The Eligibility Guide on How to Qualify for a Green Card

Calendar Icon Updated January 15, 2019
Green Cards

Simply put, obtaining a Green Card is the only way to become a naturalized citizen of the United States. A Green Card gives immigrants permission to become a Lawful Permanent Resident and makes them eligible to enjoy virtually all of the same rights as a native-born U.S. citizen.

A Green Card is coveted by people around the world who want to come to the United States in search of a better life for themselves and for their family members. Although the process takes many years, earning the right to be called a U.S. citizen is one that millions of people have undertaken.

Once you have a Green Card, you’ll enjoy many of the same rights and privileges as a United States citizen. Aside from taking a big step toward citizenship, you will also enjoy added benefits.

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  • You are entitled to own property, cars and firearms.
  • You can make political contributions.
  • You will enjoy reduced tuition for college and vocational studies
  • You are entitled to apply for student financial aid.
  • You have the ability to sponsor family members so they can get their own Green Card.
  • You will have more freedom in the job market.
  • You will have freedom to travel and live throughout the United States
  • You will have fewer restrictions traveling to and from the United States.
  • You will be entitled to Social Security benefits.

There are many possible paths an immigrant can take to qualify for a Green Card. Each of these has its own unique set of rules, regulations and procedures. The key to obtaining a Green Card is to be successful in following these steps.

The Green Card process takes many years, and there are several requirements immigrants must meet. For many people, those steps can be complicated and intimidating. Forms, paperwork, appointments, and procedures are vital elements of the Green Card procedure, but sometimes the entire process can be overwhelming for applicants.

That’s why is ready to help you. In most instances, you can access the information you need on how to qualify for a Green Card by reading this guide or through our website. But if you want more help, we’re here for you.

As part of our pledge to be your one-stop resource, has a trained staff of professionals who can get you the answers about the Green Card process, as well as dozens of other government services and programs.

If you can’t find the information you need in this guide, please contact us through this website, by e-mail, or by calling us at 888-959-1135

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Qualifying for a Green Card

Although there is a singular goal of obtaining a Green Card, there are many paths a person can take to obtain one.

Family Based

Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can be sponsored to petition for a Green Card. They are given the most preferential treatment of all applicant groups and there is an unlimited amount of Green Cards available for immediate relatives who fall into the following categories: 

  • Spouses of United States citizens and extends to same-sex spouses, recent widows or widowers. This assumes that the marriage is considered valid in the country or the state where it took place.
  • Unmarried children under 21 years old who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • Parents of United States citizens, assuming the daughter or son is at least 21 years old.
  • Stepparents and stepchildren of U.S. citizens, assuming the marriage that created the “step” situation too place before the child turned 18.
  • Adopted children of United States citizens, assuming the adoption took place before the child turned 16 years old.

Immediate relatives are not bound by long waiting periods that other applicants must endure. Although they will still be required to wait for several months while their application is reviewed by USCIS and the State Department, approval for immediate family members takes place in a matter of months as opposed to several years.

Other relatives of Green Card holders can be sponsored for their own Green Card, although their approval process will not take place as quickly as it will for immediate relatives.

Other family members are placed in “preference categories” and overall, only 480,000 Green Cards are issued annually to applicants in these preference categories.

F1 –Family First Preference is for unmarried adults who are at least 21 years old and have at least one U.S. parent.

F2 – Family Second Preference applies to spouses and unmarried children under 21 years old of Green Card holders with an F2A designation. Unmarried children 21 or older are given an F2B designation. 

F3 – Family Third Preference is applied to married people of any age with at least one parent who is a United States citizen.

F4 – Family Fourth Preference is for sisters and brothers of United States citizens, assuming the citizen is at least 21 years old.


Children under 16 years old can be adopted by U.S. citizens or existing Green Card holders. All foreign adoptions are investigated to make sure there is compliance with U.S. laws and in the foreign country where the adoption took place. 

Employment Based

Each year, USCIS makes 140,000 Green Cards available to people who have job skills that are in demand in the United States. The applicant must prove that they have actually gotten a job offer and that the employer has recruited, but not been able to find any qualified U.S. citizens to fill the job. Because demand for this type of Green Card is heavy, applicants can expect to wait several years for approval.

Just as with family based Green Card applications, employment-based applications work on a preference basis.

Employment First Preference is given to outstanding educators and researchers, executives with multi-national companies, and people with extraordinary abilities in the arts, sciences, athletics or business.

Employment Second Preference is given to executives with advanced degrees, and persons with exceptional abilities or exceptional professors and researchers.

Employment Second Preference with a National Interest Waiver is given to persons and advanced degree professionals involved in activities that will substantially benefit U.S. national interests.

Employment Third Preference is given to professionals with a U.S. Bachelor’s degree, skilled and unskilled workers.

Employment Fourth Preference is for religious workers, other miscellaneous categories of workers and those who are defined as “Special Immigrants.” Special immigrants can fall into many categories and situations. Only 10,000 of these Green Cards are made available annually and no more than half may go toward religious workers.

Employment Fifth Preference is for investors who agree to invest $1 million or more into a U.S. business that employs at least 10 workers. This amount drops to $500,000 if the investment is made in an area designated as economically depressed.

Schedule A workers include registered nurses, physical therapists and people qualified to work in one of the shortage occupations on what is known as the Schedule A List. This can also include exceptional sciences or arts professionals and exceptional persons in the performing arts.

Refuge or Asylum

Granting refuge is a formal process in which U. S. Citizenship and Immigration Services determines that a person or group of people are unable or unwilling to return to their native country because they fear serious harm or that they will be persecuted based on race, religion nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion. 

Refuge does not apply to anyone seeking to come to the United States based only on poverty or random violence.

To qualify for refugee status, a person must be outside the boundaries of the United States. Granting asylum applies the same standards as granting refugee status. The difference is that the person seeking asylum is either already in the United States or they are at a border, such as an air, land or sea port of entry, ready to cross into the U.S. 

Refugee and asylum seekers can both apply for permanent residence status one year after being granted their initial status. It is also important to note that refugee and asylum status is not granted based on economic circumstances, no matter how severe. In addition, if conditions change in an asylum seekers native country and the U.S. government deems it safe to return, asylee status can be taken away.


If they meet certain thresholds, foreign entrepreneurs, their spouses and unmarried children under 21 years old can apply for a Green Card. Up to 10,000 of these visas may be issued annually.

There are two standards that can be met. 

Those who invest $500,000 in a commercial enterprise in a targeted employment area that will benefit the U.S. economy and create at least 5 full-time U.S. jobs.

Those who invest $1,000,000 in a commercial enterprise that will benefit the U.S. economy and create at least 10 full-time U.S. jobs.

For investors living outside of the United States, you can work with USCIS and the Department of State to have a visa issued based on the submission of a Form I-526 Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur when a visa becomes available.

For investors currently in the United States, they can adjust their status to become a conditional permanent resident after their Form I-526 is approved and a visa is available. They would then need to submit a Form I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status and supporting documents.


A section of immigration law allows some people who have lived in the United States since January 1972 to apply for a Green Card, even if they are currently in the country illegally.


When diplomats and their families enter the United States to perform duties on behalf of their governments or international organizations, they are issued A or G visas. These visa holders can adjust their statuses to Green Card holders if they agree to waive their diplomatic privileges, immunities and rights and live and work in the U.S. like any other permanent resident. 

There must be a compelling reason why the diplomat or their family members cannot return to their original country, such as fear of persecution, similar to the same reasons as refugee or asylum seekers.

Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery

The U.S. Department of State annually conducts a Diversity Visa Lottery, also known as a Green Card Lottery, which makes up to 50,000 Permanent Resident cards available to persons from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. 

Winners are drawn at random and the goal of the program is to diversify the immigrant population. People born in a country that has sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the United States in the previous five years are not eligible. 

In 2015, the list of countries not eligible included:




China (mainland, not including Macau, Taiwan, or Hong Kong)


Dominican Republic


El Salvador









South Korea

United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories


Because immigration rates and patterns change from year to year, the list of excluded countries will also change from year to year.

Lottery applicants must also have at least a high school or equivalent diploma and a minimum of two years of job experience, although a job offer is not required to participate in the lottery. However, you must prove that you can support yourself financially if you come to the United States.

Applicants who meet the lottery entrance criteria can submit an application at the State Department’s website during the filing period, which is usually in the Fall.

Private Bills

If Congress finds a compelling humanitarian factor for a person or group of people, they can introduce a private immigration bill for passage by the House of Representatives and the Senate. This action is rare, but it does happen from time to time.

Special Immigrants

There is a wide range special immigrant groups that qualify to apply for a Green Card. Each of these groups has particular standards and qualifications that must be met as part of the petition process.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has detailed information on several of these special immigrant groups. Follow these links for more detailed information:

Religious Workers

Panama Canal Company or Canal Zone Government Employees

International Organization Employees or Family Members


NATO-6 Nonimmigrant

Physician National Interest Waiver

Juvenile Court Dependents

Armed Forces Members

Afghanistan or Iraq nationals who supported the U.S. Armed Forces as translators

Iraq nationals who worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq

Eligibility Team

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