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 years or more. For a few lucky persons, however, that wait may 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 big role in the speed of attaining a green card. Under U.S. immigration laws, foreign nationals might qualify for and be assigned a so-called "immigrant visa number." In essence, this means a spot 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 a ten- to 15-year wait for visa number availability.

Immigrant Visa Categories and the Visa Bulletin

To understand why categories matter in making things easier to get a green card, we must look at something called the Visa Bulletin. This report is released monthly by the U.S. Department of State, with the most up-to-date information on 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 easy format to understand.

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.

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. More on this below.

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.

After the definitions for each category, the Visa Bulletin has a table listing each family-based preference category along with a series of "cutoff" dates. Only would-be immigrants with a priority dateon or before the cutoff date may apply for a visa. For family-based cases, the priority date is the date the petition to classify you as a potential immigrant was filed. (In certain circumstances where a petition was filed for you earlier, you might retain an earlier priority date.)

Let’s take an example. In the Visa Bulletin for September 2018, the table lists a cutoff date of April 11, 2008 for all worldwide areas (except the specific countries listed) for the first preference family-based category. As the Bulletin states, the first preference is for “unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.” This means that for foreign nationals who are 21 or older, are not married, and are being sponsored for a green card by their U.S. citizen parent, U.S. immigration authorities are, in September 2018, processing cases begun by petitions filed on April 11, 2008 or earlier; a wait of about ten years.

The preference category under which a foreign-national family member might qualify for an immigrant visa number, and eventual permanent residence, has a huge bearing on the time that foreign national must wait. Also, because of the high demand for immigrant visas from nationals of China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines, foreign nationals from those nations have separate, and usually more delayed, cutoff dates.

In terms of the “easiest” path to a green card through the family-based immigration route, immediate relatives (children under 21, spouses, and parents) of U.S. citizens have the least difficult path. Immigrant visa numbers are immediately available to them, so the Visa Bulletin cutoff dates do not apply. If you are a foreign national seeking permanent residence and are lucky enough to have an immediate-relative relationship with a U.S. citizen, you will have access to the path of least resistance.

After immediate relatives, spouses and under-21 children of U.S. permanent residents have the next-shortest wait time as of the date of this article. Visas were becoming available to those spouses and children who applied around two years ago.

There tends to be an especially long wait for married adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and even longer (literally decades) for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

You cannot calculate your exact wait time by looking at the cutoff date in your category. That is, a current cutoff date that is eight years ago means only that people who are getting their visas now have been waiting for eight years. It does not mean that you will have to wait exactly eight years. The cutoff dates 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. Sometimes the cutoff date moves forward a whole year in one month. Sometimes it even moves backwards!

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 more 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 $500,000 to $1 million U.S. of 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. Aside from the high monetary requirements of the fifth preference, 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, you should not expect a wait in the fifth preference category.

Diversity Visa Immigration

You may 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 right away.

Unfortunately as with all lotteries, your chances of success through the DV program are highly dependent 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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