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A green card is an official ID card for a lawful permanent resident of the United States. It serves as proof that its holder is an immigrant who has been authorized to live and work in the US permanently.

Issued by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a green card contains its holder's name, date of birth, sex, alien number (A#), country of birth, card issue date, card expiration date, fingerprint, special codes, and anti-counterfeiting features. A green card is valid for 10 years from the date it was issued. A conditional green card, based on marriage or investment, is valid for 2 years but can be converted to a regular green card if the condition is later removed.

There have been several design changes of the "green" card, which typically didn't look green, but the term was too popular to be replaced. Starting May 11, 2010, however, USCIS will begin issuing redesigned green cards which not only have new security features, but are actually colored in green.

For a complete list of legal paths to obtaining a green card, see our Immigration Roadmap (flow chart).

How to Apply for a Green Card?

To become a permanent resident, you must go through a lengthy, multi-step process that involves several government agencies: DOL, DOS, USCIS, FBI, etc. For most people it requires not only thousands of dollars, but also numerous paperwork and plenty of patience. This is a journey resembling a roller coaster ride in the eyes of many immigrants. The only difference: you are in it for years rather than minutes.

Take employment-based immigration as an example, most people must first obtain Labor Certification before they are eligible to file for an immigration petition. If both are approved, an immigrant visa number must be available. After your priority date (PD) becomes current, you are finally able to file for adjustment of status. But wait, before your green card is issued, you must clear several levels of security checks including the now famous FBI name check. Each step has its own challenges, and visa retrogression or name-check alone could mean years of waiting. Since many people also have to go through several rounds of company lay-offs, this process can quickly become a test of your mental strength.

But don't worry. You knew it wasn't going to be easy. And we offer lots of help too.

There are generally five different ways to become a permanent resident. We have detailed analyses of each approach on separate pages, but here is a brief introduction:

1. Employment-based Immigration

You can obtain a green card based on a permanent employment opportunity with a US-based employer. "Permanent" doesn't mean a life-time commitment from either you or the employer, rather it refers to such intention when the employment relationship is established. There are four categories determined by the applicant's qualification and the job requirements:

  • EB-1 Priority workers
    • Persons with extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics
    • Outstanding professors and researchers
    • Multinational managers or executives
  • EB-2 Professionals with advanced degrees or persons with exceptional ability
    • Foreign professional holding an advanced degree
    • Foreign nationals with exceptional ability in the sciences, arts, or business
    • Qualified alien physicians who will practice medicine in an under-served area
  • EB-3 Skilled or professional workers
    • Professionals holding a U.S. bachelor's degree or foreign equivalent degree
    • Skilled workers (not seasonal or temporary) with at least two years of experience or training
    • Unskilled workers with less than two years of higher education, training, or experience
  • EB-4 Special Immigrants
  • EB-5 Investors

If all previous steps have been completed and a visa number is available, you can file form I-485 to adjust your status (while in the US) or go through consular processing (while outside of US) to become a permanent resident.

2. Family-based Immigration

If you have a family member who is either a US citizen or permanent resident, you may apply for a green card through them. While a permanent resident can only sponsor a spouse and unmarried children, a citizen is able to petition for married children, parents, brothers and sisters as well. However, all categories requiring visa numbers are heavily backlogged, ranging from 5 to 20 years.

  • Parents, spouses and unmarried children (under 21) of U.S. citizens. A visa number is not required for this category.
  • First preference: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 or older) of U.S. citizens.
  • Second Preference: Spouses of lawful permanent residents, their unmarried children (under 21) and unmarried sons and daughters (21 or older).
  • Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens, regardless of age.
  • Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. Citizens.

3. Green Card Lottery

Diversity Visa (DV) is a lottery program to bring up to 50,000 immigrants each fiscal year from countries with low rates of immigration to the US. Natives of countries that have sent more than 50,000 immigrants over the past five years are not eligible to participate. For DV-2008, this list includes Mexico, India, China (mainland), Philippines, Canada, UK, and several others. However, you may be able to claim your spouse or parents' country of birth to qualify for the program if certain criteria are met.

The DV program is held by the Department of State, which publishes new eligibility requirements and instructions on how to apply for a DV visa each year. There is no fee for entering the lottery, but if you win, you must pay for application fees and other surcharges. You are not obligated to complete the process if you win the lottery; and you are not guaranteed to receive a green card either, because you still need to qualify for the visa that you won.

4. Immigration Through Investment

Each year there are 10,000 investor visas (EB-5) available to people who meet strict requirements on eligibility. A qualified individual must:

Establish a new commercial enterprise by starting a new business, purchasing and reorganizing an existing business, or growing an existing business by certain amount.

Invest at least $1 million, or at least half a million in a "targeted employment area."


Create new employment opportunities or maintain the same number of employees of a "troubled business" for at least two years.

5. Immigration Through the "Registry" Provisions

If you have been living in the United States since January 1, 1972, you may qualify for the "registry" provisions of the immigration laws and become a permanent resident.

How to renew or replace a green card

You can file form I-90 to renew an expired or expiring green card. If you are outside of the US when your card expired, and you have not submitted a renewal application before your departure, you need to contact an American Consulate, USCIS office, or POE for more instructions.

Form I-90 is also used for replacement of a lost, stolen or damaged green card. You may also replace your GC if it contains errors or if your information has been legally changed. In summary, file Form I-90 if:

  • You need to replace a lost, stolen or destroyed green card;
  • You need to update a card after your biographic data have changed (such as name);
  • You need to replace a card that is mutilated;
  • You need to replace a card that contains incorrect information due to USCIS errors;
  • You need to replace a green card that you never received;
  • Your card is expiring;
  • You are within 30 days after reaching your 14th birthday and need to replace a card issued before your turned 14;
  • You want to change from lawful permanent resident to Resident Commuter status, and vice versa;
  • Your status has been automatically converted to permanent resident;
  • You must replace your card with a newer version;

Do I lose my permanent resident status if my green card expires?

No. The 10-year validity period is for the green card only, your permanent residence status doesn't expire. However, since the green card is your official ID, you want to make sure to renew it in time.

If you have a 2-year conditional green card, and don't apply to remove the conditions before it expires, you may lose your lawful permanent resident status.

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