The United States offers several ways to become a Permanent Resident (Green Card holder). A Green Card allows you to live and work permanently in the U.S.

A permanent resident is someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis. As proof of that status, a person is granted a permanent resident card, commonly called a “green card.” You can become a permanent resident several different ways. Most individuals are sponsored by a family member or employer in the United States. Other individuals may become permanent residents through refugee or asylee status or other humanitarian programs. In some cases, you may be eligible to file for yourself.

The steps to become a permanent resident are different for each category and will depend on if you are currently living inside or outside the United States. The main categories are: Green card through family, green card through a job and green card through refugee or asylum status.

Note: INS enforcement and service functions and responsibilities transitioned into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) are now called the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).


This little area of life can be confusing, mainly because there are so many terms for the same thing. Let’s start with the basics: in terms of whether you’re allowed to live in the U.S. or not, there are four legal statuses that you can have:

  • You can just be an outright foreigner with no right to come to this country.
  • You can obtain a visa that allows you to spend a finite amount of time here, usually for a discrete purpose.
  • You can become a permanent resident, which allows you to live here indefinitely with almost all of the rights of a U.S. citizen.
  • You can be a U.S. citizen.

If you fall into the fourth category, we applaud your cautiousness. If you fall into the first category, you’ll need to get a visa before you start worrying about anything else. This piece is focused on those foreigners who are in the second category – here on a temporary visa – who are hoping to get promoted to the third category: permanent residents. The “green card” is the importantly-titled government document that certifies your status as a permanent resident. So everyone in the third category has a green card, and everyone in the second wants one.

If your concern is that you want to get promoted from the third category to the fourth (i.e., you’re a permanent resident who wants to become a U.S. citizen), this piece isn’t for you. You’ve already got it good. The only real distinctions between green card holders and citizens is that only citizens can vote, can collect some sort of government benefits, and can never be deported. Okay, some of those benefits are worthwhile, but if you don’t even have the green card yet, that should be your first priority.

There are a variety of ways to obtain a green card, but this piece will focus only on the three easiest and most prevalent: getting an employer to sponsor you, entering the diversity visa lottery, or marrying a U.S. citizen. Some of the methods that we do not cover include investing huge amounts of money in the U.S. economy and being a world-class performer. Hey, if you got that kind of cash or skill, you can figure it out yourself. This piece here is for the rest of us.


Of the three ways to get a green card that we do discuss, getting your employer to sponsor you is perhaps the most involved and complex. That’s why we’ll start with it – things will only get easier. But if you’re already married or never win lotteries, this is the best option for you. We should warn you though, you’re going to have to have an employer who cares enough about you working for him/her/it that he/she/it is willing to help you out. Most of the work in this process is going to be done by you, which you should emphasize to your employer, but at some points, you will need an employer’s signature and also some access to hiring records. This kind of application for a green card consists of three steps: the Labor Certification Application, the Immigrant Petition, and the Adjustment of Status. A conservative estimate of the overall time frame is that the first step will take approximately six months, the second approximately three months, and the third approximately one year. These applications are processed on a regional basis, so these time estimates can vary widely across the United States. For instance, the delays will be greatest in California, Texas, and Florida – much lower in Iowa. If you want to make this easiest, go where immigrants ain’t. But you should know that you can begin working after the first two steps are completed successfully.

The Labor Certification Application

The first step consists of the employer petitioning the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) for a labor certification, which is an official finding that (1) no U.S. workers can be found, at the time of filing the application and in the geographic area where the job exists, who are available, willing, and able to fill the position; and (2) that your employment will not “adversely affect” the wages and working conditions of similarly situated U.S. workers. Look, the government isn’t interested in giving you a green card if it’s going to put good old red-blooded Americans out of a job. Oh, and “adversely affect” means that the DOL won’t spot you a certification if it thinks that your employer is paying you half of what American citizens are getting – that’s bad for business. What do you think Ross Perot and all those freaks in Seattle were rioting about? Keeping people like you out of this labor market.

The certification is requested by your filing an application with the employment security agency in the state of your choice, which will then complete preliminary processing of the application before forwarding it to the appropriate regional office of the DOL. Let’s not fool ourselves – when we say your “employer” files the application, that really means you do all the work and simply slide across a manager’s desk for a signature.

The application consists of a two-part application form, Form ETA 750, which is six pages long. The first part of the form is a formal offer of employment to you, and must contain specific information about the duties and responsibilities of the job, and the minimum qualifications a person must have to perform the job adequately. The second part of the application is a statement of your qualifications. This part should contain details about your educational and work-related background.

Of the three steps of the application, this one is the most important. You may need to retain a local immigration specialist – a lawyer – to help you complete these forms. A successful application must strive to define a job that only you can do, without insulting the intelligence of DOL officials. Attorneys specialize in particular cities or states, so you must inquire locally, though you should not be surprised to pay as much as $1500 for this service. Yeah, it’s steep, but it’s really important to get this part right and, who knows, if your employer really wants you to have this job, maybe he/she will spring for the costs. In any event, you should definitely ask them if they are willing to chip in for a lawyer. The completed application needs to contain the aforementioned form, your resume and educational transcripts, and some records of your employer’s hiring practices.

Once the government receives this application, there are two ways in which it can test the proposition that there are insufficient U.S. workers available in your market (i.e., the state in which you are applying) who are interested in and willing to take the job. The first involves the government undertaking such a test, which is a process that can take up to three years and therefore may not be an option in all cases. The second is an accelerated track called “reduction in recruitment” (RIR) processing, which is given top priority by DOL and should take no more than six months. If you take this approach, your application will need to be filed with a packet of documents containing evidence of your employer’s pattern of recruitment.

If your employer is willing to assist your application by providing some records of your hiring practices, then you can retain a local immigration specialist. That specialist will then be able to tell you more precisely what the documentation package should contain. Typically what is required is a declaration by the employer describing how he/she/it goes about hiring people for your position. For most employers, this might involve records of advertising for openings and then a specific history of each hiring, but some jobs involve hiring practices that are more repetitive and consistent, in which case the declaration could be relatively simple.

The Immigrant Petition

If the DOL rejects the petition for a labor certification, your application dies there. If it grants you a certification, then you can progress to the second step: the Immigrant Petition. This petition is filed with the BCIS (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services), and is a relatively simple matter. Working with an attorney, you will need to fill out a Form I-140. Then with that form, send your labor certification you acquired and a check made out to the BCIS for $115. This process is very straightforward and does not require the work of a local specialist; any immigration attorney should be able to assist you for a very low fee – no more than $250. In fact, you may be able to complete it yourself, but why take the risk. The application is pro forma – since the DOL has already certified you – and the BCIS should take no longer than three months to process it. Once this petition is approved, you can apply for interim travel and work authorization, which are issued immediately, and will allow you to begin working for your employer right away.

The Adjustment of Status

The third step of the application is necessary only to secure a permanent adjustment of your status as a temporary worker or visiting student to a permanent resident. You again send an application, including a Form I-485 to the BCIS, with a check and the two previously acquired authorizations, and wait. While this process may take as long as a year, the delay is somewhat irrelevant since you will already be allowed to work in the interim work authorization. Although you may wish again to retain the assistance of a general immigration attorney, this step consists primarily of filling out more forms, which you can probably handle yourself.

Clearly the pivotal stage is the labor certification application; if it is approved, the rest of the process is essentially automatic. If your employer is willing to sponsor you, you may be able to get a very beneficial change to your employment status within as short a period as six months.


Moving from the most complex procedure to the easiest, let’s go over the diversity visa lottery. Several years ago, the U.S. Department of State (“DOS”) instituted a program known as the Diversity Immigrant Lottery (or, the DV). Under this program, each year approximately 50,000 green cards are issued to foreigners chosen randomly from a computer program. Each fall, the DOS announces a one-month period during which you may send in your application; at the conclusion of that period, the applications are logged into a computer and then names are pulled from the hat. If your name is chosen, congratulations, you get the lightening track to green card status. But don’t start packing your bags yet because over 8,000,000 people apply for those 50,000 spots.


The U.S. government does limit this lottery to a rather broad applicant pool. To be eligible, you must have either (1) a high school education or its equivalent, defined by the government as “successful completion of a 12-year course of elementary and secondary education; or (2) two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience to perform. That’s it.

Application Process

Now, if you’re eligible, let’s go over how to apply. You must submit a single plain piece of paper with the following information listed on it: (1) your full name with the family name underlined; (2) the date and place of your birth; (3) your native country, if it is different from your place of birth; (4) the name, date, and place of birth of your spouse and any children you may have; (5) your complete mailing address; (6) a 1.5 x 1.5 inch photograph of your face with your name on the back, affixed to the sheet of paper with clear tape; and (7) your signature.

That’s it! Just give them your information so that if they pull your application out of the pile, they can get in touch with you. But follow these instructions to the letter; last year they disqualified 2,500,000 of the 8,000,000 applications for not following the directions: stapling the photograph, not signing the paper, etc.

A few final points. First, there is just a one month window in which to send off your application, usually the month of October, but it could vary, so be sure to check out the DOS web site for next year’s lottery. Remember, if you send in your application before the window opens or after it closes, you lose automatically. Second, the way to keep track of these lotteries, which are named after the year, is to think of the year in which they’ll make their decision. Don’t miss it.


If you’re really unlucky, you may just have to marry a local. Not every employer is willing to go through the hassle of a green card application and obviously lots of people are going to lose with lottery odds of 1/160. That just leaves marriage. Although the lottery may be easier in that you’re not betting the rest of your life on the game, the marriage gig doesn’t involve any luck.

Technically, this process involves having your spouse “sponsor” your for permanent residency. The first step is for your spouse to file a Form I-130, “Petition for Alien Relative,” to demonstrate that you are eligible for an “immediate relative or family” sponsored visa classification. Any relative who is an American can file this petition on your behalf, but we are discussing only spouses because all other types of family members are subject to such stringent restrictions that they are almost impotent in helping you acquire a green card. The restrictions for non-spouse sponsorship are: (1) that there is a limit to the total number of immigrant visas that may be issued each year in the various visa categories; and (2) that there is a limit to the total number of immigrant visas that may be issued each year to aliens born in any single country.

If a visa cannot be issued immediately because the demand is greater than the supply of visas – which it always is – then your name is placed on a waiting list. For siblings or more distant relations, this list is years long. Only a few types of relatives can avoid this purgatory:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens;
  • Widows or widowers of U.S. citizens who died within the past two years, if they had been married to the citizen for two or more years and have not since remarried;
  • Children of U.S. citizens, if the child is unmarried and under the age of twenty-one; and
  • Parents of U.S. citizens, if the citizen is twenty-one years old or older.

So those are your options. If your parents or children are U.S. citizens, we’re guessing you’ve already figured out how to get yourself in.

Once you have successfully filed your I-130, the INS may investigate your case somewhat. They’re not stupid, so they’ll be looking to make sure that you and your spouse are actually married and live with each other – rent Green Card with Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell to see how this works. If they are initially satisfied with your petition, you may apply for an adjustment of status – from alien to lawful permanent resident – by filing Form I-485, “Application for Status as Permanent Resident,” with your local immigration office. Be sure to include your approval from the I-130.

All adjustment-of-status applicants are then told when to appear for a required personal interview before an immigration officer. If you sent in photocopies of documents for either the visa petition or the adjustment of status application, you now have to bring the original copies to the interview. You’ll also need to bring your passport and Form I-94, “Arrival-Departure Record,” (which you know as the little white card stapled into your passport by the immigration officers at the airport.

See also…

Green Card Issues