How to apply for a green card (permanent residency)

A permanent resident card or green card is a card that shows you are a lawful permanent resident of the USA. There are different categories to apply for a green card. The law requires refugees to apply for a green card after living in the USA for one year. If you are an asylee, you may also be able to apply for a green card after one year. 

On this page you can learn if you are eligible for a green card, how to apply for a green card, get help to apply for a green card, the responsibilities of green card holders, when to renew or replace your green card, what if your green card expires while waiting for renewal, and avoiding immigration scams.


specimen green card

NOTICE:  On February 24, 2021, the Biden administration revoked the order signed by the previous administration that mandated a halt to issue new immigration visas due to COVID-19.

The measure benefits new immigrants applying to become permanent legal residents (green card holders), those applying for the diversity visa program, and others. You can read more about this measure signed by the president here.

Am I eligible to apply for a green card?

There are several categories in which you can apply for a green card. Here are a few of the eligibility categories:

  • Family member. You are eligible as an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, a relative of a lawful permanent resident, a fiance of a U.S. citizen, widow of a U.S. Citizen, among other eligible categories.
  • Employment. You are eligible as an immigrant worker. Or if you are an immigrant investor, among other eligible categories.
  • Special immigrant. You are eligible as a religious worker, international broadcaster, international organization worker, or if you are a special immigrant juvenile, among other eligible categories.
  • Refugee or asylee. You are eligible if you were granted asylum or admitted as a refugee at least one year ago.
  • Human trafficking and crime victims. You are eligible if you are a human trafficking victim with T non-immigrant visa or a crime victim with U non-immigrant visa.
  • Victims of abuse. You are eligible if you are a victim of battery or abuse if you are a special immigrant juvenile, among other eligible categories.
  • Registry. You are eligible if you have continuously lived in the U.S since before Jan. 1, 1972.
  • Other. You could be eligible through the Diversity Visa Program, also known as the Visa Lottery, through the Cuban Adjustment Act, if you were born in the United States to a foreign diplomat, among other eligible categories.

Learn more about the green card eligibility categories on the USCIS website.

The 5 steps on how to apply for a green card

Applying for a green card is a complicated process and your status in the USA may be at risk if your petition is denied. For this reason, it is important to speak to a lawyer or BIA (Board of Immigration Appeals) accredited representative before you apply. There are lawyers and non-profit organizations around the country who will help you.

Here are the most common steps you can take to apply for a green card. Remember, applying for a green card varies by each individual situation.

  1. Someone usually must file an immigrant petition for you (often referred to as sponsoring or petitioning for you). In some cases, you may be eligible to file for yourself.
  2. After USCIS approves the immigrant petition, and there is a visa available in your category, you file either a green card application with USCIS or a visa application with the U.S. Department of State.
  3. You go to a biometrics appointment to provide fingerprints, photos, and a signature.
  4. You go to an interview.
  5. You receive a decision on your application.

Learn more about the green card process through family reunification, when a family member petitions for you.

Green cards for refugees and asylees

Refugees

Refugees are eligible to apply for a green card one year after arrival. To be eligible, you must have:

  • Been physically present in the United States for at least one year after being admitted as a refugee.
  • Maintained your refugee status in the USA (refugee status not terminated).
  • Not acquired permanent resident status.

Asylees

If you are an asylee, you may be able to apply for and obtain permanent resident status one year after you are granted asylum and you:

  • have been physically present in the United States for at least one year after being granted asylum.
  • Continue to be a refugee (as defined in immigration law) or the spouse or child of a refugee.
  • Have not resettled in any foreign country and are admissible to the United States as an immigrant.

The process for refugee and asylees

If you are a refugee or asylee, you can apply for permanent resident status by filing Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or to Adjust Status. You must also have a USCIS doctor complete Form I-693 showing proof of your medical examination. 

As a refugee, there is currently no fee to file this form. You can learn about and download Form I-485. You can also learn about and download Form I-693.

Who can help me?

Legal paperwork can be very difficult to complete without the help of a lawyer. If you do not have a resettlement agency or immigration professional to help you, please find legal help before you apply.

We provide basic background information to help you understand the process of applying for permanent residence. We cannot actually help you complete your application.

Watch this video about how to apply for a green card using Form I-485

The benefits and responsibilities of a green card holder

The benefits

As a green card holder, you have the following benefits:

  • You can petition for your spouse and unmarried children.
  • You can live permanently in the USA.
  • Apply to become a U.S. citizen once you are eligible.
  • Work in the USA.
  • Own property in the USA.
  • Apply for a driver’s license in your state or territory.
  • Receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare benefits, if you are eligible.
  • Leave and return to the United States under certain conditions.

The responsibilities

Having a green card gives you rights as a resident of the USA. But there are responsibilities, too. It is very important to know what these responsibilities are. USCIS says that, as a permanent resident, you must:

When do I renew or replace my green card?

You must replace your green card if:

  • You were issued a card valid for 10 years that has either expired or will expire within 6 months
  • Your card has been lost, stolen, or damaged
  • The information on your card is wrong or has changed.

See other reasons to replace your green card.

How do I renew or replace my green card?

To get a green card renewal or to replace your green card, you will need to file Form I-90, (Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card).

Important information about renewing your green card

As of January 2021, when you file Form I-90 to replace your green card, you will receive a receipt notice in the mail about 7-10 days after USCIS receives your application. 

The notice is Form I-797 and it will be printed on secure paper. It can be used with your expired green card to show proof of identity and that you can work in the United States. The notice is valid for 12 months. You can use these documents until you receive your new green card.

If you have already filed to renew your green card and you have not received your biometric appointment, you will get an extension sticker on your green card when you go to your biometrics appointment. 

Learn more about the process for permanent residency and what happens after you apply.

Traveling while your green card application is pending

Before traveling, USCIS suggests visiting their page on Form I-131, the Application for Travel Document, or the USCIS Travel Documents page.

On their website, USCIS explains that, generally, if you have a pending Form I-485 and you leave the country without an advance parole document, your application can be considered abandoned.

Please visit this page for more information about what to do while your green card application is pending.

Can I change my address while my process is pending?

If you move, you should notify USCIS within ten days so you can receive notifications of what’s happening with your case.

A change of address with the U.S. Postal Service does not update your address information with USCIS. You can change your address with USCIS using your online account or using their change of address page.

Avoid immigration scams

Be aware of scams; the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recommends being aware of “notario” scams, fake immigration websites, diversity lottery scams, and other types of deceptive practices to take your money and your personal information. 

Here are a few of the FTC recommendations to avoid immigration scams:

  • Don’t use a “notario” for legal or immigration help.
  • Don’t sign blank forms or documents with false information about yourself.
  • Be aware of fake immigration websites.
  • Don’t pay for immigration forms, remember that USCIS forms are free.
  • If you are participating in the Diversity Visa Lottery, the only way to check the status of your entry is by visiting: dvlottery.state.gov.

The information on this page comes from USCIS and other trusted sources. It is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.