Green Card Qualification

Categories of people who can apply for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), to make their home in the United States.

By , J.D.

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.)

1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

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:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers; also including same-sex spouses, if the marriage is 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 son or daughter 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. citizens or permanent residents, if the adoption took place before the child reached age 16 and other conditions are met.

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.

2. Other Family Members of U.S. Citizens or Lawful Permanent Residents

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).

  • Family First Preference ("F1"). Unmarried adults, age 21 or older, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family Second Preference: "F2A:" Spouses and unmarried children of a green card holder, so long as the children are younger than age 21. "F2B:" Unmarried children age 21 or older of a green card holder.
  • Family Third Preference ("F3"). Married people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family Fourth Preference ("F4"). Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the citizen is age 21 or older.

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.

3. Preferred Employees and Workers, Mostly With U.S. Job Offers

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:

  • 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 Sponsoring a Worker for a Green Card: Employer's Tasks.

4. Annual Diversity Green Card Lottery

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.

5. Special Immigrants

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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