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Green Card Vs. Visa: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between a green card and a visa

Want to travel or live in the United States? Find out whether you need a visa or a green card.

sample green card

If you’ve been looking to travel to or move to the United States, then you may be wondering what the difference is between a “green card” and “visa.” There is some overlap — green card holders usually enter the country using a visa, but not all visa holders have or will get a green card. Learn about the differences between a visa and a green card with this guide.

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What Is a Visa?

Want to travel, or possibly immigrate, to the United States? Visas are something most people who wish to enter the United States need to have in order to be admitted. They must be applied for through a U.S. embassy or consulate prior to travel. There are two types of visas:

  1. Non-immigrant visas: These allow the holder to visit the United States for specific purposes, such as work, education, medical reasons or business trips, and for a specific amount of time with a clear departure date. They are temporary documents that do not allow the holder to permanently live in the United States.
  2. Immigrant visas: More difficult to obtain, this type of visa allows travel to the United States to live there permanently and is part of the process in getting a green card. This visa must be obtained prior to traveling to the United States, and the process for getting this type of visa is more extensive. Usually the holder has been sponsored by a family member. Alone, an immigrant visa is not a path to citizenship.

If you want to stay in the United States permanently, you’ll need a green card. Boundless is here to help with that!

What Is a Green Card?

Green cards are physical cards that indicate the holder is a permanent resident of the United States, and can lawfully work and travel to anywhere within the United States. Green cards are technically a type of visa that allows for permanent residence. Green cards are issued after arrival in the United States. To qualify for a green card, the applicant must have an immigrant visa already, and applications are made to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Green card holders can pursue citizenship after three to five years. Types of green cards are more extensive than visas, and include, but are not limited to:

  • Family-based: Close relatives of current U.S. citizens and other green card holders may apply. These include immediate family members, such as parents, siblings, children and also widows and widowers of either citizens or green card holders.
  • Employment-based: Certain types of workers, and in some cases, their immediate family, may be given green cards tied to their jobs.
  • Humanitarian green card holders: Refugees, asylum seekers, and those victims of human trafficking, crime or abuse are eligible to receive green cards.
  • Green card lottery winners: Each year, the U.S. government randomly selects up to 50,000 people from a pool of entries it receives from six geographic regions, such as Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Priority is given to those from countries that have had little immigration to the United States in recent years. Learn more about the Diversity Visa Lottery.

In a weird bureaucratic quirk, while green cards allow the holder permanent residency, they themselves need to be renewed every 10 years. Residency is revoked only under special conditions, like committing a crime.

With Boundless, you get an experienced, independent immigration attorney to answer all of your questions and help you complete all required government forms. Ready to start?

What Are the Differences Between a Green Card and a Visa?

The biggest difference between visas and a green card is when to get one: a visa is obtained before travel, while a green card after arrival — but that’s not the only difference.

  • Visas should be obtained before travel. They are what permit entry into the United States, and are typically a stamp in a passport.
  • Visas do not necessarily allow for an open-ended stay. Non-immigrant visas have a set duration of time associated with them, which can vary depending on the reason for travel, and will eventually expire.
  • Non-immigrant visas are not usually a path to permanent resident status.
  • Immigrant visas can start the process for permanent resident status, but they do not provide resident status themselves.
  • A green card is a physical card that represents the holder’s right to permanently live and work within the United States.
  • Green cards are only obtained after arrival within the United States.
  • An immigrant visa must be obtained prior to getting a green card.
  • A green card holder can pursue citizenship.

Boundless helps you understand what documents you need, and keep them all together securely online. Find out more about what Boundless does and let’s begin!

Green Card and Visa FAQs

The application process depends on which type of visa you’re applying for. If you’re a foreign national applying from outside the U.S., you generally must submit an application for your intended visa and attend an interview at the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate in your home country. During the interview, applicants will be asked questions about their purpose of travel, study, work, etc. and may also need to provide additional documents such as proof of finances and evidence of ties to their home country, again depending on the type of visa

The requirements for U.S. visas vary depending on the type of visa and the purpose of travel, but there are some basic requirements that all applicants must meet in order to be eligible for a visa. These include having a valid passport, proof of funds to support yourself while in the U.S., and usually a valid job offer in the U.S., in the case of work visas.

Visas (Nonimmigrant):

  • B-1/B-2 Visitor Visa: For business (B-1) or tourism (B-2).
  • F-1 Student Visa: For academic studies.
  • H-1B Work Visa: For specialty occupations in fields such as science, engineering, and technology.
  • J-1 Exchange Visitor Visa: For educational and cultural exchange programs.
  • L-1 Visa: For intracompany transferees who work for multinational companies.
  • O-1 Visa: For individuals with extraordinary ability or achievement in their field.
  • TN Visa: For Canadian and Mexican citizens under the NAFTA agreement.

Green Cards:

  • Family-Based Green Cards: For relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, including spouses, parents, children, and siblings.
  • Employment-Based Green Cards: For individuals with specific skills or employment opportunities in the U.S., categorized into different preference levels (EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4, and EB-5) based on priority and eligibility criteria.
  • Diversity Visa (DV) Lottery: A program that annually grants immigrant visas to individuals from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the U.S.
  • Refugee and Asylum Status: For individuals who have fled persecution or fear of persecution in their home countries.
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