If you are a U.S. employer wishing to hire foreign workers and sponsor them for U.S. permanent residence (in which case they can work for you over the long term), you are no doubt interested in how long this might take. You will likely need to complete several immigration processes on behalf of any particular worker before that person can obtain a green card. Each of these processes can, by itself, take from several months to several years to complete.
This article provides a detailed timeline to guide employers in sponsoring a foreign worker for a green card. We explain the overall steps of sponsorship, how long each step typically lasts, and expediting procedures that may speed the process along.
At the outset, bear in mind that the actual processing timeline for sponsoring a foreign worker can vary significantly from case to case. A number of delays can occur in the processing, depending upon the facts of the case.
It typically takes at least a couple of years for a foreign worker to obtain a green card. However, in most cases the foreign worker does not have to wait for the green card before reporting for duty. Immigration law provides many temporary work visas that foreign workers may use during the wait.
The usual green card process involves three steps:
Most (but not all) foreign workers must go through the PERM labor certification process before they can get a green card. PERM requires U.S. employers to place multiple advertisements for the foreign worker’s prospective job position, and certify to the Department of Labor (DOL) that no willing and qualified U.S. workers were available to take the job. The PERM process itself is lengthy and involved. (See more on Employers: Sponsoring Immigrants for Work Visas or Green Cards.) The following is an overview of the PERM steps and the typical time frames for each.
First, the employer must define the duties and requirements of the foreign worker’s prospective position. Although this might sound easy, it often takes a few weeks, as these details play a critical role in the overall immigration strategy. (Due to the complexity of the PERM process, it is highly recommended that employers consult a skilled immigration attorney.)
Second, after finalizing the job duties and requirements, the employer usually submits a prevailing wage request to the DOL. (It is also possible for the employer to use private surveys to determine the prevailing wage for the job.) A prevailing wage request to the DOL is submitted online via the DOL iCert portal. It provides the DOL with information on the job opportunity, such as the requirements, duties, and worksite location(s).
The DOL will give the employer a prevailing wage determination (PWD) for the job position. As with all employer-sponsored visas, the employer must pay the foreign worker at least the prevailing wage. It usually takes the DOL approximately five to seven weeks to issue the wage, although this time frame can vary.
An employer may disagree with the wage the DOL provides, and ask the DOL for a redetermination. Or, the employer can edit the job duties/requirements and ask for an entirely new wage. In either event, this extra step creates delays, because the DOL might take several days or a few weeks to reply.
After receiving an acceptable PWD, the employer can begin recruiting for the position. This consists of placing multiple advertisements and interviewing potential candidates. (For details, see Employer Recruitment Responsibilities Under PERM).
As part of the recruitment, the employer must post a job order with the state workforce agency. This job order must run for 30 days. During this same time period, the employer runs the other ads, which typically have to include two Sunday newspaper ads and three other types of advertisements.
While the employer is not required to run the ads at the same time, doing so is usually recommended. This is because there is a mandatory 30-day waiting period that starts after the last ad expires. The PERM application cannot be filed until this 30-day waiting period is over. Also, none of the ads may be older than 180 days at the time of filing the PERM application. Due to these requirements, it's usually easier to run the ads at the same time to ensure that none of them expire before the PERM labor certification application can be filed.
If the DOL approves the PERM, the employer can move on to step 2, the I-140 petition. In the event that the DOL audits (asks for additional evidence) or denies a PERM, the process will likely be delayed by several months to several years. The PERM application must be complete and approved before the employer can move on to the I-140 petition.
As soon as the DOL approves the PERM, the employer can file an I-140 petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USICS). This petition must includes the original approved PERM application (which the employer and the foreign worker must sign), evidence of the employer’s ability to pay the foreign worker’s salary, and documents confirming that the foreign worker is qualified for the position, such as a copy of the worker’s educational degrees. (Note that a PERM is only valid for a certain period of time and the I-140 must be filed within this validity period or the PERM will expire and the employer must start over again).
Just like the DOL, USCIS posts time frames to let the public know approximately how long it usually takes to adjudicate an I-140 petition. As of early 2020, USCIS was taking between four and seven and a half months to make I-140 decisions. However, history has shown that it can take USCIS much longer to process petitions.
Notably, there is an expediting option available for I-140s. The employer can pay an extra fee and request premium processing, meaning USCIS will adjudicate the I-140 within 15 business days.
Once USCIS approves the I-140 petition and the application filing date corresponding to the foreign worker’s priority date has become current according to the Department of State’s most recently issued Visa Bulletin (applicable in cases where annual demand for the type of green card exceeds supply), the worker can fill out and submit the I-485 (green card) application) with USCIS.
This is the only part of the process that requires the worker to file an application on his or her own behalf; the employer cannot file the I-485 for the worker. (Again, we're assuming that the worker is already in the U.S. on a temporary visa, as is common in most cases. If not, USCIS approval of the I-140 will trigger the National Visa Center to send the file to the appropriate U.S. consulate for further processing.)
USCIS’s posted time frame for acting on I-485 applications as of early 2020 is anywhere from eight to 52 months, depending on green card category and the service office where the I-485 application is filed. This is longer than in past years, in part because USCIS has begun requiring in-person interviews for all employment-based I-485 applications, largely due to the political climate.
Also realize that USCIS approval of I-485s must wait until the applicant’s priority date is current. Therefore, if priority dates retrogress (move backward), USCIS will hold the application until the priority date becomes current again. Due to the common priority date backlog for nationals of India, China, Mexico, and the Philippines, these foreign workers often have to wait several years for USCIS to approve their petitions.
Along with the above time frames, it is important to consider the costs of employer sponsorship. Immigration law mandates that the employer pay ALL of the costs associated with the PERM process (including the costs of advertisements and any legal fees). Violating this law can cause serious consequences for the employer.
Additionally, although it may take years for the foreign worker to obtain the actual green card, in most circumstances the foreign national is able to work for the employer during this entire process. There are multiple temporary work visas available to employers wishing to hire foreign works, such as the H-1B visa and O-1 visa. For further discussion on these and other temporary work visas, see Employers: Sponsoring Immigrants for Work Visas or Green Cards.