How to Get a United States Green Card

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By: Bill Henry
PublishedJun 10, 2022
11 minute read

There are many ways to legally enter the United States, but as any foreign visitor knows, there is only one way to stay as long as you want: a green card. Each year, thousands of immigrants obtain lawful permanent resident status by meeting certain criteria and filing the right paperwork, starting with Form I-485. So can you. In this article, we discuss the steps to get a United States green card.

In This Guide:

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What is Form I-485?

Form I-485 is the official document every immigrant must file with USCIS to get a green card. The form is officially known as the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

Even if you have been sponsored by an employer or a United States family member, you cannot get a green card without filling out form I-485, submitting it with supporting documents, and satisfying USCIS inspection throughout the process.

If you are in the U.S. as an immigrant spouse or relative, you can file form I-485 with your sponsor’s I-130 at the same time. This is known as concurrent filing.

If you are an immigrant spouse who has been married to your U.S. sponsor for less than two years, you must file form I-485 to get Conditional Permanent Residence and then file Form I-751 with your spouse before the conditional green card expires.

Who is Eligible to Apply for a Green Card?

As a rule, the applicant should already be lawfully present in the United States at the time of filing. Lawfully present means the applicant has either passed through customs with a valid and inspected non-immigrant visa or is sponsored by a U.S.-based relative or employer.

There are plenty of pathways a qualified applicant can take. The USCIS defines seven main categories of green card eligibility, then breaks them down into 27 more subcategories. We’ll delve into some of the most common types of green card applicants in this article.

Who is Not Eligible to Apply for a Green Card?

The process of getting a green card is detailed and intentional by design. In other words, you cannot apply for one just because you happen to be in the U.S. or happen to have family here. Convicted criminals and members of terrorist organizations are barred from the process.

You cannot file form I-485 if you fall under any of these categories:

  • you entered the U.S. as a crew member aboard an international flight or shipping vessel
  • you’re passing through the U.S. in transit to another country
  • you’re not in the U.S. but have family here
  • you’ve been brought to the U.S. as a witness or informant
  • you’re in the process of removal proceedings due to terrorism

You also cannot file for a green card under any grounds of “inadmissibility,” including:

  • a serious mental health condition
  • a disqualifying communicable disease
  • a criminal record including past convictions
  • the U.S. considers you a national security risk
  • you lack means of support without government assistance
  • you’ve previously violated immigration laws
  • other grounds based on unsavory or illegal behavior, such as child abduction, voting unlawfully, running a fraudulent business, practicing polygamy, etc.

If you want a green card but worry you would fall into an inadmissibility category, it might be possible to obtain a waiver and resolve the issue. If you’re thinking of filing such a waiver, it’s important to have a lawyer’s help.

Most Common Paths to Get a U.S. Green Card 

Whether you are applying for lawful permanent residence or petitioning for someone who will, it’s important to understand the category under which you’re filing. The necessity to submit form I-485 is one thing every green card applicant will have in common. After that, the specific steps and processing times vary depending on which path you take.

We will discuss form I-485, its supporting documents, and the process later in this guide. It’s important to understand that obtaining a green card or visa under certain categories could involve additional documents, waivers, and processes not covered here.

While the law does not require you to hire an attorney to get a green card, we strongly recommend you seek an immigrant attorney’s advice due to the complex nature of the process.

Family-Based Green Cards

While the USCIS places a yearly quota on many types of green cards it can issue, no such limits exist for spouses and immediate family members of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. This makes it the most sought-after and most available category of green cards.

Immediate family members who meet this special category include:

  • spouses of citizens and green card holders
  • children (21 and under) of citizens and green card holders
  • parents of U.S. citizens over the age of 21

In each case, the U.S. citizen sponsor must file Form I-130 petition asking the USCIS to make a visa available for the family member. It can take six to 12 months to process the petition. If it gets approved, the immigrant spouse or family member can enter the U.S. and use Form I-485 to apply for a green card.

Concurrent Filing 

If the foreign spouse is already in the U.S., the I-130 petition and the spouse’s I-485 can be submitted and processed at the same time. This is known as concurrent filing, and it is quite common. If the couple has been married for more than two years, the spouse will receive a permanent green card once their application is approved.

Conditional Status

If the couple has been married for less than two years, the immigrant spouse must still file form I-485. If it is approved, the spouse will receive Conditional Resident Status or what is known as a temporary green card.

The couple must remove the conditional status on the immigrant spouse’s green card by submitting form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditional Status within a 90-day window before the temporary green card expires.

If you have more questions about how to upgrade from a temporary to a permanent green card, read our legal guide.

Other Relatives

Other family members can be sponsored to come and stay in the United States, but any I-130 petition filed on their behalf will take longer to process – sometimes much, much longer. This is because non-immediate family members’ petitions are limited by annual quotas, and several countries already have very long queues waiting for approval.

Relatives termed preferred relative visas by USCIS, include:

  • unmarried children (21 and older) of a U.S. citizen or green card holder
  • married children of a U.S. citizen
  • brothers and sisters of a U.S. citizen, if the citizen is 21 or older.

A U.S. citizen who is engaged to marry an immigrant must file Form I-129F. The approval could take five to 10 months. Once it’s approved, the fiancé will receive a notice to begin filing for a K-1 visa at a U.S. embassy or consulate office in their home country.

Anyone who enters the U.S. on a K-1 visa must marry the petitioning spouse within 90 days and then file form I-485 to obtain conditional resident status.

Children of a fiancé must also be petitioned individually by the U.S. sponsor with Form I-129F if they will enter the U.S. with their parent. Children of immigrant fiancés receive K-2 visas.

Widows and Widowers 

Widows and widowers of U.S. citizens receive immediate family member priority from USCIS, even if their U.S. sponsor passes away. However, the sponsor must have filed the I-130 petition before they died, or the overseas spouse must file it within two years of the sponsor’s passing.

Employment-Based Green Cards

After marriage and family sponsorships, the second-most used pathway to a green card is through an immigrant’s profession or expertise. Most – but not all – employment-based visas still require a United States sponsor, but in most cases, that sponsor will be a company, agency, or university instead of an individual.

Employment visas are divided into five groups. They are:

  • EB-1, Priority Workers: These are foreign nationals with extraordinary abilities and achievement in the arts, sciences, athletics, education, and business. They are among the best in their fields and can petition for their own visas. These can include celebrity entertainers, professional and Olympic athletes, Nobel Prize winners, outstanding professors and researchers, and CEOs, executives, and managers of international organizations.
  • EB-2, Second Preference Workers: These are highly skilled professionals who qualify for the N1-B National Interest Waiver, meaning they do not require a U.S. sponsor and can petition for their own visas. They hold advanced degrees and/or have shown exceptional ability in the fields of education, business, health, science, technology, or culture.
  • EB-3, Skilled Workers: This is the most common type of employment-based visa who can apply for a green card. This covers all professionals, skilled, and even unskilled workers who have been offered jobs in the U.S. and are sponsored by their employers. These immigrants must be able to prove that they are qualified to do the jobs they’re coming to the U.S. to perform.
  • EB-4, National Interest Waiver Doctor: This visa is for foreign physicians who have agreed to work full-time at clinical practice in a designated underserved area for a certain period, and who meets other eligibility requirements.
  • EB-5, Immigrant Investor: Instead of coming to the U.S. to perform jobs, investors with EB-5 status are tasked with creating them. An immigrant investor must prove that they have invested or will invest $1,050,000 USD (or $800,000 in targeted employment or infrastructure projects) in a new enterprise that will create at least 10 full-time positions for qualifying U.S. workers.

Important Note to Immigrant Investors:  You may only receive conditional residence status after filing form I-485. In order to gain lawful permanent residence status, you should file form I-829 before your temporary green card expires.

Special Circumstances Green Cards

The USCIS recognizes that many types of immigrants deserve an opportunity to live and work in the United States even if they do not meet the criteria of a family- or employment-based visa. These can include:

  • religious workers
  • Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone government workers
  • Afghani and Iraqi translators and contractors who aided and assisted the U.S. during conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially those who could be in danger because of it
  • international broadcasters with the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM)
  • retired officers or relatives of officers who served in international organizations such as NATO

Humanitarian Green Cards 

Foreign nationals enduring compelling humanitarian situations can be paroled into the U.S. on special visas granted by the Department of State (DOS) on a case-by-case basis.

These can include:

Refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to their home country for fear of persecution, death, or unlawful detainment can also apply for a humanitarian green card. This immigrant must gain official refugee status and live in the U.S. for one year before filing for a green card.

Asylum seekers may also seek this type of green card if they can prove a well-founded fear of persecution if they are forced to return to their home country. An immigrant who wins asylum can apply for a green card after residing in the U.S. for a year.

We should note that humanitarian parole is an extraordinary measure reserved for those who truly need it. Humanitarian green cards cannot be used to circumvent normal visa-issuing procedures.

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program 

Every year, the U.S. makes 50,000 to 55,000 visas available to randomly selected people from countries that do not send many immigrants. This is a way to increase the diversity of immigrants in the U.S. and to allow people who otherwise wouldn’t come to the U.S. to enter the country and stay.

All it takes is filling out a simple form online. It costs nothing. A prospective immigrant can enter the diversity green card lottery every year, from early October through early November. Winners are selected at random by a computer and they and their immediate families receive green cards.

Filing Form I-485: What to Know

Once you have gained lawful entry into the United States and have met the eligibility requirements, you are ready to file Form I-485 to apply for a green card.

Whether this green card will be conditional (temporary) or permanent, you must submit the form with the supporting documents in an application package.

Completing and Filing the Paperwork

Form I-485 can be downloaded from the USCIS website. It is important to completely fill out the form. If a particular question or information space does not apply to your situation, write “N/A” in the space. Do not leave any space blank. Doing so could cause the USCIS employee who is reviewing your file to suspect you overlooked or ignored an important question. An incomplete form can be grounds to reject your petition.

Once the form is completed, gather all the supporting documents and place them neatly with the I-485. It is crucial that you make copies of every piece of paper, front and back, that goes into the application package. Send the copies with the application package and keep the originals.

The USCIS can make mistakes or misplace important documents. It is important to keep the original documents on hand just in case something is misplaced or you believe the USCIS made a mistake on your petition.

The Filing Fee 

It costs $1,225 to file Form I-485, even if it’s only for conditional resident status.

The filing fee includes the cost of processing biometrics, which the USCIS will request later in the process.

The fee can be paid with a money order, personal check, or cashier’s check. Do not send cash.

Exceptions to the Filing Fee

For most applicants aged 14 to 79, the fee will be $1,225 USD. Refugees who have won valid status do not have to pay the fee. Young children under the age of 14 who are filing with at least one parent can get processed for a lower fee of $750.

Supporting Documents for I-485

Supporting evidence, with documentation, backs up your claim that you are eligible for a green card. These documents should prove the applicant has a valid sponsor, and that a legitimate relationship exists between the applicant and sponsor.

Some green card categories require additional documentation, but most I-485 applications require the following:

  • Proof of Lawful Entry: A copy of the applicant’s visa and I-94 travel record should be attached as evidence that they did not enter the U.S. illegally.
  • Proof of Nationality: This requires a copy of the applicant’s home country birth certificate and foreign passport, as well as English translations of the key documents.
  • Affidavit of Support, Form I-864: The USCIS Affidavit of Support is proof of either the applicant’s or sponsor’s financial ability to support the applicant. This should include recent federal income tax returns, bank statements and recent pay stubs.
  • Proof of No Criminal Record: If the applicant has ever been arrested or charged with a crime, but not convicted, it is important to add proof with a certified copy of the court record, with English translation if necessary. There is no need for this if the applicant has never been arrested or charged with a crime.
  • Medical Examination Results: Before filing Form I-485, find a USCIS-approved physician in your area and get a thorough medical examination to prove good health and a lack of communicable disease.

Note: Foreign documents require certified English translation. Many sites online offer this service for a small fee. Your own hand-written translation will not suffice.

Where to Submit or Mail Form I-485

It is important, first, to file the green card application package with a valid United States return address to make sure the USCIS knows where to send the receipt notice and other correspondence.

If you intend to change addresses during the process, or if it becomes necessary, it is imperative that you notify the USCIS by filing Form AR-11, Alien’s Change of Address Card within 10 days of the change.

Where to send or submit the application package depends on a variety of factors, including the category under which you are applying for a green card and your location. Fortunately, the USCIS has a detailed and useful chart you can consult beforehand.

Next Steps and Processing Time

How long does it take to get approved? That depends on many factors beyond your or the USCIS’ control. Generally speaking, though, it can take a few months to a few years for processing.

As a rule, times vary depending on how you’re applying for the green card, the location of the USCIS processing center, and the backlog of petitions.

The next steps after filing Form I-485 include:

  1. Notice of Receipt (2-4 weeks after filing): The USCIS will mail the applicant a form notifying them that their I-485 package was received. This form will include your receipt number, which you can use to check the status of the application online.
  2. Biometrics Appointment (4-6 weeks after filing): The USCIS will have scheduled an appointment for the applicant to submit signatures, photographs, fingerprints, and other biological data that can be used to verify identity and run background checks. This notice should include the day, time, and location where the appointment will take place.
  3. Notice of Interview (4-12 months): Once again, the USCIS will set the appointment, and will want to ask the applicant questions from the I-485 application submitted. This is to ensure the consistency and accuracy of the information you submitted. It is a good idea to bring all original documents that were submitted (as copies) with the I-485 application, passports, I-94s, and travel documents.
  4. Receive Permanent Residence (12 months to 4 years): After your interview, the USCIS will send you a written notice of its decision. If you are approved, you will soon receive your green card in the mail.

If your application is denied, the decision notice will explain why and whether you can appeal the decision or not. Even if it says that you cannot appeal the decision, you still have options. At this point, it would be best to seek the assistance of an immigration attorney.

Don’t Risk Denial. We Can Help 

Our attorneys can guide you through the immigration process from start to finish. Whether you’re sponsoring a relative, processing a green card, or appealing an unsatisfactory USCIS decision, it always helps to have legal representation or at least some good advice. Call 720-588-9682 for your case assessment, o lláme al 720-359-2442 para hablar con alguien en español.

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