How to get a U.S. Green Card: Things you need to know

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The United States permanent resident card, better known as the green card, allows the holder to settle and work in the United States without a visa. Unlike citizens, the permanent resident cannot vote and cannot be a member of a jury. Further, if older than 18, the permanent resident must always carry the card for identification purposes. The card is valid for ten years or two years if it belongs to a conditional permanent resident. The permanent resident card must be renewed before its expiry date, and the new permanent resident must pay a fee of $165 for the card itself.
Before describing the different ways to get a green card, let’s first clarify the card is not necessary to work in the United States, a work visa is sufficient.

If your American employer asks you to work in the Miami office, you may enter the United States on the H-1B visa. This visa is typically granted to skilled workers who are employed for a set period. Besides work visas (which authorize entry and work in the United States), there is also the work permit or the Employment Authorization Document. This document allows foreigners to work in the United States; however, unlike a visa, it does not authorize entry into the United States, only the permission to work. It is for this reason the EAD is usually obtained by immigrants after entry, not before.

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There are four ways of getting a permanent resident card: family, employment, refugee status, or the special category. There are specific conditions for each of these four categories.

* The first way is through family, the “easiest” way. There is a primary class of family members who can get permanent residency regardless of visa availability (yes, there are a finite number of visas issued yearly). As a result, parents, spouses, and the unmarried children who are less than 21 years old of an American citizen are eligible to enter the United States and become permanent residents. Outside the immediate family, there is a second way to get permanent residency, for example, the unmarried children over 21 of an American citizen. However, the family members of the secondary class must be skilled workers, and must also wait for an available visa (remember, there is a finite number). There is an order of preference for visa allocations to such immigrants. Unmarried children over 21 of an American citizen are at the top of this class. Therefore, they are preferred over, among others, the siblings of an American citizen, their spouse, and minor children.

To present such a request when the person seeking permanent resident status is in the United States, the American citizen sponsor must complete the I-130 form ($420). After which, the person seeking the status change will have to complete the I-485 (to change status; the fee can vary from $635 to $1070). They will also have to complete and submit the I-797 (received without a fee after sending the I-130 form) forms. If the person seeking permanent resident status is outside the United States, the fact the American citizen completes the I-130 form is sufficient. Concerning the processing times, a request for permanent residency through immediate family should not take more than six months, as these family members need not wait

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for an available visa. Please note that requests for members beyond immediate family take much longer since they depend on visa availability. The greater the number of applications at the lower end of the preference order, the longer it will take. Processing time, for siblings of an adult American citizen, their spouse, or minor children, can easily take up to a decade for countries like Mexico. Since Canada and France have never been historically significant sources of immigration to the United States, their citizens can expect shorter delays.

* The second way to get permanent resident status is through employment, which is based on a visa priority list. Under this method, immigrants must wait for an available visa. The top of the list include priority workers, who are usually prominent professors or heads of multinational companies. Following these priority workers, are highly-skilled workers, then workers in specialized vocations, then finally, investors or entrepreneurs (who do not qualify for the top priority). The employer must submit the I-140 form ($580). This is sufficient if the person seeking permanent resident status is outside the United States. Otherwise, the person seeking permanent resident status must also complete the I-485 form to change status. If the person seeking permanent resident status is an entrepreneur or an investor, the I-526 form ($1500) must instead be completed.

* The third way to get permanent resident status involves those in the refugee or asylum seeker category. Citizens of Canada and France are ineligible, since they would have to prove persecution or fear of persecution in their country of origin because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

* The fourth way to get permanent resident status is the special category, which includes all other methods of getting permanent residency. Fiancés and their minor children by American citizens are included in this category. These individuals are, legally speaking, non-immigrants and enter America with the K visa. Fiancés are obligated to marry their American citizen partner within 90 days of their entry under risk of deportation. If the fiancé is in the United States at the time of the request, they will have to complete the I‑485 form and the I-129F form ($340), and get the K visa ($265). Otherwise, submitting the I-129F form and getting the K visa are sufficient.

There is also what is called the Green Card Lottery. This program was created to ensure some diversity within the American immigrant population. A total of 50,000 visas (and permanent residency cards) are guaranteed to the winners in a drawing including 15 million participants (there is a 0.33% chance of winning.). The eligible participants must have the equivalent of a high school diploma or two years of experience in a qualified work environment. To ensure the diversity of immigrants, citizens of certain countries are ineligible. Canadians are excluded from the draw while French citizens (including those from overseas territories) may take part.

Those who wish to settle in the United States by getting their green card will quickly understand the scale of American bureaucracy. The American permanent resident card is notorious for being difficult to get, which is probably because the United States has for a long time been the destination of choice for the self-made person. In comparison, American citizenship is relatively easy to get. To become an American citizen, you only need to be a permanent resident for five years—the same amount of time that some family members of an American citizen must wait to become a permanent resident!

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*Note: Prices & information in the article are current to the date the article was written (June 2015).