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 naturalized 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. (See 8 U.S.C. § 1153.)
Immediate relatives are at the top of the list when it comes to qualifying for U.S. green cards and receiving them quickly. This category includes:
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 Sponsoring a Fiancé or Spouse for a Green Card or Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories.
Certain close family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for green cards—but typically not right away. They fall into the "preference categories" listed below, meaning that only a certain number of them (480,000 total) will receive green cards each year.
The system is first come, first served—the earlier the U.S. citizen or permanent resident turns in a petition on Form I-130, the sooner the immigrant can apply for a green card, based on "priority date." You can't predict the wait time with any certainty, though.
Wait times depend on the category of visa you're asking for, the country you are from, how many other people from your country are asking for your type of visa, and the workload at the immigration agencies. They can range from no time at all (as is sometimes the case for spouses and minor children of permanent residents) to 20 years (as is often the case for siblings of U.S. citizens who are Philippine citizens).
Owing to high demand, the waits for people from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines tend to be particularly long. For more information, see Sponsoring a Fiancé or Spouse for a Green Card or Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories.
A total of 140,000 green cards are available 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. workers to hire instead of the immigrant. Because of annual limits, this is a "preference category," and some applicants wait years for an available green card. Here are the subcategories:
Employment First Preference. Priority workers, including:
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 Sponsoring a Worker for a Green Card: Employer's Tasks.
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 Winning a Green Card Through the Diversity Visa Lottery.
Occasionally, laws are passed making green cards available to people in special situations, such as young people under the care of a juvenile court, international broadcasters, and retired employees of the U.S. government abroad. For a complete list of the current special immigrant categories, see EB-4 Visa for Special Immigrants: Who Qualifies?.
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