A permanent resident card (green card) permits you to lawfully and permanently live in the U.S. as a permanent resident.

Relatives of U.S. citizens usually receive green cards most quickly, and most people get a green card because they have family in the U.S., are working in the U.S., or have been offered employment in the U.S. There are other ways to get one, though. This article will discuss some of them. It can take you months to years to get a green card, depending on your circumstances.

There are two main ways to get a green card:

  • Adjustment of Status — One way to get a green card is for people who are temporarily living inside the U.S. with permission, such as visa holders. They can apply to adjust their temporary stay to a permanent one.
  • Consular Processing — The other way to get a green card is for people who are outside of the U.S. They can apply to enter the U.S. and gain permission to permanently live there.

Ultimately, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will decide whether to give you a green card based upon the information it has about you, including your application, your interview, the results of security checks and your health information.

How to Get a Green Card through Adjustment of Status

There are many reasons why you might have permission to temporarily live in the U.S. Once you are lawfully inside the U.S. (usually because you have nonimmigrant or parolee status), you might be able to apply for a green card that adjusts your temporary status to permanent.

Step 1: File the Immigration Petition

An immigration petition is a form that shows the U.S. government that there’s a reason for you to permanently live in the U.S. In rare situations, you may be able to file your own petition.

(In Step Two we will discuss filing your Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Sometimes you can file Form I-485 at the same time as your petitioner files the immigration petition. The USCIS calls this “concurrent filing.” Immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen may be able to file concurrently. But in most cases, your immigration petition must be approved before you are allowed to file Form I-485.)

Family-Based Green Cards

Relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents must have their U.S. relative file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, on their behalf.

Employment-Based Green Cards

Applicants who are applying for a green card because they work in the U.S. will need an employer to file a petition on their behalf. Note that the process for investors is different. There are four categories of employment-based green cards:

  • EB-1 Priority Workers
  • EB-2 Professionals with Advanced Degrees or Persons with Exceptional Ability
  • EB-3 Professional or Skilled Workers
  • EB-4 Special Immigrants (such as religious workers, Panama Canal employees, and certain doctors)

Employers of EB-1 workers must file Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. Employers of EB-2 and EB-3 workers must first file a labor certification with the U.S. Department of Labor and then file Form I-140. Employers of EB-4 visa holder must file Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant.

Investor-Based Green Cards

The investor category is for people who:

  • Make a $1 million or more business investment in the U.S. or a $500,000 business investment in a high unemployment or rural area in the U.S.
  • Plan to create or preserve at least ten permanent, full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers
  • Investor applicants can self-petition using Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur.

Refugee — Refugees don’t need someone to petition for them. However, they must meet the following requirements to be eligible for a green card through refugee status:

  • They have been admitted to the U.S. as a refugee.
  • They have physically lived in the U.S. for at least one year with refugee status.
  • They currently have refugee status.

Other ways to obtain a green card is through Asylee status, Battered Spouse or Child (VAWA), or person born to a Foreign Diplomat.

Step 2: Wait for an Immigrant Visa Number

In most other cases, you will need an approved petition and a current “priority date” before you can start your green card application. This is because federal law limits the number of green cards issued every year, which means there is a waiting list when there are more qualified applicants than the number of green cards that the law allows. Your “visa number” signifies your place in line in the waiting list. Your priority date is the time you are eligible to apply.

Your visa number is determined by your green card category and the country of your nationality.

NOTE: There are an unlimited number of green cards for a U.S. citizen’s husband or wife, parents and unmarried children who are less than 21 years old. These applicants, known as immediate relatives, do not need a current priority date to file Form I-485. They can file for a green card in one-step — by filing Form I-130 and Form I-485 at the same time (concurrent filing) — or two-steps. If through two-steps, they can file Form I-485 any time after the I-130 is approved.

Step 3: File the Green Card Application

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 categories — such as the battered spouse or child category described above — that require a different form to adjust your status. Your form must be correct and complete to avoid delay or denial.

Step 4: Go to Your Biometrics Appointment

You should receive a notice to attend a biometrics appointment at a USCIS Service Center. Here, you will have your picture and signature taken and be fingerprinted at a USCIS application support center. This information will be used to conduct security checks.

Step 5: Go to Your Green Card Interview

Most green card applicants are required to attend an interview with USCIS. They’ll ask you to bring originals of all the documents you submitted with your green card application.

Step 6: Get Your Final Decision in the Mail

You will receive a written decision in the mail. If you are approved for permanent residence, your green card will be mailed to your U.S. address.

Green Card through Adjustment of Status Review

These are the general steps for getting a green card if you are temporarily living inside the U.S. with permission:

  1. Someone files an immigration petition on your behalf (unless you are in the rare position of being eligible to file on your own behalf).
  2. Wait for your priority number to become available (unless you’re the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen).
  3. File the correct form to adjust your status, usually, Form I-485.
  4. Go to your biometrics appointment.
  5. Go to your interview, if any are requested.
  6. Get your final decision in the mail.