Difference Between U.S. Green Card and U.S. Citizenship

While both green card holders and citizens can stay in the U.S. indefinitely, there are some major reasons to get U.S. citizenship.

If you're confused about the various statuses held by people with long-term rights to live and work in the U.S., this article will help. We'll explore the meaning of and differences between:

  • lawful permanent residence (holding a green card, or "LPR" status), and
  • U.S. citizenship.

Let’s have a look.

LPR Status Is a Stepping Stone to Naturalized U.S. Citizenship

For a person wishing to immigrate to the U.S. on a permanent basis, lawful permanent residence is usually the necessary first step. That requires fitting one of the categories for see green card qualification, then applying for residence.

People might, for example, become lawful permanent residents after being petitioned (or “sponsored”) by a spouse or close family member or employer, after winning the diversity visa lottery, or after spending time in the U.S. with refugee or asylum status.

Even after obtaining a green card, most residents must wait some years (usually five) before taking the next step and applying to become U.S. citizens, through a process called “naturalization.”

Who Can Jump Straight to U.S. Citizenship

People can gain U.S. citizenship by birth in the U.S., birth overseas to a U.S. citizen parent, or living in the U.S. as a child when when a parent naturalizes (as described in these articles on acquiring or deriving citizenship through parents).

Obviously, all of these require some pre-existing parental link to the United States.

Without that, about the only way someone can go straight from having no U.S. immigration status to being a U.S. citizen is by joining the the U.S. military, as described in U.S. Citizenship Rights for U.S. Military Personnel and Veterans.

Green Card Compared to U.S. Citizenship

The following chart will quickly review some of the differences between holding a green card and having U.S. citizenship, with further details laid out below.

Green card holders

U.S. citizens (by birth or naturalization)

Can they be deported from the U.S.?

Yes, if they commit a crime or espionage, fail to advise the U.S. government of a change of address, become public charges, or otherwise do something that matches a ground of deportability found in U.S. law.

No, not based on the grounds of deportability. However, naturalized U.S. citizenship can be revoked if they committed fraud when applying for it. And citizens can give up status voluntarily.

Will they receive an identity document?

Yes, a green card, also called Form I-551.

Yes, such as a birth certificate, a consular record of birth abroad to a U.S. citizen parent, or a naturalization certificate.

Do they qualify for a U.S. passport?

No. They’ll need to travel and return using their home country’s passport, plus their green card.

Yes, after applying for it, with a few exceptions.

Can they vote in U.S. elections?

No; doing so could make them deportable.

Yes.

Can they petition for family members to immigrate?

Yes, for spouse and unmarried children, and with limited visas available per year.

Yes, for parents, spouse, children (married or not), and siblings. Fewer annual limitations apply, so the timeline is usually faster for spouses and minor children.

Do they qualify for government benefits?

Yes, but on a more limited basis than U.S. citizens enjoy.

Yes, if they meet the basic eligibility criteria.

Rights and Benefits of U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence

A lawful permanent resident receives a photo identity card that is, literally, green. The card is evidence that he or she has the right to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis; to travel and return to the U.S.; and to petition for certain close family members to also receive green cards.

However, green card holders cannot do everything that U.S. citizens can. They cannot vote in U.S. elections. If they try, it could be considered a false claim to U.S. citizenship, and get them deported.

Although they're called "permanent" residents, this status isn't permanent for everyone with a green card. For example, LPRs cannot remain outside the U.S. for unlimited amounts of time or make their home elsewhere. Doing so will result in abandonment of their residency and refusal of their request to reenter the United States.

They can also lose their residency rights by failing to advise U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of changes in their address, committing crimes or acts of espionage or terrorism, or falling into some other ground of deportability.

Also, green card holders can’t always get the same assistance and benefits from the government that U.S. citizens can. Many federal programs impose a five-year waiting period before green card holders can start receiving benefits. (See What Public Benefits Can a Green Card Holder Receive?)

For these reasons, it is wise for permanent residents to apply for U.S. citizenship as soon as possible. See Who Can Apply for U.S. Citizenship for more on that.

Rights and Benefits of U.S. Citizenship

U.S. citizenship is the highest status someone can attain under U.S. immigration law. It means a truly permanent right to live in the United States. Citizens are not subject to the grounds of deportability that affect green card holders. The only way someone can take a former immigrant’s citizenship away is if that person committed fraud in obtaining it in the first place. (See When U.S. Citizens Can Lose Their U.S. Citizenship.)

U.S. citizens can vote, and can petition for a longer list of foreign national family members to join them in the U.S. than permanent residents canfor example, unlike green card holders, they can petition for their parents (as immediate relatives), their married children, and their brothers and sisters (in the fourth preference categoryit’s a long wait).

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