How to Apply for an Immigrant Visa (Green Card)

The first step to becoming a lawful permanent resident of the United States is to apply for an immigrant visa, also known as a “Green Card.”  A green card allows an individual to stay in the United States and work on a permanent basis so long as they maintain their lawful status.  Generally, once a lawful permanent resident maintains their status for five years they are eligible to naturalize to a United States Citizen.

The most common ways of getting an immigrant visa is through a family member who is already a citizen or an employer.  The U.S. Citizen or Employer who serves as the petitioner for the person who receives the immigration benefit, or beneficiary.  The petitioner starts the visa process by filing a petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). For the most part, petitions may only be filed in the United States, and special rules apply for those applying from outside the United States.

Submitting the Initial Petition

Family Immigration through a U.S. Citizen and Lawful Permanent Resident

A U.S. citizen can file a family-based immigrant visa petition on behalf of an immediate relative: spouse, child who is less than 21 years of age, an orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. citizen, an orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen, or a parent of a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 year old.  

On the other hand, a lawful permanent resident, or someone who already has a green card, can file a family-based petition only on behalf of their spouse, a child who is under 21 years of age, or a son or daughter who is over 21 years of age.  

The first step in the immigrant visa process is for the sponsoring family member to file an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative with USCIS.  Once that step is complete, the beneficiary may have to wait until the immigrant visa number is available - unless the petitioner is a U.S. Citizen immediate relative.  Scroll to the end of the article to get more information on whether a beneficiary has to wait to apply for their green card.  

Employment-based Immigration through a U.S. Employer

A U.S. Employer can also sponsor an immigrant who will be hired for permanent employment. In some situations, the law allows immigrants to sponsor themselves. The petition process begins by filing an I-140 Petition for Alien Worker with USCIS.  Employers may also file an I-907 to request Premium Processing for faster approval.

Other Ways to Obtain the Immigrant Visa

There are other ways to obtain the green card, including through one’s status as an asylee or through visas including the U-Visa.  To see if you are eligible for one of these other immigration benefits, contact our office for a free phone consultation.  

Adjustment of Status or Consular Processing?

Once the Petition is approved and the priority date is current, the beneficiary can either apply for adjustment of status or through a U.S. Consulate in their home country in order to obtain their immigrant visa.  

Adjustment of status is generally available to beneficiaries of approved I-130 petitions whose number is current, who entered the United States with a visa, did not work in the United States without permission from the U.S. Government, and is currently residing in the United States.  If the beneficiary is an immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, then the adjustment of status application can be filed even if the beneficiary has been present in the U.S. past a visa expiration date or if they worked without permission.  The form to file to adjust status is the I-485 form, and should be filed with extensive documentation.  Once that form is processed, USCIS will schedule an interview at a local USCIS office.

Consular Processing is available to those who are either outside the United States at the time the priority date is current or not eligible for adjustment of status.  It involves applying abroad at the U.S. Consulate at the beneficiary’s home country, filling out the DS-260 form, providing supporting documentation, and attending an interview at the Consulate.  For more information on Consular Processing, click here.  

Once the beneficiary attends the interview and everything goes well, the beneficiary will receive a green card!

Important Information About When a Beneficiary Can Obtain a Green Card

The United States limits the number of visas given out each year in certain categories. In cases when there are more applicants than visas, a waiting list is created. Visas are handed out on a chronological basis. However, applicants in the following categories are NOT subject to limits, and therefore do not have to wait to apply for adjustment of status or consular processing: 

  •     IR-1: The spouse of a U.S. Citizen
  •     IR-2: An unmarried child (under 21 years of age) of a U.S. Citizen
  •     IR-3/H-3: An orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen
  •     IR-4/H-4: An orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. Citizen
  •     IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old

There are alternative categories in applying for an immigrant visa. Other common classifications include: petitions submitted on behalf of a foreign fiancé or a child adopted from another country.  

Once the petition is approved, a priority date is issued.  The priority date is the date that USCIS received and processed the petition.  The priority date is necessary in order to proceed with the visa application process.  You can check your priority date against the dates in the visa bulletin, which you can find here, or check your priority date directly on the Department of State website here.  

Where to File

Petitioners should file their I-130 petitions based on the instructions listed here.  Note, there are separate addresses for sending applications via the United States Postal Service versus private couriers such as FedEx.  Additionally, it is important to note that I-130 petitions filed at the same time as the I-485 petitions are usually filed in a unique address.  

Employers should file their I-140 petitions based on the instructions listed here.  Note that the address it should be sent depends on whether Premium Processing is desired rather than Regular Processing.  Certain I-140 petitions can be filed online; check this link to see if e-filing is available for your I-140 petition.  

I-485 forms should be filed based on the instructions listed here.  

Instructions for where and how to file for Consular Processing can be found here.  

Have more questions?  Contact our office for a free phone consultation.

For More Information

USCIS’ information on how to obtain a Green Card 

Department of State Travel website