One of the broadest questions in U.S. immigration law is how to get a green card. Most applicants need to get an immigrant visa petition approved in order to obtain permanent residence, and that usually requires a sponsor. Immigrant visa petitions may be employment-based, or family-based. There are limited exceptions - some do not need a visa petition as the basis for a green card, such as those applying through asylum or the Diversity Visa Lottery. Employment-based applicants need sponsorship by a US employer, and family-based applicants need sponsorship by a qualifying family member. The majority of all immigrant visa categories, both through employment and through family relations, are subject to annual quotas, and may entail a wait of some years until a visa is currently available. Only when the relevant quota is current, up to at least the filing date for that case, may an application be filed. Once the date for a petition is current, an applicant outside the US can apply for an immigrant visa, and an applicant present in the US and maintaining valid visa status can apply for adjustment of status. There are some narrow exceptions to this rule, so your individual case should always be discussed with counsel, especially if present in the US but not maintaining a valid status.
Employment-Based Categories: Green Cards Through Work
Most employment-based visas require a permanent, full-time job offer from an employer in the United States, but not all. Aliens of Extraordinary Ability, those who qualify for a National Interest Waiver, and Immigrant Investors are able to sponsor themselves, but all others will require a full-time, indefinite job offer from a US employer.
The most common employment-based green cards entail a test of the labor market by the employer, who must advertise according to a strict set of rules to look for any available US workers with all the minimum qualifications required for the offered job. If the employer fails to find a qualified US worker for the job, the employer may file an application for permanent alien labor certification with the US Department of Labor. This is known as a “labor cert” or “PERM” case. If the Department of Labor approves the application, the employer may then file an immigrant visa petition with USCIS on behalf of the worker: this will be an “EB-2” or employment-based second preference case if the job requires an advanced degree or its equivalent, and it will be an “EB-3” or employment-based third preference case if the job requires a bachelor’s degree, or work experience only.
Due to quota backlogs, even with a successful test of the labor market and a suitable job offer from a willing sponsor, the work-based green card process often involves a wait of several years.
Employment categories that require a job offer by a sponsor but do not involve labor certification include the Outstanding Researcher or Professor, the Multinational Manager or Executive, and certain Special Immigrants.
A breakdown of all categories of employment-based visas is provided on a separate page, listing the basic requirements for each category.
There are green cards available through family relationships for spouses of US citizens, as well as for children, parents and siblings, and for the spouses and unmarried children of Lawful Permanent Residents. A child cannot sponsor a parent until the child reaches age 21. All of these entail waits of assorted lengths, depending on the type of relationship. They are grouped into Immediate Relatives, and the four Family-Based Preference Categories, each of which is defined in Family-Based Immigrant Visas
A visa is always deemed “immediately available” in the Immediate Relative category, but this does not mean the process is instantaneous for the relative living abroad. However, if a foreign national obtains residence based on a recent marriage to a US citizen, they get a two-year Conditional Residence
status, and must file an affirmative application to remove that condition before the two-year anniversary of the card.
Once a person is granted unconditional status as a Lawful Permanent Resident, or green card holder, he or she will receive a Form I-551 Alien Registration Card valid for 10 years. The card must be renewed at 10-year intervals, but the status itself does not expire. However, many actions can terminate residence, such as certain crimes, and absences from the United States of a year or more.