A Green Card is a hugely valuable and life-enhancing document because it officially allows immigrants to live and work permanently in the United States. It’s a critical element of being a lawful permanent resident (LPR) in what many people believe is the best country in the world. What’s more, it also offers you a pathway to becoming a fully naturalized US citizen, with all the associated benefits, rights, and entitlements.
Most Green Card applications are based around family/marriage, employment, or individual cases for students, refugees, and asylum seekers. Although there’s much common ground, each category has a different set of rules, procedures, processes, and lengths of validity.
As you might expect with such an important document, securing a Green Card takes a fair amount of work, with many formal procedures to follow. It takes time, too: anywhere from several months to many years. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has also slowed activities. The overall process is managed by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Read on for an overview of the different types of applications, procedures, and timescales, how to avoid delays, and what you can do to ensure that your application is successful.
To help you better understand this process, see this easy timeline infographic:
The first step in applying for a Green Card is to fill in form I-485. It’s a comprehensive document, covering areas like your personal details, application type, employment history, previous addresses, family/parental details, petitioner information, marital history, biographical information, medical details, and more.
Assuming that everything is correct with your submitted form, 2-3 weeks later, USCIS will send you a confirmation that your application has been received via Form I-797C (Notice of Action).
Alternatively, you’ll be notified if there’s an issue with your application. Many forms are rejected or denied at this initial stage, so you can speed up the process by getting it right in the first place - for example, by getting your I-485 checked by an immigration lawyer.
Anywhere between 3-5 weeks after your successful submission, you’ll receive details of your Biometrics Appointment, where your fingerprints, photo, and signature will be collected. This is standard procedure, so no need to worry.
Once again, you may find it useful to engage with an immigration lawyer at this stage, especially if you’re concerned that any background checks could reveal damaging information, like a criminal conviction.
The Biometric Appointment usually takes place at your nearest USCIS Application Support Center. USCIS has detailed guidelines on preparing for your Biometric Appointment, including what paperwork you’ll need to bring.
In the next stage of the process, you may receive notification of what’s called “an Adjustment of Status” interview. That sounds a bit daunting, but in reality, it’s a short meeting - typically 30 mins long - where a USCIS official formally verifies all your details before moving your application on to the next stage.
In some cases, the interview may require your petitioner to attend, or it may be waived entirely.
Your Interview Notice gives details of all the documentation that you need to bring along. You mustn’t forget anything and bring proof of any changes to your original application, such as if you’ve moved address or switched employment.
If you’re lucky and everything is in order, you may receive your Green Card straight after the interview, although it’ll take longer in many instances. USCIS may request additional information or request a second interview.
If your request is denied, you’ll be told the reason why. In some instances, you may be able to appeal. In others, it may be that the annual quota in a specific category has been reached, and you’ll have to apply again next year. However, many applications fail or are delayed because of simple administrative errors, missed deadlines, or failure to correct missing documentation.
You can avoid those mistakes by working with an experienced immigration lawyer. It costs money to apply for a Green Card, so it’s best if you can get things right the first time.
The USCIS website makes it easy for you to check the progress of your application. It also has details on expected processing times. If you feel that your application has been unfairly delayed and falls outside the regular schedule, you can make a formal case inquiry.
After five years of residence with a Green Card, you’re entitled to apply for full US citizenship, which is well worth having. It offers a range of benefits over a Green Card, including the right to vote, much more comfortable travel arrangements, and the opportunity to work in federal positions.
A notable exception allows you to apply 90 days before the completion of your five years of residence. There’s no point in applying earlier than this date, as USCIS will simply return your application if you do.
There are some important exceptions and exemptions to the 5-year rule mentioned above. Subject to some terms and conditions, if you marry a US citizen, then the waiting period drops to 3 years. There are also special rules for service personnel and certain professions based overseas and women affected by the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
A specialist immigration lawyer can assist in several ways when you’re applying for a Green Card. If you’re not too sure about how the process works, they can guide you through the system. They can also make sure that all your documentation is in order and help you to avoid any mistakes that could delay or even void your application.
If you’re afraid that your background check might reveal some information that could harm your application - such as a minor criminal conviction - then a lawyer can advise whether it’s relevant and what your options are.
If you’re looking to live in the US, applying for a Green Card may just be the most significant and influential decision you make in your life, so you must get it right the first time. Enlisting the help of a specialist immigration lawyer may significantly increase your chances of a successful application.