A green card identifies its holder as a U.S. permanent resident, with rights to enter, exit, work, and live in the United States for their entire life -- and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. But before you think about applying for U.S. permanent residence, make sure you're eligible under one of the following categories.
1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens
Immediate relatives are at the top of the list when it comes to qualifying for green cards and receiving them quickly. This category includes:
- spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers; also including same-sex spouses, if the marriage is considered legally valid in the state or country where it took place
- unmarried people under age 21 with at least one U.S. citizen parent
- parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is at least age 21
- stepchildren and stepparents of U.S. citizens, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child's 18th birthday, and
- adopted children of U.S, if the adoption took place before the child reached age 16.
An unlimited number of green cards are available for immediate relatives whose U.S. citizen relatives petition for them -- applicants can get a green card as soon as they get through the paperwork and application process. For more information, see Nolo's articles on Sponsoring a Fiancé or Spouse for a Green Card or Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Rules.
2. Other Family Members
Certain family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for green cards -- but not right away. They fall into the "preference categories" listed below, meaning that only a certain number of them will receive green cards each year (480,000). The system is first come, first served -- the earlier the U.S. citizen or permanent resident turns in a visa petition, the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card. The waits range from approximately four to 23 years in the family preference categories, which include:
Family First Preference. Unmarried adults, age 21 or older, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
Family Second Preference. Section 2A: Spouses and unmarried children of a green card holder, so long as the children are younger than age 21. Section 2B: Unmarried children age 21 or older of a green card holder.
Family Third Preference. Married people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
Family Fourth Preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is age 21 or older.
Because of high demand, the waits for people from China, the Dominican Republic, India, Mexico, and the Philippines tend to be particularly long. For more information, see Nolo's articles Sponsoring a Fiancé or Spouse for a Green Card or Sponsoring a Family Member for a Green Card.
3. Preferred Employees and Workers
A total of 140,000 green cards are offered each year to people whose job skills are needed in the U.S. market. In most cases, a job offer is also required, and the employer must prove that it has recruited for the job and not found any willing, able, qualified U.S. citizens or residents to hire instead of the immigrant. Because of annual limits, this is a "preference category," and applicants often wait years for an available green card. Here are the subcategories:
Employment First Preference. Priority workers, including:
- persons of extraordinary ability in the arts, the sciences, education, business, or athletics
- outstanding professors and researchers, and
- managers and executives of multinational companies.
Employment Second Preference. Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
Employment Third Preference. Professionals and skilled or unskilled workers.
Employment Fourth Preference. Religious workers and miscellaneous categories of workers and other "special immigrants" (described below).
Employment Fifth Preference. Investors willing to put $1 million into a U.S. business -- or $500,000 if the business is in an economically depressed area. The business must employ at least ten workers.
For more information, see Nolo's article Sponsoring a Worker for a Green Card: Employer's Tasks.
4. Green Card Lotteries: Ethnic Diversity
A certain number of green cards (currently 50,000) are made available to people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest immigrants to the United States. For more information, see Nolo's article Winning a Green Card Through the Visa Lottery.
5. Special Immigrants
Occasionally, laws are passed making green cards available to people in special situations. The current special immigrant categories are:
- clergy and other religious workers for legitimate religious organizations
- foreign medical graduates who have been in the United States since 1978
- former employees of the Panama Canal Zone
- foreign workers who were longtime employees of the U.S. government
- retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have lived in the United States for a certain time
- foreign workers who were employees of the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong for at least three years
- foreign children who have been declared dependent in juvenile courts in the United States
- international broadcasting employees, and
certain members of the U.S. Armed Forces who enlisted overseas and served 12 years.
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