The Ultimate Guide to U.S. Green Cards: Understanding Types, Application Processes, and Costs

The rule to get green card in USA

What Does Holding a Green Card Mean?

A green card is an official document that permits individuals who are not citizens of the United States to establish permanent residency within the country. Officially referred to as a permanent resident card, it endows individuals with the legal right to reside and seek employment across the United States, paving the way for eligibility for U.S. citizenship after a period of three to five years, depending on specific circumstances. Annually, the United States authorizes the issuance of over one million green cards, predominantly to relatives of existing green card holders and citizens of the U.S. The next largest group consists of international workers moving to the U.S. for employment opportunities, marking a significant path to diversity and growth in the American workforce and community.

Green Card Application Procedure

The procedure for applying for a green card varies based on whether you’re initiating the process from within the United States or from a foreign country. Applicants will encounter one of two principal forms, depending on their location and eligibility pathway:

  1. The Form I-485, or Application to Adjust Status, is designated for individuals currently in the U.S. under a nonimmigrant visa, those selected through the diversity visa lottery, or those qualifying via family or employment-based sponsorship.

  2. The Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa Electronic Application, caters to those applying from outside the United States. This form is applicable for candidates seeking to immigrate through family sponsorship, employment sponsorship, or as part of the diversity visa program.

Timeline for Obtaining a Green Card

The duration required to acquire a permanent resident card can range significantly — from several months to multiple years. This variability is influenced by the category of green card for which you are applying and your application’s geographical location. Below, you’ll find more detailed timelines based on specific circumstances.

Processing Times for Green Cards: Both Internal and External Applications

For individuals applying for a green card within the United States, the expected processing duration varies significantly based on the applicant’s relationship to U.S. citizens and the nature of their application. Spouses, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens undergoing the adjustment of status process generally anticipate a waiting period between 13.5 and 20.5 months. Conversely, those linked to U.S. permanent residents, including spouses and other family members, as well as employment-based green card applicants, might face longer waits, often extending beyond two years. The processing periods, however, are somewhat shorter, ranging from roughly 13.5 to 15 months, for applicants who fall into comparable categories: spouses, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens who begin their green card applications through consular processing from outside the country. However, applicants in other green card categories, especially those affected by per-country caps, experience widely varying wait times. Specifically, spouses of U.S. permanent residents applying from abroad should prepare for processing periods that can fluctuate dramatically due to these caps and individual case complexities.

Green Card Application Expenses

For individuals seeking a family-based green card, the government mandates a filing fee of $1760 for applications submitted from within the United States. For those applying from abroad, the fee is set at $1200. It’s important to remember that these figures do not cover the medical examination fees, which differ depending on the medical provider. For detailed insights into the expenses involved in securing a family-based green card, further information is available. Additionally, applicants interested in other types of green cards should refer to the USCIS website to understand the specific fees associated with their application form.

Anticipated Increase in Green Card Filing Fees

In early 2024, individuals applying for a green card may face a sharp rise in government filing fees, pending the approval of a proposal by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The agency disclosed intentions earlier this year to elevate the costs for a wide range of visa applications, including but not limited to the I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) and I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status). Specifically, applicants undergoing the process to obtain a marriage-based green card will also be subject to increased fees. Overall, the fees for the Adjustment of Status process, including authorization for work and travel, could see an upsurge of approximately 90% in the upcoming months. However, the adjustment in fees for the spousal visa application is expected to be comparatively minor. Starting April 1, 2024, the fee for renewing an I-90 green card will be reduced from the current $540 (including biometrics) to $415 for those who file online and $465 for submissions made via paper.

Green Card Types Explained

Green cards are available in several categories, including Family-Based, Employment-Based, Humanitarian, Diversity Lottery, Longtime-Resident, and other special types, with the application process varying by category; detailed guidance on each, particularly on obtaining a family-based green card, follows below.

Immediate family members of U.S. citizens and existing green card holders are eligible to apply for their own family-based green cards. This group includes spouses, children, parents, and siblings, along with the spouses and children of these adult children and siblings. Additionally, widows and widowers who were married to a U.S. citizen at the time of the citizen’s death fall into this category. Similar to spouses applying for a marriage-based green card, widows and widowers are required to demonstrate the genuineness of their marriage to be eligible for a green card. However, more distant relatives such as cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents are not eligible under this category. They can only apply for a permanent resident card if they have a more direct relationship with a U.S. citizen or current green card holder or if they meet the criteria for another type of green card.

The employment-based green card category encompasses a diverse array of worker subcategories eligible for permanent residency, often extending eligibility to their spouses and children. This category covers a wide range of professions, including:

  1. Individuals demonstrating extraordinary abilities in arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics.

  2. Distinguished professors and researchers.

  3. Multinational managers and executives.

  4. Roles that necessitate a master’s degree or higher.

  5. Positions requiring a bachelor’s degree and at least five years of relevant experience.

  6. Jobs in the sciences, arts, or business that demand exceptional ability.

  7. Roles deemed of national interest.

  8. Physicians committed to serving full-time in areas with shortages for a specified duration and who satisfy other requirements.

  9. Skilled jobs requiring at least two years of training or experience, excluding temporary or seasonal roles.

  10. Unskilled jobs necessitating less than two years of training or experience, also excluding temporary or seasonal work.

  11. Professional roles that demand a bachelor’s degree from a U.S. institution or its foreign equivalent.

  12. Media professionals.

  13. Religious workers and ministers.

  14. Nationals of Afghanistan and Iraq who have provided service to the U.S. government in certain roles.

  15. Other specific employees, retirees, and their dependents.

  16. Foreign nationals investing a significant capital in new U.S. businesses expected to create jobs for at least ten employees.

Obtaining a Green Card on Humanitarian Grounds

a) Protection for Refugees and Asylees

Individuals who have faced or are at risk of persecution in their country of origin due to their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs, or association with a specific social group have the option to seek safety in the United States. This protection can be sought from outside the U.S. by applying for refugee status or from within the U.S. by seeking asylum. After residing in the United States for at least one year following the grant of refugee status or asylum, these individuals are eligible to apply for a permanent resident card. Additionally, children and spouses of refugees and asylees, along with, in certain instances, other relatives, can also avail themselves of these protections and may later pursue permanent residency in the U.S.

b) Support and Residency Paths for Victims of Human Trafficking

Victims of human trafficking residing in the United States, regardless of their legal status, have the opportunity to apply for a T visa, which allows them to stay in the country for up to four years. A crucial condition for the T visa is the requirement to assist in the investigation and prosecution of human traffickers, although victims under the age of 18 are exempt from this mandate. For these victims to transition to permanent residency, they must have resided in the U.S. for either three years after obtaining their T visa or for the duration of any human trafficking investigation or prosecution, whichever period is shorter.

Additionally, eligibility for a green card requires adherence to several other criteria. Applicants must prove “good moral character,” which excludes involvement in certain criminal activities such as fraud, prostitution, or murder, from the receipt of their T visa until green card approval. They must also convince the U.S. government of their potential to face extreme hardship and severe harm if forced to leave the U.S. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) outlines the comprehensive eligibility requirements. Moreover, certain family members of the victim may also seek green cards, provided both the victim and the family members meet all the stipulated requirements.

c) Ways for Victims of Serious Crimes to Get Protected

Individuals residing in the United States who have suffered significant physical or psychological abuse, regardless of their legal status, can pursue safety through the application for a U visa. This visa serves as a means of protection for victims and requires that their application be endorsed by a law enforcement entity. Similar to the stipulations for T visa applicants, those seeking a U visa are expected to cooperate with authorities in the investigation and legal proceedings against perpetrators of crimes like kidnapping, sexual assault, and torture, thereby contributing to the enforcement efforts against such offenses. However, to transition from a U visa to permanent residency, applicants must meet additional criteria. They are required to have continuously resided in the United States for a minimum of three years since the issuance of the U visa. During the green card application process, they must remain within the U.S. without departing until the USCIS makes a decision on their application. Additionally, from the time of obtaining their U visa until the final decision on their green card application by USCIS, they must have consistently cooperated with law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of the crimes involved. Eligibility extends to the victim’s immediate family members — including children, parents, siblings, and spouse — who can also apply for their green cards, provided both the relatives and the primary applicant meet all the specified requirements.

d) Green Card Opportunities for Individuals Affected by Abuse

Individuals suffering from domestic violence, including battery or extreme cruelty, have the opportunity to apply for a green card under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which offers a path to relief for abuse survivors. Despite its name, VAWA is inclusive of all genders, benefiting both male and female victims, as well as affected parents and children, without discrimination. Survivors of abuse can independently seek permanent residency, circumventing the need for consent or awareness from the abusive family member. Eligible abusers may be:

  1. A current or former spouse with U.S. citizenship or permanent residency,

  2. A U.S. citizen or permanent resident parent,

  3. A U.S. citizen child.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) maintains confidentiality throughout the application process, ensuring the safety of the applicant by not disclosing the application to the abusive relative. The USCIS website provides a comprehensive list of full eligibility criteria for those seeking protection under VAWA.

e) Diversity Visa Lottery Program

Each year, through the Diversity Visa Lottery Program, also commonly referred to as the “green card lottery,” the U.S. government selects up to 50,000 individuals at random from submissions across six geographic areas, including regions like Africa, Asia, and Oceania. With the opportunity to apply for permanent residency, this program targets citizens of nations with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, like Slovakia, Algeria, and Lebanon. There’s a limit where no single country can receive more than 7% of the total visas available in any given year. While the majority of applicants apply from their home countries, there are instances where participants are already in the U.S. on a different immigration status.

Securing a Green Card for Long-Term Residents

Those who have resided in the United States, regardless of whether their stay was authorized or unauthorized (referred to as being “undocumented”), since January 1, 1972, are eligible to pursue permanent residency. This opportunity is available through a unique provision known as “registry.”

Eligibility Criteria for Green Card via Registry

To be eligible for a green card through the registry process, an individual must fulfill the following requirements:

  1. They must have entered the United States prior to January 1, 1972, and must substantiate this entry with an I-94 travel record, officially known as the “Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record.”

  2. Since their arrival, they have remained continuously within the United States.

  3. They possess “good moral character,” which is defined by the absence of involvement in certain criminal activities, such as fraud, prostitution, or murder. Further details on what constitutes “Good Moral Character” are available.

  4. They meet the criteria for eligibility for U.S. citizenship via naturalization.

  5. They have not engaged in actions that would render them “deportable,” such as drug offenses, smuggling activities, and engaging in marriage fraud (i.e., marrying a U.S. citizen or green card holder solely for obtaining a marriage-based green card).

  6. They have not committed any offenses that would classify them as “inadmissible” for a green card. This includes illegal entry into the United States or overstaying a visa by more than six months.

Additional Green Card Types

In addition to the green card categories already outlined, the U.S. government offers several other pathways to permanent residency. These pathways are available for “special immigrants,” which include media professionals, religious workers, and nationals from Afghanistan and Iraq who have undertaken specific duties in assistance to the U.S. government. There are also special categories for those who have been employed by international organizations, along with unique provisions for Cuban citizens and American Indians born in Canada, further diversifying the options for obtaining a green card.