The Green Card and Legal Permanent Residency

A Green Card is an alien registration card, issued to permanent resident aliens. A Green Card entitles the holder to live, work and study in the United States.

After holding a green card for four years and nine months, the holder may apply for naturalization as a citizen of the United States, and may naturalize after living in the United States as a legal permanent resident for at least five years.

Immigration laws and regulations can change very quickly, and many individuals who are seeking U.S. permanent residency will benefit from consulting a qualified immigration attorney.

Eligibility for a Green Card

In the United States, most people will qualify for a green card either on the basis of their employment, or on the basis of family relationships.

  • The immediate relatives of an American citizen (a spouse, child, parent or sibling) may apply for a green card. The spouse or minor child of a U.S. citizen is subject is ordinarily immediately eligible for a visa upon application. Other family members will have to wait for a visa to become available, which may take several years.

  • Foreign individuals who have found employment in the United States, and whose employers are willing to sponsor them, are eligible for green cards. Foreign workers with more education and special job skills may enjoy relatively prompt review of their applications, while those lacking skills considered to be in short supply may be in for a long wait.

  • The "Green Card Lottery": Every year there is a diversity visa (DV) green card lottery, through which individuals from certain areas of the world may qualify for a green card. Qualified applicants complete a simple application form, and, if picked, will be issued a green card. The chances of obtaining a green card in this manner are small.

Marriage-Based Green Cards

When a U.S. citizen who resides in the United States marries an alien, the alien is eligible to receive a green card on the basis of the marriage. The spouse of a U.S. citizen is considered to be an "immediate relative", and is thus eligible to apply for permanent residency.

In order to obtain permanent residency, the alien spouse's relationship with the U.S. citizen must be established and the alien spouse must be eligible for admission to the United States under the governing immigration laws. The marriage must be bona fide, not merely a fraud or sham to obtain a green card.

The USCIS takes fraudulent marriage very seriously, and applicants will be required to provide supporting documents to establish that their marriage is valid.

Special Factors Affecting Eligibility

Labor Certification.

This is the process of establishing that there are an insufficient qualified workers to perform a specific job in a specific region, and thus that foreign workers should be permitted to perform the specific job. This is ordinarily a lengthy process.

Outstanding Researchers.

Individuals who enjoy international recognition as outstanding academics.

Extraordinary Individuals.

People at the pinnacle of their professions or fields of work may qualify to bypass the labor certification process and immediately apply for a green card.

National Interest Waivers.

Where the services of a professional would be of a national interest to the United States, the professional can apply for a green card without a sponsoring employer.

Family Immigration:

As mentioned above, special consideration is given to the immediate family members of U.S. citizens. For applications by family members other than spouses, minor children, and parents, this process may take years. In terms of family members, priority for eligibility is as follows:

  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. There are no quotas and no waiting for immediate relatives of United States citizens. Immediate relatives are spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21, and parents of U.S. citizens.

  • First preference - Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. (Subject to annual quotas.)

  • Second preference - Spouses and unmarried children of U.S. citizens and unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders who are at least 21. (Subject to annual quotas.)

  • Third preference - Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. (Subject to annual quotas.)

  • Fourth Preference - Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens. (Subject to annual quotas.)


Persons who are in the United States, and legitimately fear returning to their country of origin as a result of persecution based on their race, religion, or membership in a political or social group, may qualify for special consideration. Economic hardship or suffering will not support a request for asylum.

Absent exceptional circumstances, a person must request political asylum within one year of arriving in the United States. If political asylum is granted, the applicant may remain in the United States and may eventually obtain permanent residence.

Copyright © 2002 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 7, 2018.