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Guide to US Green Cards – Various Paths

America is the land of opportunities. The opportunities open up more, once a foreign born citizen gets permanent resident status.  America has more immigrants than any other country in the world,  as of 2018, there are about 44.8 million immigrants living in the US. Most of the foreign born citizens dream to become a permanent resident. This article will give overview of the process and list out the paths to get permanent residency, popularly known as green card.  

What is Green Card in USA?

A Permanent Resident Card, popularly known as a Green Card, allows someone to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.  Once you get a green card, you do not need to get visa to enter US, you can work for anyone or start a business in US. The Green Card is actually no longer purely green, but mostly mix of green and blue with US flag in background.  The current green card sample looks like below.

US Green Card Sample - Front and Back
Sample US Green Card ( front and back)

How to get Green Card in US – Paths

There are several paths to receiving a Green Card.  Most Green Card holders qualify through sponsorship by a close family member or their employer.  But there are several other paths available.  People designated as special immigrants, refugees or asylees, human trafficking or crime victims, victims of abuse can also qualify.  There are also a handful of special categories that apply to very specific groups of people.  The spouse and unmarried children under age 21 of the person being sponsored (often called the “beneficiary”) for a Green Card can typically apply for one as well as a derivative applicant.

All of these categories are assigned a Green Card Category Code like E11, CR2, IR1, etc. and individuals apply under these categories. US Dept of state also publishes priority dates based on these category codes to track the wait times. This category code also appears on the actual physical Green Card, when issued to an individual.

Also, one important thing to note is that there are specific quotas and limits for certain categories of green cards. Sometimes, you may need to wait a long time, before you get green card. It usually depends based on your country of origin and your category of green card you are applying to.

Now, let’s look at the two major paths, Family & Employment, for getting green card in detail.

Green Card through Family

The largest category of Green Card recipients receive their Green Cards through sponsorship by a family member.  There are several family-based categories:

  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens: An immediate relative is defined as a spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21 or the parent of a U.S. citizen.  The key requirement is that U.S. citizens must be at least 21 years old to sponsor a parent.  There is no cap or limit on the number of visas that can be issued in this category, so beneficiaries can receive Green Cards once their petition is approved without waiting for a visa number to become available.  However, derivative beneficiaries are not permitted to apply in this category.   
  • Other family members of U.S. citizens: Children of U.S. citizens who are married and/or over the of 21 qualify for this category. Also, siblings of U.S. citizens qualify under this category.  More distant relatives such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins do not qualify.  As there are more applicants in this category than the green cards available for this category every year, anyone applying must wait. Usually, once their green card petition is approved by USCIS, they need to wait for a green card slot number to become available.  These wait times to get green card are longest for citizens of China, India, Mexico and the Philippines, with some wait times of more than 20 years.
  • Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens:  U.S. citizens may petition for a visa to allow a foreign fiancé(e) to travel to the U.S.  The foreign national and U.S. citizen must marry within 90 days of arrival.  Once married, the U.S. citizen may sponsor their spouse for a Green Card. 
  • Widow(er)s of U.S. citizens : If a U.S. citizen files a Green Card application for their spouse, but dies before it is approved, the (widow)er can still receive a Green Card.  Widow(er)s who do not have a pending application at the time of their spouse’s death have two years to file a Green Card application.
  • VAWA self-petitioners :  The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows victims of abuse carried out by their U.S. citizen spouse, former spouse, parent or child to apply for a Green Card. This category applies to those who been abused by a spouse, former spouse or parent who holds a Green Card as well.  VAWA self-petitioners can apply without their abuser’s knowledge or consent.

Green Card through Employment

Sponsorship through an employer is another common way to obtain a Green Card in the US.  Spouses and underage, unmarried children of the sponsored employee are eligible to apply for a green card as well.   Similar to some family-based categories, there is a limit on the number of visas issued in a given year, which creates a backlog.  Citizens from China, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam typically face the longest wait times. 

There are five broad categories for those seeking a Green Card through employment.   Depending on the preference category, it can take more than ten years for a visa number to become available. Below are the  5 categories for Employment-based Green cards.

  • Employment Based First Preference (EB-1): This category is for anyone with extraordinary ability in their field, outstanding professors/ researchers and certain multinational executives/managers can apply.
  • Employment Based Second Preference (EB-2) : The EB2 category is for anyone with exceptional (a step down from extraordinary(EB1), but still a high bar) ability in their field, advanced degrees or whose employment is considered to be in the U.S. national interest (such as doctors working in underserved areas) can apply. Also, if you have extensive experience in your field, then you may be eligible as well.
  • Employment Based Third Preference (EB-3) : The EB3 category is for most of the other professionals, either skilled or unskilled workers, fall into this category.
  • Employment Based Fourth Preference (EB-4) : This category is a mixture of many sub-categories that do not qualify under EB1, EB2 or EB3. It includes workers & individuals who fall under religious workers, special immigrant juveniles(SIJ), broadcasters, NATO employees, members of the armed forces, Panama Canal Zone employees, certain doctors and Afghani and Iraqi citizens who have served as translators or otherwise supported the U.S. operations in those countries.
  • Employment Based Fifth Preference (EB-5): The EB5 category allows investors who meet certain qualifications to apply for a Green Card. Those qualifications include investing a minimum of $900,000 in a rural area or area of high unemployment or at least $1,800,000 in other geographic areas to create a minimum of 10 jobs in a new business or save jobs in a pre-existing troubled business. 

Other Categories of Green Cards

In addition to above two major categories, there are several other ways to get a Green Card in US. Below are the other paths to get a get a green card.

  • Asylees and Refugees: Those receiving asylum may apply for a Green Card. They usually can apply for green card using adjustment of status process, one year after asylum is granted.  Refugees can apply for green card one year after being admitted to the U.S.
  • Human Trafficking and Crime Victims : Those who have previously received a temporary visa as a victim of Human Trafficking (T visa) or Crime (U visa) can apply for a Green Card by applying for adjustment of status as long as certain criteria are met.
  • Victims of Abuse : In addition to family based VAWA category, additionally, some children who have been designated as victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment can apply for a Green Card and adjust their status as Special Immigrant Juveniles.
  • Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery : The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program is perhaps the best known of these categories.  Each year, 50,000 visas are set aside for people from countries with low rates of immigration and winners are selected by lottery.  Most of those selected are living outside the U.S. and receive their Green Card through consular processing.  A small number are already living in the U.S. on a temporary visa.  These lottery winners may instead adjust their status.
  • Other Categories : There are a handful of other ways to qualify for a Green Card, most of which apply to people from certain countries who meet very specific conditions like certain Cuban natives, Liberian Refugee program, American Indian born in Canada, Diplomat, etc.
  • Green Card through Registry : Those who have been living continuously in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 1972 are eligible for Green Cards by applying for Adjustment of Status.  Unlike other categories, such applicants are not required to have a medical exam.

The path to a Green Card is easier for some people than others, but anybody going through this process should be aware that it typically requires a considerable investment of time, effort and expense. 

Numerical Limits, Country Caps

There are numerical limits set by US Congress on how many green cards can be issued per year based on the category of filing as listed below

  • Family Based Green Cards : 226,000 per year
  • Employment Based Green cards : 140,000 per year
  • Green card filings as an immediate family member ( spouse, parents, unmarried kids under 21) of US Citizen : No limits

In addition to the above numerical limits, there is also a 7% limit set per country, usually called as per-country caps. As per this, no country can get over 7% of the available petitions under family or employment-based category. Check complete details at Green Card Numerical Limits, Per Country Caps

Priority Dates, Visa Bulletin

The concept of priority date was introduced by US Dept of State to track an applicant’s place in the Green Card issuance queue. In short, “priority date is your place in line for getting green card”.

  • For Family based green cards, it is when I-130 form was properly filed with USCIS
  • For Employment based green cards that require Labor Certification, it is when US Dept of Labor accepted the Labor Certification for processing.
  • For Employment based green cards that do not need Labor certification, it is the date when USCIS accepts I-140 for processing.

US Dept of State tracks the priority date movements in Monthly Visa Bulletin, where the current priority dates are listed by category and country of birth.

Also, there are two dates, Date of Filing & Final Action Dates, that are tracked by US Dept of State and published as part of the Visa Bulletin. These dates are used by applicants living in US, and National Visa Center (NVC) to file the Adjustment of Status applications with USCIS and Visa interviews scheduling at Consulates. For complete info, Read Dates of Filing vs Final Action Dates – How does it work

Summary of Green Card Paths in US

Green Card Category

Various Paths to Green Card under a Category


Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

Other Family Members of U.S. Citizens

Fiancé(e) of U.S. Citizens

Widow(ers) of U.S. Citizens

VAWA Self-Petitioners


EB-1: Individuals w/ Extraordinary Ability, Outstanding Professors/ Researchers & Certain Multinational Executives/ Managers

EB-2: Individuals w/ Exceptional Ability, Advanced Degrees or whose employment is in the national interest

EB-3: Most Other Professional, Skilled or Unskilled Workers

EB-4: Various subcategories

EB-5: Immigrant Investors

Asylees & Refugees

Asylees: 1 yr. after receiving asylum

Refugees: 1 yr. after admission to U.S.

Human Trafficking and Crime Victims

Human Trafficking Victims who previously received a T visa

Crime Victims who previously received a U visa

Victims of Abuse

VAWA Self-Petitioners

Special Immigrant Juveniles

Other Categories

Diversity Immigrant Visa Program

Various other subcategories that apply to very specific groups of people who meet very specific conditions


Individuals who have lived continuously in the U.S. since 01/01/1972

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