Permanent Residence How to Get a Green Card: Eligibility and Qualification

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"Green Card" is the informal name frequently used for a U.S. Permanent Resident Card. It allows a person who is not a United States citizen to reside in the country indefinitely. The card may also serve as a path to U.S. citizenship. A green card may be obtained under certain circumstances, which includes eligibility based upon family, employment, the diversity visa lottery and other methods.

Differences Between a Green Card and Naturalization

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The reason why a Permanent Resident Card is also called a "Green Card" is because documents from when the program began had a green color. The process of getting a green card may consist of a long wait but it is usually not as rigorous as applying for U.S. citizenship. Lawful permanent residents have limited rights. Unlike permanent residents, they generally do not have the right to vote, run for state or federal office or have eligibility for government jobs.

Naturalization is the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship. A green card holder may apply for naturalization to become a citizen after five years from the date of receipt. Naturalization requires comprehensive tests and sometimes the need to relinquish one's citizenship in the applicant's country of origin. A non-citizen is given virtually all of the same rights and privileges afforded to American citizens. This includes being able to vote in elections, to run for public office, to apply for government jobs and to obtain a U.S. passport.

Family and Marriage Based Green Cards

Immediate Relatives

The following family members who are considered "immediate relatives" of a U.S. citizen do not need to wait for a visa – they are eligible immediately for a green card.
  • Parents of a U.S. citizen who is an adult (at least 21 years of age)
  • Spouse of a U.S. citizen
  • Unmarried children of a U.S. citizen who are under age 21

Qualified Relatives

Those who do not fall within the definition of immediate relatives must wait for a visa to become available before applying for permanent residence. The wait can take many years. The priority list is as follows, subject to annual quotas:
  • First Preference

    Unmarried adult children of U.S. citizens
  • Second Preference

    (A) Spouses of a permanent residents and the unmarried minor children of permanent residents and (B) unmarried adult children of permanent residents
  • Third Preference

    Married children of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children
  • Fourth Preference

    Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and minor children

Marriage (via the K-1 and K-2 Visa)

K-1 and K-2 visas were created to accelerate the immigration process for people getting married and their minor children. It also spares married couples from being separated for the potentially long processing time for an immigrant visa. In order to be eligible as a K nonimmigrant fiancé / fiancée, spouse or minor child, you must:
  • Be the fiancé/fiancée of the person filing, who must also be a U.S. citizen;
  • Have been admitted to the U.S. under a K visa;
  • Have been married within 90 days after entry, as required under a K-1 visa;
  • Be eligible to adjust your status as a fiancé/fiancée or minor child as a K visa holder;
  • Have an immigrant visa available and are admissible for entry into the United States.

Employment / Work / Job Related Green Cards

People who possess special or specific skills or have a job offer in the United States may be able to apply for a Green card. There is a list of preferences, which includes:
  • First Preference

    Works with priority – those who possess extraordinary abilities, are outstanding members of academia (professors and researchers) and executive management with special skills (such as multinational expertise).
  • Second Preference

    Workers who have advanced degrees or demonstrate extraordinary ability.
  • Third Preference

    Skilled workers, professional or qualified works
  • Fourth Preference

    Certain special immigrants and those in religious vocations
  • Fifth Preference

    Jobs created as a result of investment in the United States an investor or entrepreneur (also the subject of EB and E visas)

Labor Certification

Getting a Green card through work or a job offer involves a more comprehensive process. For most job offers, a "labor certification" is required to be filed in addition to a Form I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. The labor certification is the responsibility of the employer and must illustrate why (i) there isn't a sufficient quantity of qualified workers locally to fill the position, and (ii) that other unemployed and qualified U.S. workers won't be adversely affected by the hiring of the immigrant. More detailed information about work related green cards and labor certification is available on the UCSIS website.

Diversity Immigrant Visa - The Green Card Lottery

The United States government mandated that the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program make up to 55,000 diversity visas available to all eligible people who have applied. The diversity visa ("DV") winners are drawn by random selection. The chances of getting a green card using the DV Lottery are low.

Asylum or Refugee Based Green Cards

Immigrants who are eligible for asylum must show that they are legitimately in fear of returning to their country of origin. If they return, they may face severe persecution based upon their race, religion, being a member of a political party or other social group. Economic hardship does not qualify. An immigrant may be admitted to the United States under asylum or refugee status (or as a spouse or child of a refugee). A refugee is required by law to apply for a green card one year after admission. Those admitted under asylum are not required although it is recommended.

Other Ways to Get a Green Card

Immigration visas are available for battered spouses, children and parents under the Violence Against Woman Act (VAWA) provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Certain family members and children of green card holders may file a petition for permanent residence without the abusing person being notified. Abused spouses of a U.S. citizen or green card holder may file on their own behalf, as can parents of a U.S. citizen who have been abused by a son or daughter. In addition to battered persons, you can find complete green card eligibility information at the USCIS website.

Most categories of immigrants will require the filing of an immigrant petition on their behalf (Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, or another petition). Getting a green card can be a complicated process. Having an experienced immigration lawyer can be helpful and frequently highly beneficial.
Immigration Law
Lawful Permanent Residence, Green Card
About author
Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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Michael Wechsler
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