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

Although both green card holders and citizens can potentially stay in the United States for life, citizenship is a far more secure status, as explained here.

By , J.D. University of Washington School of Law
Updated 5/14/2024

If you are confused about the various statuses held by foreign-born people with long-term rights to live and work in the United States, this article will help. Here, we will explore the meaning of and differences between:

Let's have a look, bearing in mind that these are not the only two bases upon which a foreigner could legally reside in the United States. There are numerous temporary statuses, such as nonimmigrant visas for work or study; and some short-term visitors don't even need a visa, namely those from Visa Waiver (VWP) countries.

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

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

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

Even after obtaining a U.S. 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 United States, even if their parents hold no immigration status there
  • birth overseas to a U.S. citizen parent, or
  • living in the United States as a child when a parent naturalizes.

Obviously, all of these require some pre-existing parental link to the United States. (See these articles on acquiring or deriving citizenship through parents.)

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 United States?

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 or passport.

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.


Can they petition for family members to immigrate?

Yes, for spouse and unmarried children, but 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 fastest for spouses and minor children.

Do they qualify for federal or state government benefits?

In some cases, 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 the person has the right to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis; to travel and return to the United States; 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 to, it could be considered a false claim to U.S. citizenship, and get them deported.

Although they are called "permanent" residents, this status is not permanent for everyone with a green card. For example, LPRs cannot remain outside the United States for unlimited amounts of time or make their home elsewhere. Doing so will result in abandonment of their U.S. 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 cannot always get the same financial 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 citizenship in the first place. (See When U.S. Citizens Can Lose Their U.S. Citizenship.)

U.S. citizens can vote in local, state, and federal elections, 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).

Getting Legal Help

For answers to further questions, or for personalized assistance with applying for lawful permanent residence or U.S. citizenship, consult an experienced immigration attorney.

Talk to an Immigration attorney.
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