Green Card, Explained - Pathway to US Citizenship

Getting United States citizenship is a long process. If you have a US nonimmigrant visa, then it is very difficult since you are not allowed to apply directly for citizenship. You must first get a US immigrant visa, which is otherwise known as a Green Card.

Green Card, Explained - Pathway to US Citizenship

Some U.S. nonimmigrant visas are dual intent ones, meaning that once you fulfill the requirements, you can change your status and get an immigrant visa. When you have an immigrant visa, you must maintain it for five years to be allowed to apply for United States citizenship. Continue reading for details on how to get U.S. citizenship.

Immigrating to the United States means relocating permanently by obtaining a green card (officially known as an immigrant visa or lawful permanent residence). It allows the holder to work in the U.S. without restriction and can also be renewed indefinitely. But most importantly, a green also provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

However, Green cards are not available to everyone, and applying for one can be time-consuming and expensive. People often use temporary visas instead of permanent ones when they visit the country for work, study, or family visits. These visas (officially called "nonimmigrant visas") are usually renewable and suitable for multiple visits, allowing you to stay in the United States for a long time.

Meanwhile, this article will focus on the options for permanent immigration to the United States. However, many people start on temporary visas (such as F-1 or J-1 student visas) before gaining green cards. You should consider opting for a temporary visa to help you achieve your goals if you don't currently qualify for an immigrant visa.

What is a Green Card?

A green card allows a non-U.S. citizen to gain permanent residence in the United States. Many people from outside the United States want a green card because it would allow them to live and work (lawfully) anywhere in the United States and qualify for U.S. citizenship after three or five years. Every year, the U.S. government issues more than a million green cards. Most are given to family members of U.S. citizens and current green card holders, followed by workers from other countries seeking employment in the United States as the next most significant group of recipients.

Types of U.S. Immigrant Visas (Green Card)

To immigrate to the United States, you'll need to figure out which type of green card you're eligible for. You'll likely only be able to immigrate if you qualify for one of the following.

  • Family-based green cards
  • Employment-based green cards
  • Humanitarian green cards
  • Diversity lottery green cards
  • Longtime-resident green cards
  • Other green cards

Family-based green cards

The U.S. government issues over one million green cards each year. Most are given to family members of U.S. citizens and current green card holders. Eligible family members include spouses, children, parents, and siblings. However, the rules for family-based green cards vary depending on whether the sponsor is a U.S. citizen or a green card holder. And also on how closely related the sponsor is to the immigrant.

Employment-based green cards

Family-based green card recipients are followed by workers from other countries seeking employment in the United States as the next most significant group of recipients. Employment-based green cards are issued in five categories based on the applicant's skills or other benefits to the country. Many immigrants enter the U.S. using employment-based green cards.

Furthermore, the first four categories — EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, and EB-4 — focus on the skills you bring as an employee. However, in some cases, you'll need a U.S. employer to sponsor your application; in others, you'll have to demonstrate extraordinary abilities or specialized training. The EB-5 green card, on the other hand, is a little different; it's issued to investors who spend between $500,000 and $1 million creating jobs in American communities. 

>>Read More on Employment-Based Green Cards

Humanitarian green cards

These types of green cards are sometimes issued to refugees and asylees, as well as to victims of human trafficking, abuse, and crime. Getting a visa as a member of one of these groups can be convoluted; therefore, we recommend consulting an immigration lawyer if you think you might be eligible,

Diversity visa lottery green cards

The United States runs a "green card lottery" that randomly awards immigrant visas to up to 50,000 people yearly. Only applicants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States are eligible to apply.

Longtime-resident green cards

It is possible to obtain a green card if you have physically lived in the U.S. since January 1, 1972, whether lawfully or unlawfully. The applicant must have entered the United States before that date and must not have left the country since then.

Other green cards

Other green cards are also issued by the U.S. government, including those for special immigrants such as media professionals, religious workers, Afghan and Iraqi nationals who have assisted the U.S. government, and employees of international organizations. In some situations, green cards are also available to Cuban citizens and American Indians born in Canada. American Indians born in Canada and Cuban citizens may also be able to obtain green cards in some circumstances.

Green Card Requirements

Moreover, the requirements for green cards are based on the specific visa for which you are applying. Check out our previous posts on the types of green cards for details. However, you must pass a background check for most green card applications. You may have to submit police reports from where you've previously lived. You will also need to pass a medical exam.

Green Card Application Process

To begin with, the application process you'll follow will depend on where you currently live. If you're already in the United States, you'll often be able to file your application and remain in the country while it's being processed. This is called Adjustment of Status (AOS)
On the other hand, if you're currently outside the United States, you'll usually file your green card application from your home country and remain there. At the same time, it's processed by your local U.S. embassy or consulate. This is called consular processing.

However, the green card application process will follow the same basic steps. 

Someone usually must file an immigrant petition for you (often referred to as sponsoring or petitioning for you). In some cases, you may be eligible to file for yourself.
After USCIS approves the immigrant petition and a visa is available in your category, you file either a Green Card application with USCIS or a visa application with the U.S. Department of State.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will review and hopefully approve your petition. Once this is done, you will file your actual green card application unless you already did so through concurrent filing, using Form I-485 to apply from inside the United States or Form DS-260 to apply from outside the United States. For family-based green cards, your sponsor will also submit Form I-864, pledging to support you financially.

If you're applying from inside the United States, USCIS will process your application and mail you the details for an appointment to take your biometrics. If you're using from outside the United States, your application will be processed by your local consulate, and you'll get your biometrics taken as part of your consular interview. In both cases, you'll also need a medical exam as part of the application process.

Both application processes require an in-person interview. Once your application is processed, you will be sent a notice with the date and time you must attend an interview at either a USCIS office (if applying in the United States) or a U.S. consulate (if applying outside the United States).

After the interview, you'll be told whether your application has been approved. If you apply inside the United States, your green card will be mailed to you. If you use it via consular processing, your passport will be returned with a visa allowing you to travel to the United States; once you arrive, your green card will be mailed to your U.S. address.

How Much Does an Immigrant Visa Cost?

The total cost of applying for a family-based green card is approximately $1,960 for an applicant living in the United States or around $1,400 for an applicant living abroad. This includes mandatory U.S. government fees, which are nonrefundable, plus the typical cost of the required medical examination.

On the other hand, the total cost of applying for an employment-based green card varies depending on the category under which you're using. You can expect to pay $1,225 for your green card application, but your employer could face additional filing fees and labor certification costs, potentially driving the total cost to around $10,000.


Congratulations on becoming a green card holder! After all the hard work, you are now free to live and work wherever you like across the United States. You also have a clear pathway to eventual U.S. citizenship. Reaching the point of gaining permanent residence in their newly adopted country is a crucial milestone. As the step before the ultimate goal of citizenship, holding permanent residence removes uncertainty regarding the future and your safety and security. 

Your physical green card will be mailed to the U.S. address you put on your application. This can take up to 3 months, but you are allowed to remain in the United States and work for U.S. employers in the meantime.