Many benefits are gained by foreign nationals who receive U.S. lawful permanent resident status. Such people receive the rights to enter, exit, work, and live in the United States for their entire life, if they wish (assuming they don't do something to make themselves deportable). The card they carry to prove their status is commonly referred to as a green card. Eventually, if all goes well and they learn English, they can apply for naturalized U.S. citizenship, the highest status available under U.S. immigration law.
But before you think about applying for U.S. permanent residence, you will need to make sure you're eligible under one of the following narrowly categories (found in U.S. federal immigration law at 8 U.S.C. § 1153). We'll briefly summarize the most commonly used green card categories here, including how many are available for people from around the world.
Some quick cautions: Even if you think you fit one of the below green card categories, realize that you can also be blocked from U.S. entry based on matching one of the grounds of inadmissibility, owing to health, criminal, financial, security, and related concerns. Also realize that this discussion does not include coverage of the various temporary, "nonimmigrant" visas available to people coming to visit, work, study, or participate in an exchange program in the United States; see Types of Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visas: Who Qualifies? for more on those.
Immediate relatives are at the top of the list when it comes to qualifying for U.S. green cards and receiving them quickly. This eligibility category includes:
An unlimited number of U.S. green cards are available for immediate relatives whose U.S. citizen relatives file an I-130 visa petition for them—which means that 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 U.S. 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 to the U.S. government 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 are 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 U.S. immigration agencies (quite backlogged, in late 2023).
The wait times for a U.S. green card can range from no time at all other than basic processing time (as is sometimes the case for spouses and minor children of permanent residents in category F2A) to 20-plus years in high-demand categories (as is often true for siblings of U.S. citizens who are Philippine citizens).
The wait times for people from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines tend to be particularly long, because those are populous countries with many applicants (high demand) and because of per-country limits on immigrant visas. 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 from a U.S. employer is also required. What's more, the U.S. employer must prove to the satisfaction of the U.S. government that it has conducted extensive recruiting for the job, held interviews, and not found any willing, able, qualified U.S. workers to hire instead of the immigrant. (See Will Finding a Job in the U.S. Get You a Green Card?)
Because of annual limits set forth in U.S. immigration law, this is a "preference category," with the result that some applicants wait years for an available green card because of high demand. Here are the subcategories:
Employment First Preference (EB-1). Priority workers, including:
Employment Third Preference (EB-3). Professionals and skilled or unskilled workers.
Employment Fourth Preference (EB-4). Religious workers and miscellaneous categories of workers and other "special immigrants" (described below).
Employment Fifth Preference (EB-5). 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 U.S. workers.
An employer has to be truly interested in a foreign candidate to go through the required application steps. 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. Spouses and children do not count toward that 50,000.
An initial "lottery" registration is held by the U.S. State Department each year (in autumn), and people who are randomly selected in that can continue on to apply for a green card, if they can meet the educational and other requirements. Unfortunately, having one's name drawn in the lottery is no guarantee of success, particularly because there's a time limit on getting approval, and not everyone makes it through on time.
For more information, see How to Enter 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?.
A person still outside the U.S. would apply to the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees to be a refugee, although they can't actually specify that they want to come to the United States (though any family relationships will be taken into account.)
A person who is already at the U.S. border or (better yet) inside the U.S. would apply for asylum. This is done using USCIS Form I-589, which must be submitted within one year of arriving in the United States (with a few exceptions). If the foreign national is arrested by U.S. immigration authorities and placed into removal (deportation) proceedings, it's also possible to submit an asylum application at that time, as a defense to deportation.
In order to succeed with an asylum or refugee claim, the persecution must have been based on one of five grounds: the person's race (including ethnic group), religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
If you are fleeing only poverty or random violence, you do not qualify in either category. Various bars, such as a criminal background, persecution of others, or firm resettlement in a third country, also block asylum and refugee eligibility.
One year after having been granted asylum or refugee status, you can submit an application to adjust status (get a U.S. green card). Refugees are, in fact, required by law to wait no longer than one year after receiving their status and having been physically present in the U.S. to apply for the green card. Asylees can wait to apply for as long as they want, though doing so earlier is far safer—your asylee status can be taken away if conditions in your home country change and the U.S. government decides it's safe for you to return there.
The law allows certain people who have lived unlawfully (commonly called illegally) in the U.S. for more than ten years to request permanent residence as a defense in immigration court proceedings. This remedy is called "cancellation of removal," though many people refer to it as the "ten-year green card."
In order to succeed with this claim, you would need to also show the immigration court judge that your spouse, parent, or children—who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents—would face "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship" if you were forced to leave. You would also need to show that you are a person of "good moral character," and have been for at least those ten years in the U.S., and that you have not been convicted of certain crimes or violated certain laws.
Consult a lawyer if you think you might qualify for cancellation. Again, there is no application process; this remedy is available only to foreign nationals who are already facing deportation. Whatever you do, do not go straight to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This could result in your deportation (removal) without having sufficiently prepared yourself to raise cancellation as a defense.
Another remedy called "registry" allows people who have lived in the U.S. continuously since January 1, 1972 to apply for a green card. You'll need to show that you have good moral character and are not inadmissible. Your stay in the United States need not have been illegal—time spent on a visa counts as well. Very few people are eligible for registry now, which is why Congress occasionally discusses moving the date forward.
Individual members of the U.S. Congress have, on occasion, intervened for humanitarian reasons in extraordinary cases, in order to help a foreign national get U.S. permanent residence even if the law has no existing category to allow it.
For further information to help you understand whether you are eligible for a green card, and then make it through the bureaucratic maze that is the application process, see How to Get a Green Card, by Ilona Bray, or U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (both from Nolo).
You might also benefit from a personal consultation with an immigration lawyer. The lawyer can help you evaluate your options and develop a strategy for going forward, not to mention prepare the required application forms and other paperwork and monitor your case as it moves through the U.S. government bureaucracy. The potential for making mistakes is high in this process, so it is wise to have an experienced professional by your side.