Living in America is a dream for many expats, but the complexities of applying for a green card are a challenge.
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A green card is an immigration visa. The visa allows successful applicants to live and work anywhere in the US is a first step on the road towards citizenship.
There are multiple pathways to permanent residence, whether you dream of the ultimate city living experience in New York or want to relocate to the plains of Texas.
Each year, the US government issues more than a million green cards and permanent residency is usually granted across three main categories:
- Residents with a renewable green card
- Relatives of US permanent residents or citizens
- Foreign workers living in the states on an employment visa
Here we’ll explain how US green cards work and the eligibility criteria for the most popular categories.
Qualifying For A US Green card
All American residency permits and citizenship applications are managed by USCIS, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
There are several ways to apply, depending on your circumstances and the reasons for your move.
Family Green cards
Immediate relatives of existing US citizens or permanent residents can apply for a green card without any quota on the number of applications approved. A close relation includes a spouse, parent or child.
Family Preference Green Cards are slightly different and apply to more distant relatives.
There is a cap on the number of family preference visas, set at 226,000 for 2021.
An immediate relative is usually approved in around 12 months, but a family preference visa can take much longer, even several years in some cases.
To qualify, an existing citizen or permanent resident needs to sponsor the application from their relative and be at least 21 years old.
Employment Green Cards
The next green card category is for foreign nationals looking to relocate to the USA for work. Either an H1B Work Visa or EB-2 Extraordinary Worker Visa will allow the applicant the right to live in the states.
However, an H1B Work Visa is temporary and complex.
You’d be permitted to work in America but would then need to apply for labour certification to qualify for a long-term green card.
H1-B Visas are available for expats that:
- Provide exceptional merit services
- Contribute to Department of Defence research and development projects
- Have a distinguished ability in their field
- Work in a specialist occupation
Most H1-B visa applicants end up in a lottery, with strict limits on the number of expats approved each fiscal year. They require the employer to petition the application and apply for approval as part of a merit-based system.
An EB-2 green card is simplified in that the foreign national can self-petition and doesn’t need an employer to verify their case to apply for a green card or even have a permanent job offer on the table.
There is also a national interest waiver, whereby if you have a desirable skill, the government might suspend the customary conditions. Examples include medical professions.
Student Green Cards
If you’ve been accepted at an American college and are studying for a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you can apply for a student visa.
That visa allows you access to a post-grad work permit for up to one year, called the Optional Practical Training route.
After one year, graduates can apply for an H1B Work Visa, provided they have an employer to support the application.
Terms apply, such as confirming that an existing US citizen can’t take up the job role.
This green card application route can take several years and is long-winded. Still, it can be a way for expats to reside in the US on a permanent visa if they have valuable skills but not the financial means to qualify for residency on another basis.
US Permanent Residence Through Investment
The USA has an active residency by investment programme, although you’d need to have a business proposition or job offer to apply.
Investors can become eligible for an EB-5 Immigrant Investor Visa by:
- Contributing $500,000 (£367,000) to targeted employment areas
- Investing $1 million (£734,000) in a US commercial enterprise
By investing, you get a green card with permanent residency rights but need to ensure that any investment generates at least ten full-time jobs and benefits the American economy.
Spouses and unmarried children under 21 are included in the application as derivative applicants, and checks apply such as criminal records assessments.
Other Green Cards
You may also be eligible for US residency if you:
- Have a valid claim for asylum or as a refugee.
- Are a victim of abuse, trafficking or another crime.
- Have lived in the states since 1st January 1972 via the Green Card Through Registry program
Find out more about green cards through the USCIS information portal
The US Green Card Lottery
A final green card category soaks up to 550,000 applicants to live permanently in the US under the Diversity Lottery.
This scheme accepts applicants from under-represented groups, including expats from countries such as Ukraine, Fiji and Estonia.
Green Card Application Costs
If you qualify for a green card, you’ll need to pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee, currently $200 (£147). Note that this is solely the immigration charge, and many different costs depend on your chosen visa category.
You should pay the charge before departing for the states, but after you’ve collected your green card visa documentation from the Department of State or appropriate consulate.
A representative can pay green card fees, such as a family member, friend or employer, but they’ll need to quote your ‘Alien Number’ and Case ID on the remittance.
Exemptions apply for:
- Permanent residents who are returning to the US under an SB-1 green card.
- Special Immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Children that are travelling to the US under adoption or orphanage programmes.
- K-1 Visa holders, applicable to foreign citizens who are engaged to a US national.
The costs are associated with processing your online application and producing a green card or Permanent Residence Card.
Other charges include:
|Green Card Fee||Applicants Living in America||Overseas Applicants|
|I-130 Family Sponsorship||$535 (£393)||$535 (£393)|
|I-485 Green Card Application||$1,140 (£836)||$0 (£0)|
|I-864 Financial Assistance Form||$0 (£0)||$120 (£88)|
|Biometric Processing||$85 (£62)||$0 (£0)|
|State Department Fee||$0 (£0)||$325 (£238)|
You will also need to cover the expenses of a medical examination, a compulsory requirement of most green card categories. The average is around $200 (£147).
Grabbing A Green Card FAQ
Yes, most green card applications should be submitted online through the USCIS portal.
There are numerous forms, and the right option depends on the reason for your application. For example, if you have a green card and need to renew, you must file an I-90 Application online.
It is also possible to apply via a posted paper application, although most payments and applications are filed online.
Applications for a US Green Cards are notoriously complex, with a vast number of application routes and qualification criteria.
The fastest way to secure US permanent residency is through a family visa application, supported by an existing citizen or resident who will petition your application.
It depends. The application fee is $200 (£147) – but that is just the processing charge.
For example, if you are applying to replace a lost or damaged card, you will pay a $455 form fee (£334) plus an $85 (£62) biometric fee.
Expats not living in the states and applying for a family green card will need to pay up to $1,200 (£881) in processing charges and filing fees.
There are multiple routes to gaining a US green card, and the right option depends on:
• Your reasons for moving to the states.
• Whether you work in a skill shortage occupation.
• How much you wish to invest in your visa application.
• Whether you have relatives living in America.
Some of the most popular options include applying through a skill in a desirable sector, such as education, healthcare, business, science or the arts.
You can also qualify for a green card if you have an immediate relative, such as a spouse, parent or child, already living in America with citizenship or permanent residency rights.
A US work permit and a permanent residency green card are two different things.
You become eligible for a green card after a period living in the US on a work visa but usually need to work in a specialist, high demand area, require sponsorship from your employer, and demonstrate that an existing citizen could not fill your role.
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