.S. citizen
  • A special immigrant including religious worker, U.S. Armed Forces member, and more categories

Category 2: Green Card Through a Job

This green card category is somewhat broad because it doesn’t only deal with your employer. It also includes green card opportunities through investments or having a specialized job.

Permanent Employment

Your employer can be part of your petition for a green card if you’ve received a job offer for permanent employment in the United States. The first step is for your employer to get a labor certification with the U.S. Department of State and fill out USCIS Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for an Alien Worker.

Permanent employment contracts are generally only granted to highly skilled workers.


Investors can get green cards if they put enough money into U.S. businesses. 

Foreign nationals who invest at least $1,000,000 into a new business or $500,000 into a business in one of the targeted employment areas can then apply for their green card. (A regulation that raised the investment amounts to $1,800,000 and $900,000 respectively was vacated by a court recently.)

The business must create at least 10 permanent jobs within the United States. The form to fill out would be Form I-526 Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur.

Extraordinary Abilities

An extremely rare path to obtaining a green card is by having extraordinary abilities. This green card is known as an EB-1A visa. These applicants are considered the best in their field. Nobel Prize winners and Olympic athletes are two of the most likely groups to attain a green card in this manner.

Category 3: Being a Refugee or an Asylee

Immigrants who arrive in the United States as a refugee or an asylee can apply for a green card one year after entering the country. This also applies to immediate family members of asylees. Here’s what refugees and asylum seekers need to know:

  • Refugees must submit an application for a green card after being in the country for a year.
  • Asylees are not required to apply for green cards.
  • Refugees or Asylees typically do not need to file an immigrant petition such as an I-130 or I-140 with the USCIS if they meet the requirements to apply for a green card. They can file for I-485 adjustment of status directly.

Filing the Immigration Petition

Once you’ve determined which category you fit into, you’ll have to file the correct petition before you apply for a green card:

  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and green card holders must complete Form I-130, Petition for an Alien Relative.
  • If you’re applying through your employer, they must file Form I-140 Immigrant Petition for an Alien Worker.
  • If you’re investing your way to a green card, you must file Form I-526 Immigrant Petition by an Alien Entrepreneur.
  • If you’re in the particular immigrant category that includes a widow(er), you will complete Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant.

Refugees and asylees typically do not need to file an immigrant petition if they meet the requirements to adjust status and get a green card.

Checking Visa Availability

Once the correct petition has been filed, you can move along in the process. One of the following steps is to ensure there are visas available for you. A visa allows you to legally enter the United States and is a prerequisite for applying for a green card.

The number of visas available varies by each immigrant category and by what country you are coming from:

  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens do not have to wait long for a visa because there is an unlimited number of visas for this category.
  • There are a limited number of visas for relatives not considered immediate or for those applying through employment. You will be sent a “priority date” and put on a waiting list until your visa is available.
  • Immigrants on this waitlist can check their place in line using the “Visa Bulletin” issued by the State Department each month.

Filing Form I-485 Application to Adjust Status

In most cases, the application for a green card for people who live in the U.S. is Form I-485. However, there are a few immigrants—such as those in the battered spouse or child category—that require a different form to adjust their status. 

It’s essential to complete this application correctly without any mistakes because a slight error can lead to costly delays or rejections by the USCIS.

FileRight can make the paperwork process more accessible by walking you through the application step by step. For example, if you’re applying for a green card through an immediate family member who is a U.S. citizen, you can usually complete Form I-485 at the same time you complete Form I-130. The filing fee for Form I-485 as of May 2021 is:

  •  $1,140 for a majority of applicants
  •  $750 for applicants under 14 years old who are filing with one or both parents
  •  Free for refugees and asylees

Applicants between ages 15 and 78 not filing as an asylee or refugee will also be charged a biometric fee of $85, which is paid simultaneously.

What Will Happen at Your Biometrics Appointment

After correctly completing your application for a green card, you’ll be sent a receipt notice informing you that the USCIS received your paperwork. After that, you’ll receive communication telling you when and where you will have to go for a biometrics appointment.

You will have to provide immigration officers with your fingerprints, a photograph, and an electronic signature. This information is used to conduct a background check.

What Will Happen During Your Immigrant Interview

After your biometrics appointment is complete, the USCIS may send you a letter informing you of an interview with an immigration officer. The notice you receive will include the date, time, and location of your interview. Make sure you show up to your appointment early or on time.

After the past administration made immigration enforcement a priority, more immigrants who are seeking green cards are being required to complete an interview with an immigration officer.

At your interview, you’ll likely have to answer questions about your application. In some cases, the relative or employer who petitioned you for the green card may be called for the interview as well. It’s crucial that you bring any relevant documents to your appointment, including travel documents and passports.

What to Expect When the Final Decision Is Made

Once you’ve completed all those steps, you should receive a final decision. The time it takes from the beginning to the end of this process can vary tremendously. The USCIS will review your entire case, including your application, background, and interview (if you had one).

Once a final decision is made, you will receive a notice in the mail. If your application is approved, you will receive the subsequent steps on completing the process and obtaining your green card. If your application gets denied, you may still be able to appeal the USCIS decision. However, you will not receive a green card at the time of denial.

Is It Hard to Get a Green Card?

Even for the most well-qualified green card applicants, the process of being approved can be long and complex. One small mistake can result in you having to start over from square one. This is why many immigrants choose to work with immigration attorneys. However, immigration lawyer fees can be steep. Not everyone can afford it. 

FileRight can help you avoid mistakes and save money by using our immigration help software. This service can minimize your risk and help you get your green card faster. 

What Is the Easiest Way to Get a Green Card?

The easiest way to get a green card is through the U.S. Department of State’s Green Card Lottery. However, this is not the most likely way you’ll get a green card. Each year, the Diversity Visa Program issues 55,000 green cards. Applying is easy, but it’s best to have a backup plan in case you aren’t one of the lucky winners. 

Diversity visas are available only for citizens of selected countries with a low number of immigrants to the U.S. in the past five years.

Can You Get a Green Card Quickly?

If you qualify as an immediate relative, you may only have to wait as little as two months to get a green card. Who qualifies as an immediate relative? Spouses of U.S. citizens, children under 21 years of age whose parents are U.S. citizens, and the parents of children who are U.S. citizens over 21 are all eligible.

Applying for Citizenship

Once you are living in the United States with a green card for long enough and meet all other requirements, you can apply for citizenship. While both a green card and citizenship are permanent, there are added benefits to becoming a citizen.

Citizenship Is Less Expensive

It’s a requirement to renew your green card every 10 years, and each time it costs $540. If you lose or damage your green card in between, that’s another $540 each time. The cost of citizenship is a one-time fee of $725. After that, no more immigration fees for the rest of your life.

Citizenship Has More Family Benefits

Citizens can bring more relatives to the U.S., and faster. There is an unlimited number of green cards for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. That means their wait for a U.S. green card is significantly less than the relatives of a permanent resident. Citizens can also bring more relatives to the U.S., including parents and siblings.

Citizens Can’t Be Deported

The U.S. government can and does deport permanent residents. Certain crimes may make you eligible for deportation. Avoid the risk and become a citizen. Learn more about the benefits of U.S. citizenship.

Citizens Can Vote

United States citizens have an equal voice in public voting and effecting the laws under which they must live.

Citizens Have a U.S. Passport

Citizens can travel outside the U.S. with a United States passport. A U.S. passport often makes it easier to travel to some countries visa-free than it would be for passport holders of many other nations.

Use FileRight to File Your Forms Accurately the First Time

Are you having trouble determining if you are eligible to complete the paperwork required for a green card? Use FileRight to answer your questions and help you get it done quickly. FileRight’s eligibility quizzes can make it easy to determine if you can complete Forms I-130 & I-485.

Once you’ve settled on your eligibility, FileRight will guide you through the application process one question at a time, checking your application for common errors along the way. FileRight even offers you access to an immigration attorney who can provide a more thorough review of your application to ensure you’ve completed it correctly. 

Get started by taking our green card qualification quiz today!

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