What's the Easiest Way to Get a U.S. Green Card?

Close family members of U.S. citizens and highly skilled workers have the best chance of obtaining U.S. lawful permanent residence.

When people talk about the easiest way to get a “green card,” they are usually referring to the fastest means by which someone can become a permanent resident of the United States. In the U.S. immigration framework, the wait for many green card applicants can be as long as ten to 20 years or more. For a few lucky persons, however, that wait might be as short as 15 days.

What makes the difference in these cases? For starters, it's which overall eligibility category you're in. The possibilities are narrow and limited. Close family members of U.S. citizens and highly skilled workers have the best chance of obtaining U.S. lawful permanent residence, though the diversity visa lottery works for a lucky few who would have no other chance of immigrating

A crucial concept called “immigrant visa preference categories” also plays a role in the speed of attaining a green card. Under U.S. immigration laws, foreign nationals in these categories face annual limits on available visas, and thus must be assigned a so-called "immigrant visa number." In essence, this means they are typically put on a waiting list for a green card.

Some eligibility categories are “easier” than others in they have no delay in available immigrant visa numbers (due to low numbers of people who are eligible or choose to apply), while other categories might have waits of many years for a visa number.

Immigrant Visa Categories and the Visa Bulletin

A report known as the Visa Bulletin is released monthly by the U.S. Department of State, and contains the most up-to-date information on the current availability of immigrant visa numbers.

The law limits the total number of immigrant visa numbers given out in each eligibility category per year and the number that can be given out to persons born in any particular country. (To see the allocations, look at Section 203 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.) The Visa Bulletin breaks down these categories and their associated numerical caps in a relatively simple format.

Looking at the Visa Bulletin, you will see two main groupings: family-sponsored preferences and employment-based preferences. The Bulletin also lists a “diversity immigrant” category, discussed below. Under each grouping, you will see more specific subcategories.

The key is that, by examining the "priority dates" found in the Visa Bulletin, you can figure out the approximate waits for visas in each preference cateogry.

Family-Sponsored Preference Categories

For the family-based side of immigration, you might notice that spouses of U.S. citizens, children of U.S. citizens under 21 years of age, and parents of U.S. citizens are not listed. That is because these family members are considered “immediate relatives,” who are immediately eligible for immigrant visa numbers. This family relationship is thus one of the "easier" ways to get a green card, if you are lucky enough to be related to a U.S. citizen..

The categories listed under family-sponsored Preferences are First, Second, Third, and Fourth. Each is defined in the Visa Bulletin. Unless otherwise noted, the word “children” refers to unmarried sons or daughters under the age of 21.

Spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents (category 2A) tend to have the shortest wait time. By contrast, there tends to be an especially long wait for married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and an even longer one (literally decades) for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

However, the actual waits times change all the time, according to how many people actually apply for visas in the category and how fast the State Department can process visas.

You will want to pay close attention to the Visa Bulletin and any new laws if you are considering seeking a green card or sponsoring a family member for a green card. Contact a licensed immigration attorney should you have questions.

Employment-Based Preference Categories

The overall concept for the employment-based preference categories is not too different from the family-based categories. The Visa Bulletin breaks down the specific employment-based immigrant visa categories available under U.S. law and specifies cutoff dates for each category.

However, unlike family-based preferences, an employer in the U.S. is usually the entity sponsoring a foreign national for permanent residence. In addition, the employment-based categories tend to correspond to the difficulty and educational requirements of the employment that the foreign national is to undertake. Two prominent exceptions are the fourth and fifth employment-based preference categories. More on these below.

The cutoff dates and wait times for employment-based immigrant visas tend to be favorable, but the tradeoff is that the underlying employment-based petitions require a high level of work and documentation from both the employee and a sponsoring employer.

The employment first preference category, reserved for “priority workers,” is available only to workers who are considered outstanding in their field, such as internationally recognized artists, award-winning scientists or the like, or executives or CEOs of multinational companies. Historically, there has been no wait to get a visa in the first preference category.

The employment second and third preference categories are available mainly to persons whose proposed employment in the U.S. will require at least a bachelor’s degree-level education in some specialized field. The second and third preferences usually also require that an employer sponsoring the foreign national conduct a “market test” of the job market, to ensure that no U.S. citizens or permanent residents already in the U.S. will be displaced from an available job. As you might imagine, these requirements are possible to satisfy, but are by no means “easy.” Historically, there has been no wait or a short wait in the second and third preference categories, except for persons born in China, Mexico, India, or the Philippines, who can wait a substantial number of years.

The employment fourth preference category is reserved for “special” immigrants, including certain kinds of religious workers as well as juveniles who are dependent on the family court system and may be placed foster families in the United States. The requirements for this category are highly technical and beyond the scope of this article. There is rarely a wait in the fourth preference category.

The fifth preference, known colloquially as the “job creation visa,” is for foreign nationals who can invest between their own personal assets into a venture in the U.S. that can employ at least ten U.S. citizens or permanent residents on a full-time basis. Get ready for high monetary requirements: for years, the minimum investment was $1 million U.S., or as low as $500,000 if investing in an area of high unemployement. However, these minimums were raised to $1.8 million/$900,000 effective November 21, 2019; and they will be raised every five years thereafter, in accordance with inflation. Also realize that U.S. immigration authorities give high-level scrutiny to petitions under this category, because of the high likelihood of fraud. Unless you come from China, Vietnam, or India (where demand for these visas is high), you should not expect a wait in the fifth preference category.

Diversity Visa Immigration

You might have heard about the diversity immigrant visa (DV) program, as a “lottery” for green cards. This is not far off the mark. U.S. immigration law makes available 55,000 immigrant visas for foreign nationals from countries that have low numbers of permanent residence applications to the United States.

Provided you meet the minimum educational requirements and do not have issues in terms of past criminal activity, immigration violations, or other problems, you can apply under the DV program for a chance to be randomly selected and assigned an immigrant visa number.

Unfortunately as with all lotteries, your chances of success through the DV program depend upon luck. Many of the people whose names are selected don't make it through the whole application process, sometimes merely due to timing.

Further, if you come from a country with already-high numbers of permanent resident applicants, you won’t even be eligible to apply.

Permanent residence in the United States is not easily acquired, but there are certain paths that make the time you need to wait for a green card much shorter. Speak with a licensed immigration attorney about the potential routes you might take to acquiring a green card.

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