In order to become a permanent U.S. resident with the right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely, you need to get a United States Permanent Resident Card (aka green card). Not everyone is automatically eligible to receive a green card; complex immigration regulations dictate when and how you can apply, and what type of preference you receive.
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens
Although there are limits on how many people in other categories can apply, there is no green card "quota" for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. As long as you count as an immediate relative (see below), then you should be able to receive a green card once you've completed your application process unless there are complications.
- Spouses of U.S. citizens (counts even if your U.S. citizen spouse is now deceased)
- Unmarried people under 21 with at least one U.S. citizen as a parent
- Parents of U.S. citizens (where the U.S. citizen child is 21 or older)
Non-immediate family members
Other categories of family members of U.S. citizens are subject to a limited number of green cards. Since these categories are on a first-com first-serve basis, the sooner you turn in your visa application the more quickly you can apply for permanent resident status. The preferences categories include the following:
- First preference: Unmarried adults 21 or older who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
- Second preference A: Spouses and unmarried children (under 21) of a green card holder
- Second preference B: Unmarried children (over 21) of a green card holder
- Third preference: Married people (and their spouses and minor children) who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
- Fourth preference: Siblings (and their spouses and minor children) of an U.S. citizen age 21 or older
Preferred classes of employees and workers
Only 140,000 of employment-based green cards are available each year to people whose job skills are desired in the U.S. If you're looking to get a green card through work, you usually need to have a job offer in hand, plus your prospective employer must show that no qualified U.S. citizen is available to hire in your place. These employment based preference categories include the following:
- First preference: Priority workers with extraordinary abilities. Examples include professors and researchers, or high level executives and managers.
- Second preference: Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability.
- Third preference: Professionals and other skilled or qualified workers.
- Fourth preference: Religious workers and other special immigrants.
- Fifth preference: Investors or entrepreneurs who create employment opportunities.
Refugee / asylum
If you were granted refugee/asylum status then you must apply for a green card within one year. The U.S. allows the entry/continued stay of people who have a well-founded fear or, or have experienced persecution in their home country. It's important to note that the persecution you're subject to must fit under what U.S. asylum laws have defined. This means that fleeing your homeland for reasons other than what the laws have set forth does not qualify you for refugee or asylum status.
Diversity Lottery (aka green card lottery)
50,000 green cards are made available to people from countries that have sent the fewest immigrants to the U.S. in recent years. Winning a spot in the green card lottery doesn't guarantee you'll get a visa since there are always more winners than the number of actual spots.
Green cards are also available to people who don't fit into the above categories, or are in special circumstances. Examples of these include:
- Religious workers from recognized organization
- Foreign children who have been declared dependent in US juvenile courts
- Particular members of the U.S. Armed Forces who enlisted overseas and served 12 years
- Haitian refugees