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The Green Card – Yes Please

New York

Trying to get a ‘Green Card’ for many people is like trying to win the lottery…

The ‘green card,’ officially known as the ‘United States Lawful Permanent Residency,’ is a key step on the way to becoming a United States citizen or living and working in the USA permanently. As such, it’s one of the most sought-after pieces of paper on the planet.

Green cards aren’t actually green – there’s a faint green tinge on the back, that’s all – and despite their official name they don’t confer a permanent right to remain in the USA. They last ten years, and they’re a privilege, not a right: they can be withdrawn if you commit a serious crime, if the authorities discover that your application was fraudulent or concealed important information, or if you were outside the USA for over 180 days in any 12 month period. These restrictions obviously matter a lot to some business people – if you want to spread your life across two countries, for instance, the green card restrictions will affect your plans; if you want to base your American business on your green card you’ll need to actually be there more often than not.

Getting a Green Card

So how do you get a green card?

Green cards are allocated on the basis of a sliding scale of preferences. These are:

  • First Preference: Individuals with special abilities, distinguished academics, professors, and researchers, and international executives
  • Second Preference: Professionals with an advanced degree or workers with exceptional talent
  • Third Preference: Skilled workers and professionals
  • Fourth Preference: Individuals under special circumstances, and certain religious workers
  • Fifth Preference: Immigrant investors, who must invest between $500,000-$1,000,000 in a venture that creates at least ten new jobs for U.S. citizens or other lawful permanent residents and immigrants.

So, be a priest, a nun, a millionaire, or a doctor. You can also demonstrate unusual ability in science, arts, business or academia and be classified as an ‘Alien of Extraordinary Abilty’ – surely worth it for the title alone. But what if you don’t fall into these categories?

In most cases, people who actually get a green card fall into two camps: they’re either sponsored by a relative who already lives in the USA, or they’re sponsored by an employer. In some cases, of course, people get green cards because of refugee or asylum status.

If you apply for a green card from outside the USA, you need to apply by the consular process which will allow you to arrive at the US border and be admitted as a permanent resident. If you’re already inside the USA, you’ll be adjusting your status – altering the basis on which you’re permitted to remain in the country.

If you’re related to a US citizen by birth or marriage – if you’re their spouse or child – getting a green card is much, much easier, though it’s still not a foregone conclusion.  These are also allocated on a sliding scale of preferences, with first preference going to:

  • Parents of a U.S. citizen
  • Spouses of a U.S. citizen
  • Unmarried children under the age of 21 of a U.S. citizen

If this is you, you don’t have to wait for a visa to become available, and you don’t have to deal with restrictions on the number of visas you can use.

You will face visa restrictions if you belong to the remaining categories of family members, though. These are allocated:

  • First Preference: Unmarried, adult (21 years of age or older) sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
  • Second Preference A: Spouses of permanent residents and the unmarried children (under the age of 21)) of permanent residents
  • Second Preference B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years or age or older) of permanent residents
  • Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children
  • Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children

There are special categories of families, including being born to a foreign diplomat in the US, being a widow or widower, and stepchildren and stepparents can also qualify. Gay and lesbian couples are still working their way through the courts on this one: if this is you, there’s a struggle ahead to have your family relationships recognized.

Work Visa

If you’re hoping for your employer to sponsor you, there are pitfalls; you’ll need to be working at management level or equivalent, or hold a degree, or do work for which no American citizen with suitable qualifications is available. Your employer will have some hoops to jump through too: they’ll need to obtain labour certification and file a Form I-140, ‘Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker.’ All of this means that just having a job offer from a US company isn’t enough, though it’s necessary.

It’s possible to enter the USA on a work visa and afterwards apply for a green card, but this is a restrictive process: you have to stick to the job and other details of your visa application, or your visa becomes invalid.

Investor Visa

Being an investor is initially an attractive route; you don’t have to have a million dollars if you’re planning to invest in a designated area, you can put up half that amount – a much more attainable, though still high, $500, 000 (£320, 000). There’s a 10, 000-visa cap on the number of visas that can be issued each year, but since Brits qualify for visa waiver this shouldn’t affect people form the UK. If you live outside the US, you need to go through the consular route; if you’re inside the US you’ll be adjusting your status.

Property is a popular investment, but there are many people operating scams in this area and the US government keeps a very close watch on passive businesses like property, partly because of their popularity for moneylaundering purposes. You’ll be particularly scrutinized if you’re of retirement age.

Finally, after joking about getting a green card being a lottery, it’s time to fess up – there is an annual green card lottery. People from Ireland and Northern Ireland qualify, but mainland British people don’t, and for some reason neither do Poles, though the rest of Europe does. The rationale behind this is that plenty of Brits get green cards by other means.

There is another option. You could go to the USA and start there on the ground. You’ll have 90 days as a visitor to look for a job, investigate your options and test the waters in all sorts of other ways, including culturally. Once you find an American job you can apply for an employment visa which will let you remain longer, and begin green card application later off the back of your employment- – amongst other things this could let a tentative job offer become firm and permanent, or a job at sub-management level lead to promotion that would then qualify you for an employment-based green card. For some people it might also make sense to find an American job that qualifies you for an employment visa and use that to stay in the country while you work on setting up your business.

Applying for every stage of the green card process can be expensive, with form processing fees varying from $85 to $1, 000, so it’s important to plan your way through the process in advance.


After you’ve had a green card five years, or three years if you’re married to a citizen, you can apply for citizenship: paradoxically, citizenship is comparatively easy compared to getting a green card! Without citizenship you don’t qualify for welfare and can’t vote – so factor health insurance into your plans when you get ready to make the move.

A final word of warning: the American government frowns on lawbreaking. If you get any kind of brush with the law, even so much as a parking ticket, you could find it prejudices your chances; it will find its way onto the Department of Homeland Security’s computer database!