For many immigrants to the United States, obtaining permanent residency status (also known as getting a “Green Card”) will be the key to beginning a new and secure life in their new country.
Once you have been issued your Green Card, you will be considered to be living in the United States lawfully, and will be entitled to a variety of new rights and protections.
Given the importance of this status, it’s essential that you be aware of the law and the procedures involved with obtaining permanent residency.
This article will use the phrases Green Card and permanent residency interchangeably, as they mean essentially the same thing.
The United States government recognizes and appreciates the importance of keeping families together, even though the circumstances of many immigrant families will necessitate separation.
One spouse may be living lawfully in the United States, while the other spouse must, for whatever reason, remain behind in the home country.
Because of the importance of keeping families together, it will often be possible to apply for and obtain a Green Card based on your familial relationship to a United States permanent resident or citizen.
Getting this Green Card and visa will allow you to enter the country, and be with your family member.
This article will discuss the various family-based Green Cards for which you may be eligible, by briefly explaining the eligibility criteria, as well as the application procedures for each.
What are Visas and Green Cards?
If you’re a foreigner planning on entering the United States, it’s important that you understand the difference between a visa and a Green Card.
A visa allows you to enter the United States at a border crossing or port of entry. It takes the form of a stamp in your passport.
There are many different types of visas, that vary depending on the underlying purpose of your entry.
For example, there are visas for foreign students, workers, tourists, and businessmen.
Based on this purpose, each type of visa will allow its holder to remain in the country for a set and limited amount of time.
Once this time expires, the visa holder must leave the country or else be in violation of the law.
A Green Card, on the other hand, is a plastic card that proves that its holder is a legal permanent resident of the United States.
This means that the person is living legally in the country.
Often, a visa will be a first step towards eventually obtaining permanent residency and a Green Card.
Once a person has entered the United States on a visa, that person’s status may be adjusted to permanent residency.
Immediate Relative of a United States Citizen
If you are the immediate relative of a United States citizen, you may be eligible for a Green Card based on this familial relationship.
The government respects the interest in keeping families together, despite the challenges posed by immigration.
Your sponsor, who is the United States citizen, will need to petition on your behalf for your permanent residency.
In order to qualify as an “immediate relative,” you must be either the spouse, unmarried child (under the age of 21), or parent of the United States citizen.
The United States may issue an unlimited number of visas and green cards to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
The Family Preference Category
Even if you do not fit the definition of immediate relative above, you may still qualify for a Green Card based on your family relationship to a United States citizen, though at a slightly less preferred level.
The United States citizen will still be acting as your sponsor.
You can use this option if you are an unmarried child (over the age of 21), the married child of any age, or the brother or sister of the United States citizen.
Unlike with immediate relatives, there is a limited number of authorized visa numbers available for family preference applicants, so the waiting period will likely be a good deal longer than if you were using the immediate relative avenue.
Family Member of a Permanent Resident – The Family 2nd Preference Category
If you are the family member of a United States permanent resident (or, a Green Card holder), you may also qualify for a Green Card yourself, provided you meet certain criteria.
Your permanent resident family member may sponsor you and petition for your grant of permanent residency if you are the spouse or unmarried child (of any age) of a United States permanent resident.
Keep in mind that there is a limited number of authorized slots for applicants based on these criteria, so the waiting period may be rather lengthy.
Also, keep in mind that in order to get a Green Card based on being the child of a permanent resident, you must be and remain unmarried.
If you get married during the pendency of your application, you’ll make yourself ineligible for a Green Card, as least on the family relationship basis.
Marriage to a United States Citizen
If you are already married to a United States citizen, you may be eligible for a marriage-based visa or Green Card.
In order to be eligible for a Green Card based on you marriage to a United States citizen, you must be able to establish that you meet certain criteria.
First, you must be able to prove that your marriage is legitimate and legally valid.
This means that your marriage is the real thing, and is not a sham concocted for immigration purposes.
It also means that your marriage must be legally recognized under the law of the American state in which you’ll be residing.
Each state has a different set of domestic laws, and each state takes different approaches to such issues as same-sex and close-family marriages.
Make sure that you know the law in your state, and that your marriage is actually legal.
As proof of your legal marriage, you’ll need to produce a legal document such as a marriage license.
Second, you’ll need to establish that your spouse is in fact a United States citizen.
Citizenship may be obtained through birth in the United States or its territories, the naturalization process, or derived based on the parents’ citizenship.
You’ll need to supply proof of your fiancé’s citizenship through one of these avenues.
If your spouse’s citizenship is via birth, you’ll need to supply his or her birth certificate.
If your spouse was naturalized, you must produce his or her naturalization certificate.
Finally, you’ll need to establish that this is both you and your spouse’s only marriage and that neither of you is married to anyone else.
The United States does not recognize bigamous marriages.
If you or your spouse has been involved in a prior marriage, you’ll need to produce proof that prior marriage has been legally terminated.
This may take the form of a death certificate, annulment decree, or divorce decree.
Procedure for Obtaining a Green Card
Once you’ve determined that you’re eligible for a Green Card based on your family relationship to a United States citizen or permanent resident, you may begin the process of applying for your Green Card.
If you are legally present inside the United States, this process is also called “adjusting status,” as you’re changing your status from some nonimmigrant status over to that of a permanent resident.
If you are not present when you begin the process, you’ll go through “consular processing.”
Either way, the process begins with an I-130 petition on your behalf submitted by your U.S. citizen or permanent resident family member.
File Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
Your sponsor must fill out Form I-130, which is used to establish the family relationship that exists between the United States citizen or permanent resident, and you, as the alien relative seeking to immigrate to the United States.
There is a $420 filing fee associated with Form I-130. Check with the USCIS website for where to send your application.
Adjusting Status in the United States
For those present within the United States, you may file the Form I-130 petition and the Form I-485 green card application at the same time.
Form I-485: Applying for Permanent Residency
Once you’ve assembled all of the above supporting documents, you may proceed to fill out Form I-485, the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, which you may find here.
This form compiles the various pieces of information about you that USCIS will need in order to make a decision about whether to issue you a Green Card and permanent residency.
Additionally, you’ll need to submit Form G-325A, the Biographic Information form.
This asks for several pieces of personal biographic information, and is mostly used when the government performs background checks on you.
When you’re ready to fill out your biographic information, you can access the required form and its accompanying instructions here.
Form I-765 is optional, but many Green Card seekers will also want to submit it.
This is the Application for Employment Authorization, and allows you to get a work permit while you’re in the United States, and earn money.
It’s true that you can work lawfully with a green card in the United States.
Many permanent resident applicants apply for work authorization simultaneously with the I-765 application because work authorization decisions are usually made within three months while it can take up to a year or more sometimes to make a decision on a green card application.
Because a pending green card application is a valid reason to request work authorization, it is sometimes advantageous to submit Form I-765 at the same time.
Finally, you should submit Form G-1145, the E-Notification of Application/Petition Acceptance.
This is another optional form, but it’s useful as it allows USCIS to send you an email or text message when it receives your Green Card application, allowing you a little more ease of mind during the process.
If you are not present in the United States with lawful status when your family member files the Form I-130 petition on your behalf, you will likely undergo consular processing.
National Visa Center
After your I-130 petition is approved, it will be forwarded to the National Visa Center (NVC).
The NVC coordinates with the consulate or embassy in your country to issue your “immigrant visa,” which is essentially a stamp in your passport allowing you to enter the U.S. permanently.
Your green card will be mailed to your U.S. address after you arrive.
Form DS-260: The Online Immigrant Visa Application
After the NVC receives word that your I-130 petition has been approved, they will contact you and direct you to fill out the Online Immigrant Visa Application, Form DS-260.
Form DS-260 covers a wide variety of information, such as your immigration history, criminal history (if any), and biographical information.
It is comparable to Form I-485 mentioned above and is the green card application for immigrants currently living outside the U.S. when their family member petitions for them.
Once you have successfully completed Form DS-260 the NVC will provide you with further instructions on documentation they need and to schedule your interview.
With either process–adjustment of status within the U.S., or processing at a U.S. embassy or consulate–you’ll need to submit a host of other documentation to prove that you are admissible to the United States as a permanent resident.
Along with the above-mentioned forms, you’ll need to submit a medical exam with your application to prove that you’re not inadmissible for any of a variety of medical reasons, such as a communicable disease.
For I-485 applicants, you will simply visit an approved doctor in the U.S. and have them fill out form I-693, Medical Exam for Adjustment of Status Applicants.
For those in consular processing, the NVC will direct you to information regarding getting the appropriate medical examination in your home country.
Note that the results of a medical exam are generally only considered good for one year.
Before allowing you to live permanently in the United States, the government will want to make sure that you will be adequately financially supported, meaning you won’t need to collect public assistance in order to live.
Thus, your family member who is sponsoring your Green Card application will need to submit his or her federal tax returns for the past year in order to prove that he or she meets certain income requirements.
Form I-864 is an affidavit of support, which your family member must complete, in which he or she promises to support you financially should you be granted permanent residency status.
USCIS makes this form available online, along with detailed instructions, and it may be found here.
For adjustment of status applicants, USCIS will contact you and schedule you for a fingerprinting appointment, which will occur at your local USCIS office, or some other designated site.
Your fingerprints will be compared against those in FBI files to make sure that you don’t have a criminal record that would keep you from getting a Green Card.
Applicants outside the United States must submit a police clearance with their consular application. Fingerprints may also be taken.
Green Card Interview
Several months after you’ve submitted your green card application, USCIS will contact you to schedule your adjustment of status interview.
This is the final step in the application process. You’ll be given a date in the near future on which you must appear at the USCIS office.
For those in consular processing, the process is similar. The NVC will contact you regarding an interview date and time.
When you go to the interview, make sure that you bring with you copies of your application packet documents, as well as the supporting documentation you submitted showing why you believe you’re eligible to adjust status to permanent residency.
During the interview, the officer will ask you questions about your relationship to the family member on whom you’re basing your Green Card application.
It’s important that during the interview, you demonstrate to the officer’s satisfaction that your relationship is genuine and legitimate.
For example, if you’re basing your Green Card application on your marriage to a United States citizen, you’ll need to prove that you’re actually married.
This may involve showing that you and your spouse are actually leading your lives together, living in the same house, pooling checking accounts, and engaging in other normal activities of married couples.
The immigration process can be particularly difficult for families, and it can often necessitate extended periods of challenging separation.
Fortunately, the United States government recognizes the importance and value of keeping families intact to as great an extent as possible.
To this end, United States citizens and permanent residents are given special abilities to petition for Green Cards for their family, so that family members can immigrate and permanently reside in the United States.