What Is a Green Card?

A permanent resident card, commonly referred to as a green card, is a government-issued photo ID that identifies you as a legal resident of the United States. Green card holders must carry this card with them at all times to verify their legal permanent residency status. 

As of 2019, there were an estimated 13.9 million green card holders in the U.S. A green card grants several benefits to United States immigrants. It allows immigrants to the U.S. to live and work here. Foreign nationals must apply and undergo screening to be granted a green card.

green card in front of the american flag
A green card in front of the American flag. A green card is a government-issued ID and is proof of legal residency.

What Is the Purpose of Having a Green Card?

A green card identifies someone as a legal resident of the United States. It signifies that the government has vetted you and determined that you are eligible for benefits, such as:

  • The right to live in the U.S. indefinitely
  • The ability to work in the U.S.
  • Protection under state and federal law

In addition to rights, a green card comes with responsibilities. Permanent residents are legally required to:

  • Obey all United States laws
  • Report income to the IRS and file tax returns
  • Support the democratic government
  • Males aged 18 to 25 must register with the Selective Service

Who Is Eligible for a Green Card?

Family members of lawful permanent residents may be eligible for a green card. This may include:

  • The spouse of a permanent resident
  • The spouse of a U.S. citizen
  • A permanent resident’s unmarried child

You may also be sponsored for a green card through your employer. You may qualify for a green card if you have advanced degree or an extraordinary ability in:

  • Science
  • Art
  • Education
  • Business
  • Athletics

How Do I Get a Green Card?

There are multiple paths to obtaining a green card. Your path to a green card may depend on where you reside.

If You Live Abroad

If you live outside of the United States, you must determine your eligibility and file an immigration petition. The National Visa Center (NVC) will collect and process your visa application. After receiving your visa, pay an immigration fee to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

After you arrive in the United States, give your visa packet to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer. If your immigration fee has been processed, the CBP officer will review your case to determine if you can be admitted to the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident.

If You Live Stateside

If an immigrant visa is available and you have an approved immigration petition, file Form I-485, Adjustment of Status with USCIS.

However, if you do not have an approved immigration petition, check the eligibility criteria for your green card category. If you are applying for a green card through marriage, you may be able to file your petition and Form I‑485 concurrently. You will be given next steps after your application is reviewed, including biometrics and a green card interview.

What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and a Visa?

The main difference between a green card and a visa is when they are issued. A visa is obtained before traveling to the United States. A green card is typically issued after arriving in the United States. A visa must also be obtained before an immigrant can apply for a green card.

What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and Citizenship?

A permanent resident is not the same as a U.S. citizen. Green card holders have limited benefits. For example, a green card must be renewed while citizenship never needs to be renewed.

Green card holders may live and work in the United States but only U.S. citizenship grants the right to vote in U.S. elections. Additionally, only a U.S. citizen can sponsor a spouse in the United States for a marriage green card. A green card holder can only sponsor a spouse for a marriage green card if their spouse lives abroad.

For many, a green card is a step towards obtaining U.S. citizenship. Because some countries do not allow dual citizenship, some immigrants choose to remain permanent residents.

Does a Green Card Expire?

You must renew your green card every 10 years. If you have a green card through marriage, you may be issued a two-year green card. If that’s the case, you must have the conditions removed to convert your status to permanent status.

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