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What is a Green Card, Explained

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Last updated: April 4, 2024.

By Asel Williams, Esq. · Columbia Law School · Licensed immigration attorney

Green cards are officially named a “U.S. Permanent Resident Card.”

These United States Immigration green cards are issued by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Your green card grants you permission to live and work in the United States.

You may apply for U.S. citizenship after three or five years.

Types of Green Cards

To get a green card, you must qualify under one of these eligibility categories:

Employment-Based Immigration

You may be eligible for a U.S. permanent resident card if you are an immigrant worker, meaning:

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 U.S. citizen;
  • A minor child (under 21) of a U.S. citizen; or
  • A parent of a U.S. citizen over the age of 21.

Other family members are also eligible for green card permanent resident status under the “preference immigrant” group, which (in order of preference) includes:

Marriage After Obtaining a Fiancé(e) Visa

You or your alien fiancé(e) may apply for a nonimmigrant visa to travel to the United States and seek admission.

Within 90-days after entry, you and your fiancé(e) must enter into a legal marriage with the U.S. citizen who made the application.

You or your lawfully married spouse may then apply for a green card.

Special Immigration – EB-4

You might meet green card requirements if you:

  • Are a member of a religious denomination coming to the United States to work in a nonprofit religious organization;
  • Are a child whose parent abused, abandoned, or neglected you, and you have Special Immigrant Juvenile status;
  • Served as an Afghan or Iraqi translator for the U.S. government;
  • Were employed by the U.S. government in Iraq for at least one year on or after March 20, 2003; or
  • Were an Afghan employed by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Seeking Refuge or Asylum

You may seek permanent United States resident status if asylum status was granted at least one year ago, or admitted as a refugee at least one year ago.

Human Trafficking and Victims of Crime

If you were a human trafficking victim or a victim of a crime and have a nonimmigrant visa, you may apply for United States of America permanent residency.

Victim of Abuse

Under the Violence Against Women Act, you may complete a green card application if you were the victim of extreme cruelty from a spouse, a former spouse, or a child of a U.S. citizen.

Diversity Immigrant Visa Program

The United States Department of State issues permanent resident cards through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.

Also known as the U.S. Visa Lottery, every year 50,000 names are randomly drawn from applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

Most lottery winners live outside the United States and are granted permanent U.S. resident status.

Permanent Resident (Green Card) Benefits

Once you have obtained your green card you have the right to:

  • Live anywhere in the United States;
  • Enjoy most legal rights under the laws and Constitution of the United States;
  • Work in any job, for as many hours as you would like, including jobs that need special licensing or security clearances;
  • Sponsor a spouse and minor children (under 21) in obtaining their own permanent resident Green Cards;
  • Apply for U.S. citizenship five years after reviving your Green Card, or three years if married to a U.S. citizen;
  • Purchase a home, get a mortgage, and get insurance;
  • Participate in the U.S. election process through campaign contributions (but you must be a U.S. citizen to vote);
  • Own business, start a corporation, and apply for government help from the Small Business Administration;
  • Receive Social Security benefits when you retire;
  • Leave and re-enter the United States without the risk of being denied re-entry by the United States Immigration and Customs Service;
  • Apply for government aid for educational purposes;
  • Pay less in tuition at state and private colleges and universities;
  • To own property, a car, and firearms; and
  • Be immune from future changes in U.S. immigration law.

How Can You Lose Your Permanent Resident (Green Card) Status

Once you become a green card holder, you maintain permanent resident status until you:

There are several ways you can lose your green card status:

  • Living outside the United States for a period of six months or more;
  • Voluntarily surrendering your green card and reject your residency status; or
  • Commit any type of fraud or lie to any governmental agency, including the police.

The two most common ways green card residents lose their cards are by marriage fraud and criminal conviction.

Marriage Fraud

One way people lose their green card is through marriage fraud, which comes in many forms:

  • When a U.S. citizen is paid to marry a foreign national;
  • When a U.S. citizen marries a foreign national as a favor;
  • When a foreign national and U.S. citizen enter into false marriage; and
  • Any marriage entered into for the purpose of getting around U.S. immigration law.

Criminal Conviction

Renewing your green card after any arrest is problematic. In general, any felony offense in which you can be sentenced to jail for one year or more may lead to the loss of your green card and result in deportation. Some of these crimes include:

  • Murder;
  • Voluntary manslaughter;
  • Involuntary manslaughter (in some cases);
  • Rape;
  • Spousal abuse;
  • Child abuse;
  • Incest;
  • Kidnaping;
  • Robbery;
  • Aggravated assault;
  • Mayhem;
  • Theft;
  • Fraud; and
  • Conspiracy, attempt, or acting as an accessory to any of these offenses.

When Can You Apply for United States Citizenship

Ideally, the proper way to lose your green card residency status is to get citizenship.

In general, the only way a U.S. citizen can be deported is if his/her original Green Card was obtained through fraud or misrepresentation.

Once you become a naturalized U.S. citizen, the following benefits apply to you:

  • You no longer have to renew your green card;
  • You’re at a reduced risk of deportation;
  • You have easier travel outside the United States and reentry upon retiring;
  • You will not lose your citizenship on long trips abroad;
  • You can apply for green cards for family members;
  • You can pass your citizenship status to your children who have green cards;
  • You have the right to vote and run for public office;
  • You have the ability to receive government loans, grants, and other benefits;
  • You have tax and estate planning benefits; and
  • You have the right to obtain a U.S. passport.

For green card holders, there are five ways to naturalization and becoming a citizen of the United States of America.

Be a Green Card Permanent Resident for at Least Five Years Prior to Filing for Citizenship

The most common way for a United States permanent resident holder to become a naturalized U.S. citizen is by holding their green card status for five years. To apply for naturalization in this way you must:

  • Be 18 years of age on the date your citizenship application is filed;
  • Have been a green card permanent resident for at least five years before the date of your application;
  • Lived in the state for at least three years;
  • Students may apply for naturalization either where they go to school or where their parents live;
  • Maintained a continuous residence for at least five years immediately preceding the application;
  • Have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years before your application;
  • Have been continuously living in the United States from the time of your application until naturalized;
  • Be able to read and write English, and have knowledge of U.S. history and government; and
  • Be a person of good moral character, committed to the principles of the United States Constitution.

Naturalization for Spouses of U.S. Citizens

To be eligible for citizenship as a spouse of a U.S. citizen, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 18 years of age when the application is filed;
  • Been a green card holder for at least three years before applying;
  • Continuously live in lawful marriage to the same spouse for the three years preceding your application;
  • Your spouse must have been a U.S. citizen for three years before applying;
  • Lived in the state for at least three months before applying;
  • Been physically present in the United States for at least 18 months of the three years preceding your application;
  • Maintained a continuous residence for at least five years immediately preceding your application;
  • Continuously lived in the United States from the date of your application until naturalized;
  • Be able to read and write English, and have knowledge of U.S. history and government; and
  • Be a person of good moral character, committed to the principles of the United States Constitution.

Naturalization Through Military Service

If you are a current or former member of the United States armed forces, you can apply for naturalization. As a current or former member of the military, other naturalization requirements do not apply to you.

The criteria for former military service members include:

  • Served honorably during a period of peacetime for a period(s) equaling one year;
  • Show proof of honorable discharge;
  • Be a lawful permanent resident at the time of your naturalization interview;
  • Meet certain physical and residency requirements;
  • Demonstrate the ability to read, write, and speak English;
  • Demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and government;
  • Demonstrate good moral character; and
  • Demonstrate an attachment to the principles of the United States Constitution.

If you are currently serving in the military, the United States Customs and Immigration Service requests that you contact the USCIS agent assigned to your base or your superior officer for information.

Citizenship for Spouses and Children of Members Serving in the U.S. Military

Spouses and children of service members of the U.S. military may be eligible for expedited and/or overseas naturalization.

Citizenship Through a Parent

There are two ways to get citizenship through a parent: at birth, and after birth before the child reaches 18. The law in effect at the time of birth determines whether someone born to a parent or parents outside the United States is a citizen.