In a nutshell, the green card application process consists of the following steps:
Have a Sponsor Petition for You
The first step to apply for green card is to have your sponsor – either a family member or employer petition on your behalf.
- For family-sponsored petitions, use Form I-130, also known as the Petition for Alien Relative; or
- For employment-based petitions, use Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker).
Your sponsor must file a petition with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and pay the application fee.
Who Can Apply for Green Card?
Family based categories of applicants who are eligible to apply for US green card include:
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens:
- A spouse of a US citizen;
- A minor child (under 21) of a US citizen; or
- A parent of a US citizen over the age of 21.
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens are eligible for the fastest green card process (typically 8-14 months after filing).
Other family members are also eligible for Green Card permanent resident status under the “preference immigrant” group, which (in order of preference) includes:
- Unmarried children of US citizens over the age of 21;
- Spouses and unmarried minor (under 21) sons and daughters of lawful permanent US residents;
- Married children of US citizens; and
- Siblings of US citizens, if that citizen is over the age of 21.
The process for “preference immigrants” will take longer than for the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
The wait time for these categories may vary from years to decades. See the current Visa Bulletins issued by the U.S. Department of State for more information.
After your petition is approved, there are two ways to apply for a green card:
- From within the U.S.; and
- From abroad.
Applying for a Green Card If You Are Outside the U.S.
A non-citizen can apply for an immigrant visa from their local U.S. Embassy or Consulate in their native country.
The process is formally known as consular processing.
Consular processing consists of the following steps:
1. Get Your NVC Package
If your petition is approved and you are outside the U.S., the National Visa Center (NVC) will send you a package to your country of residence.
The NVC package will contain all required forms that must be filled out for your green card application.
2. Apply for a Visa
The next step is to visit the U.S. embassy in your country of residence to apply for a visa.
Typically, the NVC package includes detailed instructions on how to apply.
Non-citizens applying for a family-based green card from outside the U.S. need to file the DS-260 and DS-261 online forms.
- The DS-260 is also known as an immigrant visa application.
- The DS-261, or Online Choice of Address and Agent, is an online form that informs the State Department on how to communicate with you during the application process.
During this step, you will also be expected to have your visa interview with an embassy official and submit supporting documents.
3. Travel to the U.S.
If your immigrant visa is approved, you will receive your arrival package, the so-called visa packet, from the U.S. Embassy.
At this point, you must travel to the U.S. and carry your arrival package unopened.
Only a U.S. immigration official at a port-of-entry is allowed to open it and decide whether you are allowed to enter the country or not.
Note: Just because you have an immigrant visa is no guarantee that you will be allowed to enter the U.S.
The immigration official will have the authority to decide if you can enter the country.
Applying for Green Card from Within the U.S.
Eligible non-citizens who arrived in the U.S. through a lawful entry (see below) may be able to apply for a green card through the so-called Adjustment of Status (“AOS”) process.
Lawful entry means that a non-citizen entered the U.S. with valid documentation and met face-to-face with a U.S. immigration officer at an inspection point.
In other words, your entry must be acknowledged and authorized by a U.S. immigration officer.
When adjusting status to that of a lawful permanent resident, the applicant must have an immigrant visa immediately available to them.
Applying for a green card within the U.S. is done through submitting Form I-485 to USCIS.
File Form I-485 (If You Are in the U.S.)
If you are in the United States and you are eligible to adjust your status within the U.S., you must submit Form I-485 (Application for Adjustment of Status) to the USCIS office.
The form is basically the permanent resident application that will get you the permanent residence card.
Then, the final step is to get your green card in the mail.
Immediate family members of U.S. citizens (spouses, unmarried children under 21 and parents) who are physically present in the U.S. can file Forms I-485 (Application for Adjustment of Status) and I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) concurrently.
You will need the following forms to file for Adjustment of Status:
- Application to Adjust Status Form (I-485)
- Affidavit of Support Form (I-864)
- Report of Medical Examination and Vaccination Record Form (I-693)
- (Optional) Application for Employment Authorization Form (I-765)
- (Optional) Application for Travel Document Form (I-131)
Note: I-765 and I-131 fees are waived if you are submitting these forms concurrently with your I-485 form.
Supporting Documents for Adjustment of Status (Form I-485)
These are the supporting documents that you most likely need to submit along with the Form I-485:
- Proof of eligibility for a green card (e.g., Form I-130 and marriage certificate for marriage-based applications, or petition approval notice and marriage certificate if you entered the U.S. as a fiancé(e).
- Evidence of any criminal convictions (certain crimes may make your application “inadmissible”). If you have any criminal history, consult an immigration attorney before submitting your green card application.
- Two color photographs U.S. passport-style (taken within the last 30 days).
- Birth certificate along with a word-for-word English translation if it is in a foreign language.
- Photocopy of the non-immigrant visa page of your passport.
- Other documents.
Note: Never submit original documents unless requested by the USCIS with your green card application.
The agency would not return the original documents submitted with your application.
If you have been lawfully admitted to the U.S., both the adjustment of status and consular processing may be available to you.
Note: There may be exceptions.
For example, if you overstayed your visa and then leave the U.S. for consular processing in your native country, a three or ten year ban may apply to you.
In such cases, please consult an immigration attorney before submitting your I-485 Form.
Who Cannot File for Adjustment of Status in the U.S.?
The following categories of people are not eligible to file an I-485 application (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status) if they are in the U.S.:
- Those who entered the U.S. as a crewman via the D and C1/D Crewmember Visa
- Those who entered the country for transit purposes on their way to another country
- Those who entered the U.S. without inspection (unlawfully)
- Those who entered the U.S. as a witness or informant
- Those who face deportation because they were involved with a terrorist group or terrorist activity
There are also “inadmissibility” grounds that prevent immigrants from filing Form I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status).
You cannot apply for a green card if you meet any of these disqualifying grounds:
- Health-related grounds (you have a specific infectious disease or mental health condition)
- Criminal grounds (you were found guilty of certain specific crimes)
- Security grounds (you are deemed a threat to the national security of the U.S.)
- Prior violations of U.S. immigration laws or procedures
- Public charge grounds that make you likely to become dependent on public benefits
- Other grounds such as being an international child abductor, voting unlawfully, entering the U.S. to practice polygamy, and others.
To remedy some of these inadmissibility grounds, you will need to submit a waiver.
Green Card Application Fees
The current fee for adjusting status through Form I-485 is $1,140.
If biometrics is required, an $85 service fee will be added.
Please check the current immigration application fees on the USCIS website as they are subject to change.
For consular processing, subsequent application fees depend on the type of visa.
In 2020, the fee for family-based visas is $325.
See Fees for Visa Services from the State Department for current fees.
Note: All green card application fees are paid to the immigration authorities at the time of filing your application.
Failure to pay the appropriate filing fee may result in denial of your application.
How Long Will It Take to Receive a Green Card?
Expect these seven stages after filing the Form I-485 (Adjustment of Status):
- Receipt of Application (2-3 weeks)
- Appointment Notice for Biometrics (3-5 weeks)
- Biometrics Appointment (4-6 weeks)
- Employment Authorization Document (EAD) (3-6 months)
- Travel Document (5-7 months)
- Notice of Interview (7-10 months)
- Adjustment of Status Interview (7-12 months)
- Granted Permanent Residence (8-14 months)
Let’s review each stage separately to estimate how long it would take the USCIS to issue a green card.
1. Receipt of Application
Approximately 2 to 3 weeks after filing. As long as there were no errors with your adjustment of status package and all forms have been properly filed, the USCIS will respond by sending you a letter that confirms its receipt of your application.
If the Form-485 and other related forms in your AOS package were not properly filed, the USCIS would send you a Notice of Action or Request for Evidence.
In the former cases, your application will be rejected. In the latter, the agency will request additional information or evidence.
2. Appointment Notice for Biometrics
Approximately 3 to 5 weeks after filing. After the successful receipt of your application, the USCIS will provide you with a notice that assigns your biometrics appointment date and specifies the exact time and location.
Generally, such appointments are held at the nearest USCIS Application Support Center.
Note: Failure to appear at the biometrics appointment may negatively affect your application (unless there is a good cause for missing the appointment).
You can request to reschedule your biometrics appointment (follow the instructions provided in the biometrics appointment letter).
3. Biometrics Appointment
Approximately 4 to 6 weeks after filing. Applicants ages 14-78 need to appear at their biometrics appointment.
This appointment, which is also called a biometrics screening, is usually 30 minutes long.
During the biometrics appointment, the USCIS will collect your fingerprints, signature, and photograph.
4. Employment Authorization Document (EAD)
Approximately 3 to 6 months after filing. If your adjustment of status package included Form I-765 (Application for Employment Authorization), you would also receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).
5. Travel Document
Approximately 5 to 7 months after filing.
If you adjustment of status package included Form I-131 (Application for Travel Document), you will receive a travel document that will allow you to travel outside the U.S. while your green card application is pending.
6. Notice of Interview
Approximately 7 to 10 months after filing.
In many cases, the USCIS sends a notice to attend an adjustment of status interview to both the immigrant and the petitioner.
7. Adjustment of Status Interview
Approximately 7 to 12 months after filing.
Interviews are a normal part of the green card application process.
Get prepared in advance when the USCIS invites you for an adjustment of status interview.
The USCIS will provide a basic checklist of documents required for the AOS interview in your interview notice letter.
8. Granted Permanent Residence
Approximately 8 to 14 months after filing. In some cases, immigrants are granted permanent residence immediately after the interview.
Thus, typically, adjustment of status applicants receive their green card within 8 to 14 months after filing.
However, if your application for a permanent resident is denied, the USCIS will provide you with a notice detailing the reasons for the denial.
Note: In some cases, the USCIS can place a green card applicant into removal proceedings after his or her green card application was denied.
You should carefully prepare your green card application and be aware of all the risks associated with the denial of your green card application.
When you finally get your green card, you no longer need the work permit card (EAD).
Your status as a permanent resident gives you the right to travel outside the U.S. and return with a valid green card.
The green card can also be used as proof of your right to work in the U.S.
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