Last updated on May 15th, 2019
The first step on your pathway to U.S. citizenship is to obtain a green card and there are many paths you can take. Details on the most common paths to a green card are outlined below.
Family-Based Green Cards
Are you an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen?
If you are an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, then you are eligible for a green card. There is no limit of the number of green cards that can be issued to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. This means that, once you are approved, you will not have to wait in line to receive your green card.
You are considered an immediate relative if you are:
- a spouse of a U.S. citizen (this includes recent widows and widowers);
- unmarried, under the age of 21, and have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen;
- a parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older;
- a stepchild or stepparent of a U.S. citizen, but only if the marriage that created the relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday; or
- a parent and children related through adoption, if the adoption took place before the child was 16 years old.[i]
Are you related to a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, but do not fit the immediate relative definition above?
If you do not meet the definition for immediate relative, but you are related to either a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, then you may still be eligible for a family-based green card. Unlike green cards for immediate relatives, family-based green cards are not unlimited. You may have to wait for years to obtain your green card after your petition is approved.
For instance, as of October 2015, individuals from Mexico who are under the Family first preference category to receive a green card have been waiting in line for 20 years since their application has been approved.
Don’t let this get you down.
With the proper plan prepared by an experienced immigration attorney, you may still be able to be in the United States until your priority date for a green card arrives.
There are four categories of preferred family members. Each has its own effect on when a green card will be available.
- If you are unmarried and have at least one U.S. citizen parent, then you may be eligible for a Family First Preference. Note, however, that if you are also under the age of 21 then you meet the definition for an immediate relative as discussed above and you do not need to wait for a green card.[ii]
- If you are a spouse of a green card holder or an unmarried child under the age of 21 of a green card holder, then you can apply under the Family second preference 2A. If you are over 21 years old and the unmarried child of green card holder, then you may qualify under the Family Second preference 2B.[iii]
- If you are married and have at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen, then you are eligible to apply under Family third preference.[iv]
- If you are the sister or brother of a U.S. citizen and the citizen is over 21 years old, then you are eligible to apply under the Family fourth preference.[v]
Employment/Investment-Based Green Cards.
Do you possess skills that are wanted by U.S. employers?
If you possess skills that are wanted by U.S. employers, then you may be eligible for a green card. These areas tend to be much more intricate than family-based petitions.
In some instances, you may file on your own behalf. In most instances, you will have to have a U.S. employer sponsor you.
Again, there are only a limited number of green cards available per year, so you may have to wait before obtaining your green card.
Working with an experienced immigration attorney can help you get to work in the meantime while you wait for your green card.
Do you possess some extraordinary ability?
If you are a person of extraordinary ability in the arts, sciences, education, business, or athletics, then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-1 preference category.[vi]
You will need to possess such ability (which has been demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim), seek to enter the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability, and your entry into the United States must substantially benefit prospectively the United States.[vii]
You can self-petition, so you do not need to already have a job offer in the U.S.[viii]
“Extraordinary ability” is demonstrated by submitting evidence of three of the following then items:
- Evidence of receipt of lesser nationally or internationally recognized prizes or awards for excellence;
- Evidence of your membership in associations in the field which demand outstanding achievement of their members;
- Evidence of published material about you in professional or major trade publications or other major media;
- Evidence that you have been asked to judge the work of others, either individually or on a panel;
- Evidence of your original scientific, scholarly, artistic, athletic, or business-related contributions of major significance to the field;
- Evidence of your authorship of scholarly articles in professional or major trade publications or other major media;
- Evidence that your work has been displayed at artistic exhibitions or showcases;
- Evidence of your performance of a leading or critical role in distinguished organizations;
- Evidence that you command a high salary or other significantly high remuneration in relation to others in the field; or
- Evidence of your commercial successes in the performing arts.[ix]
Are you an outstanding professor or researcher?
If you are an outstanding professor or researcher, then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-1 preference category.[x]
To be deemed an “outstanding professor or researcher,” you must demonstrate international recognition for your outstanding achievements in a particular academic field.[xi]
You must have at least 3 years of experience in teaching or research in that academic area.[xii]
You must be entering the United States in order to pursue tenure or tenure track teaching or comparable research position at a university or other institution of higher education.[xiii]
Also, you must include evidence of at least two of the following:
- Evidence of receipt of major prizes or awards for outstanding achievement;
- Evidence of membership in associations that require their members to demonstrate outstanding achievement;
- Evidence of published material in professional publications written by others about the alien’s work in the academic field;
- Evidence of participation, either on a panel or individually, as a judge of the work of others in the same or allied academic field;
- Evidence of original scientific or scholarly research contributions in the field;
- Evidence of authorship of scholarly books or articles (in scholarly journals with international circulation) in the field.[xiv]
Are you a manager or executive of a multinational company?
If you are a manager or executive of a multinational company, then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-1 preference category.[xv]
To apply as a manager or executive of a multinational company, you must have been employed outside the United States in the 3 years preceding the petition for at least 1 year by a firm or corporation and you must be seeking to enter the United States to continue service to that firm or organization.[xvi]
Your employment must have been outside the United States in a managerial or executive capacity and with the same employer, an affiliate, or a subsidiary of the employer.[xvii]
Are you a professional with an advanced degree or exceptional ability?
If you are a professional with an advanced degree or exceptional ability, then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-2 preference category.[xviii] You may also apply under EB-2 under the National Interest Waiver.[xix]
“Exceptional ability” means a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered in the sciences, arts, or business.[xx] It can be proven by demonstrating three of the following:
- Official academic record showing that you have a degree, diploma, certificate, or similar award from a college, university, school, or other institution of learning relating to your area of exceptional ability
- Letters documenting at least 10 years of full-time experience in your occupation
- A license to practice your profession or certification for your profession or occupation
- Evidence that you have commanded a salary or other remuneration for services that demonstrates your exceptional ability
- Membership in a professional association(s)
- Recognition for your achievements and significant contributions to your industry or field by your peers, government entities, professional or business organizations
- Other comparable evidence of eligibility is also acceptable.[xxi]A National Interest Waiver is available to individuals who meet the exceptional ability test above and whose employment would greatly benefit the United States.[xxii] These individuals may self-petition for a green card and do not need an employer to sponsor them.
Are you a professional, skilled or unskilled worker?
If you are a professional, skilled, or unskilled worker, then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-3 preference category.[xxiii]
- A skilled worker is someone who can demonstrate at least 2 years of job experience or training and is performing work for which qualified workers are not available in the United States as evidenced by a Labor Certification.[xxiv]
- A professional worker is someone who can demonstrate that they possess a U.S. baccalaureate degree or foreign degree equivalent, and that a baccalaureate degree is the normal requirement for entry into the occupation. The professional must be performing work for which qualified workers are not available in the United States as evidenced by a Labor Certification.[xxv]
- An unskilled workers is someone who can demonstrate that they are capable of performing unskilled labor (i.e. labor that requires less than 2 years of training or experience to perform), that is not temporary or seasonal in nature, for which there are no qualified U.S. workers as evidenced by a Labor Certification.[xxvi]
Are you a religious worker or a special immigrant?
If you are a religious worker, or a “Special Immigrant,” then you may be eligible for a green card under EB-4 preference category.[xxvii]
- USCIS maintains a list of what qualifies as a special immigrant. For more information follow this link.
Are you willing to invest in American business?
If you are an individual investor who is willing to invest $1,000,000 (USD) in a U.S. business or $500,000 (USD) in a U.S. business that is in an economically depressed area, then you (and your spouse and unmarried children under 21) may qualify under Employment fifth preference (EB-5).[xxviii]
Asylum and Refugee-Based Green Cards
If you have been granted asylum in the United States, then you can apply for a green card one year after your asylum was granted.
If you are a refugee or qualifying family member of an asylee, then you can apply for a green card one year after you entered the United States.
Other Ways to Obtain a Green Card
There are other avenues that can lead to a green card. Among the most common are:
- Battered spouses and children under VAWA.
- Victims of crimes in the United States under U-Visa status.
- Victims of human trafficking under T-Visa status.
- Children under Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS).
- Widow(ers) of U.S. citizens.
- For more possibilities, click here.
Feeling lucky? If none of the above categories fit you, you may still be able to obtain a visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program.
For more information and a list of eligible countries, view the U.S. Department of State’s website.
The instructions for the 2016 lottery are available for free online and a list of eligible countries for the 2016 lottery can be found on page 16.
There are probably more routes leading to permanent residency than you thought. As you can see, each path is nuanced.
Even if you are not yet eligible for a green card at this time, consulting with an experienced immigration attorney can help you plan for a smooth journey.
[i] See 8 U.S.C. § 1151(b)(2)(A)(i).
[ii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(a)(1).
[iii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(a)(2).
[iv] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(a)(3).
[v] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(a)(4).
[vi] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1)(A).
[vii] See id.
[viii] See 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(h)(5).
[ix] 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(h)(3)(i)-(x).
[x] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1).
[xi] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1)(B)(i).
[xii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1)(B)(ii).
[xiii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1)(B)(iii).
[xiv] 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(i)(3)(i)(A)-(F).
[xv] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1).
[xvi] See 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(j)(3).
[xvii] See id.
[xviii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(2)(A).
[xix] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(2)(B).
[xx] 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(k)(2).
[xxi] See 8 C.F.R. § 204.5(k)(3)(ii).
[xxii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(2)(B)(i).
[xxiii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(3)(A).
[xxiv] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(3)(A)(i).
[xxv] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(3)(A)(ii).
[xxvi] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(3)(A)(iii).
[xxvii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(4).
[xxviii] See 8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(5).