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Green card vs. citizenship: understanding the difference

The benefits of citizenship over permanent residency

Summary: Citizenship offers more benefits than permanent residency, but applying for citizenship requires having a green card.

Any foreign national wishing to remain in the United States indefinitely may do so upon obtaining a green card—the identification card provided to permanent residents. However, a permanent resident with absolutely no intent to return to his or her homeland may wish to consider the alternative of full American citizenship, and should understand the differences, benefits, and obstacles to both pathways. Hiring an immigration attorney is one way to do this.

Difference between permanent residency and citizenship

Permanent residency is achieved by proving to the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) that an applicant intends to remain in the United States long-term—and has proper documentation to support this. Common ways to achieve permanent residency in the US include:

  • Marriage to a US citizen

  • Sponsored employment

  • Asylum or refugee status

  • Through work with humanitarian programs

Once permanent residency is established, the individual is issued a permanent resident card (i.e., a "green card") and may remain lawfully in America until the terms of permanent residency are violated or—in some cases—the underlying reason for the permanent residency status concludes.

Permanent residency status, while considered perpetual in nature, is not synonymous with that of citizenship, which confers the ultimate gamut of rights and benefits on the applicant. A full-blown citizen of the United States is afforded any and all rights, duties, and obligations enjoyed by natural-born American citizens. Moreover, unlike permanent residency status, citizenship cannot be revoked except in extremely rare circumstances.

Deciding which to pursue

Regardless of the ultimate long-term goal, a foreign national must obtain a green card prior to applying for citizenship. If a permanent resident wishes to maintain significant ties to his or her homeland, such as property or a business, it may be a better option to remain a permanent resident of the United States while maintaining citizenship elsewhere. However, if a green card holder has decided that the US is to be his or her permanent home, pursuing the path to citizenship may be the best option for the future.

The citizenship application process requires proof that the applicant has resided in the United States for at least 30 months out of the previous 5 years, is proficient in the English language, and is willing to maintain continuous residence in the US for the entire duration of the naturalization process – which can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete.

Benefits of citizenship

Achieving US citizenship can be an exciting and awe-inspiring experience. There are a number of rights that a US citizen enjoys that a permanent resident or visa holder does not, including:

  • The right to vote in federal elections, and many state elections

  • Priority in petitioning to bring a family member to the US

  • Ability to confer citizenship status on a child born abroad

  • Obtaining a US passport, which allows access to US officials when traveling overseas

  • Eligibility for federal employment

  • Becoming an elected official

In addition to these benefits, there are certain obligations that come with citizenship. First, a US citizen must promise under oath to renounce allegiance to other nations or sovereignties. A citizen must also swear allegiance to the United States and promise to support its Constitution and laws. Lastly, a US citizen must promise to serve the United States if needed, such as in times of crisis or pursuant to a mandatory military draft.

A US citizen cannot have his or her status revoked except in extremely rare circumstances. Generally, revocation is only allowable if the person obtained citizenship through fraud or misrepresentation (i.e., lying). In addition, the US government may opt to revoke citizenship if an individual becomes involved with or a member of the Communist party, other totalitarian party, or terrorist organization within 5 years of receiving citizenship.

By contrast, permanent residency may be revoked for a much broader range of reasons, including committing a crime or fraud during the application process.

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