The Green Card, Explained


A field guide to the different types of green cards for U.S. permanent residence


What is a green card?

A green card allows a non-U.S. citizen to gain permanent residence in the United States. Many people from outside the United States want a green card because it would allow them to live and work (lawfully) anywhere in the United States and qualify for U.S. citizenship after three or five years.

Example Green Card Front

Example Green Card Back
The green card (officially called the “Permanent Resident Card,” or Form I-551)


Every year, the U.S. government issues more than a million green cards. Most are given to family members of U.S. citizens and current green card holders, followed by workers from other countries seeking employment in the United States as the next biggest group of recipients.

But there are many other categories of green cards. This field guide provides a basic overview of the most common types and who can apply for them.

Boundless can help spouses of U.S. citizens and current green card holders with their marriage-based green card application. We turn all the required government forms into simple questions you can answer online — typically in under two hours. Learn more, or get started today.


Family-Based Green Card


Close relatives of U.S. citizens and current green card holders may apply for family-based green cards of their own. Eligible family members include spouses, children, parents, and siblings (as well as the spouses and children of those spouses, adult children, and siblings).

Also included in this category are widows and widowers who were married to a U.S. citizen at the time the citizen died. Like spouses of living U.S. citizens and current green card holders who apply for a marriage-based green card, widows and widowers must prove that their marriage was authentic in order to receive a green card.

Many extended family members — cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents — do not qualify. They may apply for a green card only if they, too, have a closer relative who is a U.S. citizen or current green card holder (or qualify for one of the other types of green cards below).

Boundless can help you obtain a marriage-based green card. We make it easy to complete your green card application and avoid common problems. Learn more about what Boundless does, or start your application today.


Employment-Based Green Card


Within the employment-based green card category, multiple subcategories of workers can apply for permanent residence. In some cases, their spouses and children may qualify for a green card, as well.

The following table lists the employment-based subcategories and the types of jobs that fall under them:

Category Jobs included
Priority workers (EB-1)
  • Positions in the arts, sciences, education, business, and athletics that require extraordinary* ability
  • Outstanding professors and researchers
  • Multinational managers and executives
Professionals with advanced degrees and exceptional abilities (EB-2)
  • Positions requiring at least a master’s degree
  • Positions requiring at least a baccalaureate (bachelor’s) degree, plus at least five years’ relevant experience
  • Positions in the sciences, arts, or business requiring exceptional* ability
  • Positions of national interest
Physicians (EB-2 with a special waiver)
  • Physicians who agree to work full-time in underserved areas for a specific period and meet other eligibility criteria
Skilled, unskilled, and professional workers (EB-3)
  • Skilled positions that require a minimum of two years’ training or experience that is not temporary or seasonal
  • Unskilled positions that require less than two years’ training or experience that is not temporary or seasonal
  • Professional positions that require at least a baccalaureate (bachelor’s) degree from a U.S. university or college or the equivalent of this degree from a non-U.S. school
Special workers (EB-4)
  • Media professionals
  • Religious workers and ministers
  • Afghanistan and Iraq nationals who have served the U.S. government under certain capacities
  • Certain other employees, retirees, and their family members
Investors (EB-5)
  • Non-U.S. nationals who have invested or are investing at least $1 million (or $500,000 in a high-unemployment or rural area) in a new U.S. business that will create full-time positions for at least 10 workers

*Extraordinary ability is demonstrated “through sustained national or international acclaim. Your achievements must be recognized in your field through extensive documentation,” according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
**Exceptional ability refers to “a degree of expertise significantly above that ordinarily encountered” in your field.


Humanitarian Green Cards


For refugees and asylees

People who fear, or have experienced, persecution in their home country — because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group — can seek protection in the United States by applying for a visa from abroad (to come as refugees) or from within the United States (to remain as asylees).

Once they have physically lived in the United States for at least one year since receiving refugee status or asylum, they may apply for a green card. Children and spouses (and in some cases, other family members) of refugees and asylees may also seek protection in the United States under these programs and eventually apply for a green card.


For human-trafficking victims

Victims of human trafficking who are living in the United States — whether lawfully or unlawfully (in other words, “undocumented”) — may apply for a T visa to stay in the United States for up to four years. As a condition of the T visa, however, they must help to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of human trafficking (unless the victim is under age 18, in which case they need not help with such efforts).

To qualify for a green card, the applicant must have physically lived in the United States for one of the following periods, whichever is shorter:

  • Three years since receiving a T visa
  • The duration of an investigation or prosecution of human trafficking

They must also meet other eligibility requirements. These include, for instance, demonstrating “good moral character” (meaning they have not committed certain crimes, such as fraud, prostitution, or murder) from the time they received a T visa until they’re approved for a green card. As another example, they must demonstrate to the U.S. government that they would suffer extreme hardship involving severe harm if they were required to leave the United States. (USCIS provides the full list of eligibility criteria.)

Certain family members will also be eligible to apply for their own green cards as long as both those relatives and the victim satisfy all requirements.


For crime victims

Victims of “substantial physical or mental abuse” who are living in the United States — whether lawfully or unlawfully (in other words, “undocumented”) — may seek protection by applying for a U visa. To obtain a U visa, the victim’s application must be certified by a law enforcement agency. Like recipients of T visas (see above), an applicant for a U visa must also agree to help investigate and prosecute people who commit certain crimes, such as kidnapping, sexual assault, and torture.

To qualify for a green card, however, the applicant will need to fulfill other eligibility requirements, including the following examples:

  • They must have physically lived in the United States for at least three years since receiving a U visa.
  • They must not have left the United States from the time they applied for a green card until USCIS has approved (or denied) their application.
  • They must not have refused to help investigate or prosecute certain crimes from the time they received a U visa until USCIS approves (or denies) their green card application.

The victim’s children, parents, siblings, and spouse will also be eligible to apply for their own green cards as long as both those relatives and the victim satisfy all requirements.


For abuse victims

Victims of domestic violence (battery or extreme cruelty) may apply for a green card that would allow them to seek relief through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Although this law was created to benefit women, it applies to both women and men, and both parents and children, who are victims of abuse.

An abuse victim may apply for a green card on their own — without the knowledge or permission of their abusive relative, who can include:

  • A current or former spouse who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder
  • A parent who is a U.S. citizen or green card holder
  • A child who is a U.S. citizen

USCIS will not notify the abusive relative of the application in order to keep the victim safe. (Full eligibility requirements are detailed on the USCIS website.)

IMPORTANT: If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse now, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline right away at 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). You’ll be able to talk with someone about available resources, such as shelters, mental health care, and legal assistance. The hotline also provides information about green cards through VAWA.


Diversity Lottery Green Card


Under the U.S. “green card lottery” (officially known as the “Diversity Visa Lottery Program”), the U.S. government every year randomly selects up to 50,000 people from a pool of entries it receives from six geographic regions, such as Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Only people from countries that have had little immigration to the United States in the past — for example, Algeria, Lebanon, and Slovakia — may enter the lottery. (See the full list of countries whose citizens are eligible or ineligible for the 2020 lottery.) The share of green cards distributed to any one country is capped at 7%.

Most lottery applicants live in their home countries at the time they cast their entries, but some already live in the United States under a different type of immigration status.


Longtime-Resident Green Card


Individuals who have physically lived in the United States — lawfully or unlawfully (meaning you were “undocumented”) — since January 1, 1972 may apply for a green card through a special process called “registry.”

To qualify for a green card through registry, the individual must meet all of the following criteria:

  • They entered the United States before January 1, 1972, which they would need to prove by providing an I-94 travel record (officially called the “Form I-94 Arrival/Departure Record”).
  • They have not left the United States since arriving.
  • They have “good moral character,” meaning they have not committed certain types of crimes, such as fraud, prostitution, or murder (see more info on “Good Moral Character“).
  • They’re eligible for U.S. citizenship through naturalization.
  • They have not committed crimes that would make them “deportable” (able to be sent back to their home country). Examples of such violations include drug abuse, smuggling, and marriage fraud (marrying a U.S. citizen or green card holder to obtain a marriage-based green card).
  • They have not committed crimes that would make them “inadmissible” (meaning they cannot receive a green card). Examples of such violations include entering the United States unlawfully and staying more than six months in the United States with an expired visa.

Boundless helps married couples obtain marriage green cards by simplifying the application process and providing top-rated lawyer support — all for a flat price of $750, about one-fifth the cost of a traditional immigration lawyer. Learn more about our services, or start your application today.


Other Green Cards


The U.S. government issues many other types of green cards besides the ones discussed above. Some of these include green cards for “special immigrants,” including media professionals, religious workers, Afghanistan and Iraq nationals who have served the U.S. government under certain capacities, and other types of workers who have served in an international organization. Others include green cards for Cuban citizens and American Indians born in Canada.

USCIS provides a list of these other green card types and their eligibility requirements.

If you’re considering applying for a marriage-based green card, Boundless can help. We make it easy to complete your application by turning government requirements into simple questions you can answer online. Learn more, or let’s begin!



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