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 or least demanding way someone can become a lawful permanent resident (LPR) of the United States. In the modern U.S. immigration framework, the wait for many green card applicants can be ten years or more. For a few lucky persons, however, that wait might be a matter of weeks.

Of course, what's "easy" depends in part on what one is eligible for. An existing family relationship with a U.S. citizen or permanent resident can make immigration fairly straightforward for some people. A job offer works for others. Then there's the diversity visa lottery, for citizens of eligible countries. Even millionaires wanting to start a business in the U.S. have a possible visa all their own (the EB-5)!

You should know, however, that there is no general, catchall category for people wanting U.S. lawful permanent residence. Everyone must fit within one of the categories prescribed by U.S. immigration law. And with annual limits in most categories, the waits can be prohibitively long.

How Waiting Lists Affect Certain Categories of Green Cards

A crucial concept called “Immigrant Visa Preference Categories” affects the time it takes for many applicants to get a green card. U.S. immigration laws create specific preference categories, under which foreign nationals might qualify for and be assigned a so-called "immigrant visa number." Immigrant visa numbers are, in essence, spots in the waiting line for a green card.

Some categories are “easier” than others, in that demand is low, and so there's little delay in available immigrant visa numbers. Other categories might have a ten- to 25-year wait for visa number availability. Let’s take a look at the main categories.

First, we must look at something called the Visa Bulletin. This is released monthly by the U.S. Department of State, and sets forth the current availability of immigrant visa numbers. You will see that immigrant visa numbers are broken down into two main groupings: Family-Sponsored Preferences and Employment-Based Preferences.

The Bulletin also lists a “Diversity Immigrant” category, which we will discuss below. Under each grouping, you will see specific subcategories.

Family-Sponsored Preference Categories

For the family-based side of immigration, you might notice that spouses, children under 21 years of age, and parents of U.S. citizens are not listed at all in the Visa Bulletin. That is because they are considered “immediate relatives,” whom current immigration law makes immediately eligible for immigrant visa numbers. They have the easiest path to a green card of any family members.

The categories listed under Family-Sponsored Preferences are First, Second, Third, and Fourth (each of which is defined in the Visa Bulletin). Unless otherwise noted, “children” refers to unmarried sons or daughters under the age of 21.

After the definitions for each category, the Visa Bulletin has a table listing them along with Priority Dates, which reflect the filing date of immigrant petitions finally being processed for visas or green cards. For details on how to read these charts, see How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current?

Because of the high demand for immigrant visas from nationals of China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, foreign nationals from those nations often have separate, and usually more delayed, Priority Dates.

In terms of the “easiest” path to a green card through the family-based preference system, spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents tend to have a relatively short wait time, typically between two months and two years. Immigration law is an ever-shifting field, however. Contact a licensed immigration attorney should you have questions about your case.

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 the laws and specifies priority dates for each category.

However, unlike family-based preferences, an employer in the U.S. is usually the entity sponsoring a foreign national. In addition, the employment-based categories are mostly delineated by 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 later.

Though the wait times for employment-based immigrant visas are relatively short in most categories, the application process requires a huge amount of work and documentation from both you and the sponsoring employer.

And, the basic eligibility requirements can be quite demanding. The First Preference category, for instance, 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.

The 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.

The Fourth Preference is reserved for “special” immigrants, including certain kinds of religious workers as well as certain juveniles seeking to join foster families in the U.S. The requirements for this category are highly technical and beyond the scope of this piece.

The Fifth Preference, known colloquially as the “Job Creation Visa,” is for foreign nationals who can invest 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. Aside from the high monetary requirements (a minimum of $1.8 million starting in November 2019, or $900,000 in targeted employment areas), U.S. immigration authorities give high-level scrutinize to petitions under this category because of a perceived likelihood of fraud.

Overall, if you have an employer willing to sponsor you under the First, Second, or Third Preference categories, or if you have the financial resources to invest under the Fifth Preference program, you will have a shorter wait time to attaining permanent residence. However, the underlying requirements and procedures for employment-based immigration are nothing to sneeze at. Speak with your potential employer, as well as a licensed immigration attorney.

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 visa numbers for foreign nationals from countries that have low numbers of permanent residence applications to the United States. If 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 right away.

Unfortunately, as with all lotteries, your chances of success through the DV program depend upon luck. Further, if you come from a country with already-high numbers of permanent resident applicants, your chances for being selected for a DV immigrant visa lessen dramatically.

However, if you are selected under the DV program, you will have an immediately available immigrant visa number and a short path to a green card, provided you can get through the processing before the visas run out for that year.

Permanent residence in the United States is not easily acquired, but there are certain paths which 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, and about lesser-used categories not discussed here.

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