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" (U.S. lawful permanent residence) they are usually interested in a combination of:

  • Which way of getting a green card is fastest?
  • Which way of getting a green card has the least demanding eligibility requirements?

There is no single answer to these questions. And of course, immigration eligibility depends in part on one's personal circumstances. Still, this article will address the green card categories people most commonly use to enter the U.S., among them:

  • family relationships
  • a job with a U.S. employer, and
  • the diversity visa lottery.

Before getting into those, however, let's take a look at why the wait for some types of green cards is vastly longer than for others.

How Waiting Lists Slow One's Receipt of a Green Card in Some Categories

The first thing to understand is that U.S. immigration law places annual limits on the number of people who can receive a green card in certain (but not all) eligibility categories. As a result, the length of the wait applicants face just to be able to move forward with their application can range from no time at all to be 20 years or more.

Though you might not have a choice of how you can fit yourself into a green-card eligibility category, it would not be ideal if, for example, your only possibility was applying as the brother or sister of a U.S. citizen. They face the longest waits of anyone in any visa category.

The main visa categories are set out in the State Department's Visa Bulletin, which is released monthly. You will see that immigrant visa numbers are broken down into two main groupings: Family-Sponsored Preferences and Employment-Based Preferences (discussed further below). The Bulletin also lists a "Diversity Immigrant" category (also discussed further below). Under each grouping, you will see specific subcategories.

The main purpose of the Bulletin is to list the current availability of immigrant visas; in other words, to let people track their place on the waiting list. For every category shown, the corresponding date in the chart indicates the month, day, and year in which persons who can finally come off the waiting list first applied to immigrate. By counting backward, you can get a sense of how long other applicants have waited in line. (For more detailed guidance to reading 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, usually more delayed, Priority Date columns on the Visa Bulletin.

Green Card Opportunities in Family-Sponsored Visa Categories

For the family-based side of immigration, the absolute fastest way to qualify is as either the spouse, unmarried child under 21 years of age, or parent of a U.S. citizen who's over age 21. They are all considered "immediate relatives," who are immediately eligible for immigrant visas, with no annual limits or resulting wait. (They are not even listed in the Visa Bulletin.)

The categories that are listed in the Bulletin under Family-Sponsored Preferences include:

  • Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
  • Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses and children of permanent residents (category 2A) and unmarried sons and daughters age 21 or over of permanent residents (category 2B).
  • Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.
  • Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.

Notice that none of these are extended family (i.e. no cousins or grandparents).

Among these so called "preference relatives" (not immediate relatives), the shortest waits are often enjoyed by spouses and unmarried, under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents, typically between two months and two years. But it all depends on demand, or how many people apply before you.

Employment-Based Preference Categories

In the employment-based preference categories, 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 in terms of applicants' job skills, education, and experience.

Here are the actual categories:

  • Employment First Preference (EB-1): "Priority 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.
  • Employment Second Preference (EB-2): Professionals who hold advanced degrees or persons of exceptional ability.
  • Employment Third Preference (EB-3): Persons whose proposed employment in the U.S. will require at least a Bachelor's degree-level education in some specialized field, and some unskilled workers (but the wait is very long). The Second and Third Preferences require in most cases 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.
  • Employment Fourth Preference (EB-4): So-called "special" immigrants, including certain kinds of religious workers as well as certain juveniles needing to join foster families in the United States. The requirements for this category are highly technical and beyond the scope of this article.
  • Employment Fifth Preference: Known colloquially as the "Job Creation Visa," this is for foreign nationals who can invest a large sum of 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, U.S. immigration authorities carefully 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 the Diversity Immigrant Visa (DV) program referred to 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, can prove that you'll be able to support yourself financially in the United States, 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 both personal circumstances and 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 (a challenge in and of itself).

In sum, permanent residence in the United States is not easily acquired. Nevertheless, there are certain paths which can 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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