The Green Card explained

Gabriela Peratello

The Green Card — more properly known as a Permanent Resident Card — grants non-US citizens the right to live and work permanently in the US. It’s also a possible step on the route to naturalizing as a US citizen.

Considering applying for a Green Card? This guide walks through all you need to know, including:

📑Table of Contents

Setting up your life in a new country is never cheap. To help with managing your money across borders, we’ll also introduce Wise as a smart way to send, spend and receive foreign currency payments from all over the world. More on that later.

What is a Green Card?

Let’s start with the basics — what is a Green Card, and how is it different to a visa, or holding a US passport?

Most non-US citizens who wish to travel to the US will need some form of pre-approval.

For tourists headed stateside for a holiday, this may mean getting a tourist visa, or applying for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation)

If you’re hoping to stay permanently in the US, then applying for a Green Card may be a more attractive route. While visas are time limited, a Green Card allows for permanent US residency including the right to legally work. As a Green Card holder, you’ll remain a citizen of your home country. Although you do have expanded rights in the US compared to a visa holder, holding a Green Card does not mean you have the full benefits of US citizenship. You can’t vote in US elections for example, and can still lose your Green Card if you commit certain crimes, or leave the country, for example.

Once you’ve been granted a Green Card you may — after a fixed period of time — choose to seek US citizenship. Becoming a US citizen would mean you’re issued a US passport, and are free to leave and reenter the country at will.

Learn more about how to naturalize as a US citizen

What does a Green Card look like?

The physical Green Card is a standard photo ID which contains a range of personal information and security features. Here are some key details which are included on the card:

  • Full name
  • USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services)
  • Category under which the card was issued
  • Country and date of birth
  • Sex
  • Issue and expiration date
  • Photo of the card holder
  • Hologram
  • Fingerprint

Check out the example below:


The back of the card has another photo of the card holder, a barcode and a machine readable code which is similar to that on a passport.

Green Card application

How to get a Green Card will vary a little depending on whether you’re applying from within the US or outside — and the exact Green Card category which you’re applying under. Here’s a broad overview of the steps you’ll need to take.

Step 1: Check your eligibility, and determine which Green Card category to apply for

Your first step will be to review the Green Card eligibility requirements by category and determine which you’ll be able to apply under. We’ll run through the different categories and their key requirements a little later. You can also find out more from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services website³.

Step 2: Apply from within the US using an adjustment of status - or from outside the US as a consular application

It’s possible to apply for a Green Card if you’re already in the US under a different visa program — or if you’re still in your home country. The application routes will be slightly different depending on your circumstances, although the key steps of filing an immigrant petition and awaiting visa availability will remain the same⁴ ⁵.

Step 3: Check visa availability

Immigrant visas for immediate family members of US citizens are not limited in numbers, but the numbers of Green Cards issued through family sponsorship and employment are capped annually. That means you may need to wait until there are visas available within your category, before your Green Card application can be processed⁶.

Step 4: Complete the necessary paperwork, and gather supporting documents

Once you’re ready to submit your application you’ll need to complete the correct application form for your category, and gather any required evidence and supporting documents. Your employer, or a family member may help you with some of this process, depending on the basis for your application. We’ll touch on the documents commonly required in just a moment.

Step 5: Attend an application support centre appointment (adjustment of status route) or National Visa Centre (consular application route)

In order to process your application you’ll have to provide biometric information including a fingerprint, photo and signature. You’ll also be asked to pay the relevant fees for your application type.

Step 6: Complete your interview if required

It’s common to be asked to attend an interview as part of your Green Card application process. You’ll receive an invitation to attend, and will have to go along with original copies of your paperwork and supporting documents. If your application is sponsored by a family member or employer they may also be asked to accompany you.

Find out more about the Green Card interview — and how to prepare

Step 7: Receive your application decision

If you’ve applied for your Green Card from within the US, you’ll receive a letter notifying you of the decision. If your application is denied you’ll also be given details of the reason for the decision, and your options to appeal or reopen your application.

If your application was completed using the consular route, you’ll be given a visa packet by your consular officer. You must not open this packet — instead, you’ll hand it to the customs officer upon entry to the US. The customs officer will take the final decision to approve your entry to the US, and activate your Green card status.

What forms need to be filled in order to get the Green Card?

The exact paperwork you need will depend on your situation. There’s a full listing of immigration forms — including some 34 different Green Card documents — available on the USCIS website⁷. In most cases, you or a sponsor will need to complete an immigrant petition, such as:

You’ll then also have to complete the relevant Green Card application form based on your eligibility and application route — known as Form I-485: Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

Common supporting documents

The supporting documents you need to provide will vary according to your application route. There’s a handy checklist available on the USCIS website which details the documents which are commonly required⁸. Here’s a rundown:

  • 2 passport photos
  • Government issued photo ID
  • Your birth certificate
  • Inspection and admission or inspection and parole documentation
  • Form I-797 or I-130 to show your immigration petition was submitted
  • Paperwork related to your application category — proof of employment or marriage for example

How long does it take to get a Green Card?

Once your application for a Green Card has been submitted you’ll be able to review your case status online and check how it’s progressing. There are also average current and historic processing times for different application routes available online.

To give an example, here are the median processing times for Form I-485 in the six months to April 30 2021⁹:

  • Application for employment based adjustment — 11.3 months
  • Application for family based adjustment — 13.4 months
Learn more about how long it takes to get a Green Card

Green Card costs

There are fees to pay for filing many of the forms required for your Green Card application, as well as a cost for supplying biometric information for your card. There’s a handy fee calculator on the USCIS website which lets you enter your personal details and get a total cost per application form¹⁰.

To give you an idea, the cost to submit an immigration petition for an alien fiance or relative will be 535 USD. There’s then the additional cost of submitting the Form I-485, which can be 1,140 USD, plus a biometric fee of 85 USD. Don’t forget to check all of the costs for the different forms needed for your application route, over on the USCIS website¹¹.

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Green Card types

Green Cards are issued using a number of different eligibility categories. Here’s what you need to know.

Family based

You may be able to apply for a Green Card based on your family situation if you are:

  • An immediate relative of a US citizen — spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21, or parent of an adult US citizen
  • A relative of a US citizen who does not meet these criteria — a sibling of a US citizen, or a child aged over 21 for example
  • An immediate relative of a US Green card holder — spouse, unmarried child under the age of 21, or parent of an adult Green Card holder
  • Fiancé of a US citizen, or the child of a fiance making an application
  • Widow or widower of a US citizen
  • Victim of abuse, and an immediate relative of a US citizen
Want to learn more? Applying for a marriage based Green card - your step by step guide.

Employment based

If you’re in the US to work or invest, you may be able to apply for a Green Card through the employment based route. You could be eligible if you’re:

  • A first preference immigrant worker — a multinational manager or executive, outstanding professor or with extraordinary abilities in select fields
  • A second preference immigrant worker — you have exceptional abilities in select fields, or are a member of a profession requiring an advanced degree
  • A third preference immigrant worker — a skilled worker, professional or unskilled worker in select fields
  • A physician working in an underserved area
  • An investor with 500,000 USD - 1 million USD invested in a business in the US, creating jobs for at least 10 people

Humanitarian Green Card

If you were granted asylum a year or more ago — or if you were admitted to the US as a refugee over a year ago — you may be able to apply for a Green Card as an Asylee or Refugee. Take a look at the USCIS website for more on the eligibility criteria and support offered.

Diversity Visa Green Card

Up to 50,000 Green Cards a year are awarded through a diversity lottery which is aimed at countries with a traditionally low rate of immigration into the US¹². To check whether you’d be eligible for this program, check out the information on the Department of State website¹³.

Longtime-resident Green Card

Individuals who arrived in the US prior to 1 January 1972 may be able to apply for permanent residence status through a process called registry¹⁴. This is available even if your stay in the US has not been lawful, provided you can comply with a range of other criteria. This route requires you to have stayed in the US continually since 1972, and be of good character.

Other types of Green Card

In addition to the primary types of Green Card we have listed above, there are also some other niche application routes which may suit other situations. Full details are available online, covering Green Card options for diverse groups such as:

  • Religious workers
  • International broadcasters
  • Diplomats
  • Afghanistan or Iraq nationals who worked with US forces or government agencies
  • Citizens of Cuba and Liberia
  • Victims of crime, abuse or human trafficking

Getting a Green Card can be a daunting process. However, it’s an important step for many people who dream of a long term future in the US. Use this guide as a jumping off point to learn more about the eligibility routes, processes and costs, to make the journey as stress-free as possible.

And no matter whether you’re in the US already or not, don’t forget that you can save money on international payments with Wise. Send, spend and receive money from overseas, using the mid-market exchange rate with no markups - and get the Wise multi-currency Account to save 6x versus your normal bank.


  1. Travel.State - Tourism visa
  2. Travel.State - US visas
  3. USCIS - Green Card eligibility categories
  4. USCIS - Green Card processes and procedures: adjustment of status
  5. USCIS - Green Card processes and procedures: consular processing
  6. USCIS - Green Card processes and procedures: visa availability and priority dates
  7. USCIS - Forms
  8. USCIS - I-485 checklist
  9. USCIS - Processing times
  10. USCIS - Fee calculator
  11. USCIS - Form G-1055
  12. USCIS - Green Card through the diversity immigrant visa program
  13. Travel.State - Diversity visa program entry
  14. USCIS - Green Card through registry

Sources checked on 06.15.2021

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We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether expressed or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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