Skip to main content

What is a Green Card?

Posted by attorney Thomas Geygan

If you're like most people, you've heard the term "green card," but aren't sure what it actually means. A green card is a colloquial term for the legal document that proves that the holder is a permanent resident and has a legal right to live and work in the United States. It's also called the "Alien Registration Receipt Card." But with a name like that, it is easy to understand why the term "green card" is so widely used.

However, it may surprise you to know that green cards are now again green. They were once green, hence the nick name, then pink, then cream and now again green. They are small, laminated cards with the permanent resident’s photograph and fingerprints.

What Are the Benefits of a Green Card?

The green card benefits are significant. The green card indicates that the holder is a "permanent resident," having the right to live and work in the United States. You also have the right to be protected under the laws of your state and locale of residence.

It also serves as a reentry document, meaning that the holder has the right to reenter the United States after a short absence without providing additional documentation.

It is significant to note that a permanent resident or green card holder is not a U.S. citizen. And, thereby, does not have all the rights associated with citizenship such as voting in national elections.

Does the Green Card Expire?

Absolutely not. The green card is permanent, although it must be renewed every 10 years (like a driver's license needs to be renewed.) There are two limitations: First, your U.S. residence must remain your primary residence. Second, conviction of certain crimes will nullify your permanent residence status.

How Do I Get a Green Card?

You may remember the romantic comedy (1990) feature film, "Green Card." A young American woman enters into a marriage of convenience so that a Frenchman can attain his green card. Having a family member or fiancé petition for your green card is just one way to become a permanent resident.

The most common ways to get a green card are through:

  • a family member
  • a job (typically, a high level professional position)
  • political asylum or as a refugee

If you are already in the U.S., you go through the process called "Adjustment of Status" to obtain your green card. If you are living outside the U.S., you go through a process called "Consular Processing" and you must apply at a U.S. embassy or consular outside the U.S.

Who Makes These Green Card Rules?

Although you've likely heard of "INS" and seen references to it on television, the INS was dissolved in 2003. All immigration matters are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS.) The USCIS is an agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

Additional resources provided by the author

If you have questions regarding obtaining a green card and becoming a permanent resident, be sure to consult with a qualified immigration attorney.  Immigration is a very specialized area of law; be sure your attorney focuses his or her practice on immigration and getting green cards.

Author of this guide:

Was this guide helpful?