One of the most popular questions that we get as immigration attorneys is: “How do I become a citizen?” Many clients ask this question with the expectation of a simple two or three step process. The reality is that not many people are eligible for immediate citizenship, and will need to obtain Permanent Residency (also commonly referred to as the “Green Card”) for a few years before pursing U.S. citizenship.
The next question that arises is: “How do I get a Green Card?” This question is also a loaded one that requires an analysis of each individual situation to decipher what options are available to the potential immigrant. The ability to apply for a Green Card, and eventually citizenship, is dependent on the visa that the applicant currently holds, or is eligible for.
Below you will find a list of some of the immigrant visas that give rights equivalent to Green Cards. Once you have determined which category (or categories) you may qualify under, you can apply for the applicable visa. Once you have completed all the steps required for your specific visa and have entered the country successfully, you are considered a Permanent Resident of the United States and can live and work in the U.S. Generally, after a period of 3-5 years (depending on your Green Card), you may apply for citizenship. It is important to note that additional restrictions and requirements may apply based on your individual circumstances.
The options that follow do not include the non-immigrant visas that may provide a path to permanent residency/citizenship. In general, non-immigrant visas cannot be converted to an immigrant visa because of the “intent” requirement. A non-immigrant (i.e. those in the U.S. under an F-1, J-1, L-1etc.) enters the U.S. and during the visa process demonstrates a “non-immigrant intent” by showing that they have no plans to remain in the U.S. past their authorized stay, and will return to their home county upon expiration of their visa. However, due to the unpredictability of life, there are certain situations that allow for a non-immigrant to convert to an immigrant. This is discussed further in the article Path to Citizenship: Can I adjust my mom-immigrant status?
There are four types of employment visas that provide a path to citizenship. An immigrant must qualify for one of these categories to enter/stay in the U.S. under an employment-based Green Card. These categories are separated based on the job requirements and the qualifications of the applicant.
- EB-1: Priority Workers
- Worker demonstrates extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. These achievements must be recognized in the worker’s field. No offer of employment is required.
- Worker must demonstrate international recognition for outstanding achievement in a particular academic field with at least 3 years of experience in teaching or research in the area. An offer of employment from a university or other institution of higher education is required.
- Or, worker must have been employed outside of the U.S. for at least 1 year in the preceding 3 years with the organization (U.S. employer). The employment must have been in an executive or managerial capacity with the same company, its affiliate or subsidiary.
- EB-2: Second Preference
- The job that the worker is applying for must require an advanced degree. The worker must possess an advanced degree or its equivalent (BA plus five years progressive work experience in the field).
- The worker must have a degree of expertise significantly above the ordinary in the area of the sciences, arts or business.
- Or, qualified foreign-trained physicians who will practice in under-served areas in the U.S.
- EB-3 Skilled or professional workers
- Worker must be a “skilled worker” whose job requires a minimum of 2 years training or work experience and is not a seasonal or temporary position.
- Worker must be a “professional” whose job requires a U.S. BA degree or its foreign equivalent and is a member of the profession.
- Or, worker must be a person performing unskilled labor which requires less than 2 years of higher education, experience or training which cannot be considered a temporary or seasonal position
- EB-4 Special Immigrants
Workers who are considered “special immigrants” fall under one of the following categories:
- Religious Workers
- Iraqi/Afghan Translators
- Iraqis Who Have Assisted the United States
- International Organization Employees
- Armed Forces Members
- Panama Canal Zone Employees
- Retired NATO-6 employees
- Spouses and Children of Deceased NATO-6 employees
- EB-5 Investors
All EB-5 investors must invest in a new commercial enterprise that creates at least 10 full-time U.S. jobs within its first 2 years of operation with a required investment of $1,000,000. This investment must be “at risk” with no guarantees being made to the investor. This shows the USCIS that the investment will actually be used towards creating jobs in the U.S.
In certain cases, the required investment amount is reduced to $500,000. This is when a business is established in an area with an unemployment rate of 150% or more above the national average.
Another way to obtain a Green Card is through a family member who is either a U.S. citizen or a Green Card holder (Permanent Resident). Not all family-based visas are quick and easy. In fact, many of them have a wait time from 5 years up to and even exceeding 20 years. The categories are as follows:
- 1. An immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, this includes spouses, unmarried children under the age of 21, and parents of U.S. citizen petitioners 21 or older. This category is considered IMMEDIATE FAMILY (spouses of U.S. citizens, children of U.S. citizens who are unmarried and under 21 or parents of U.S. citizens. The petitioning citizen must be 21 or older.) and these visas are available immediately. This means that once the application is submitted, it is immediately processed. These applications usually take 6 – 12 months.
- A family member of a U.S. citizen fitting into a preference category, this includes unmarried sons or daughters over the age of 21, married children of any age, and brothers and sisters of U.S. citizen petitioners 21 or older.
Depending on which preference category the family member falls under, the wait time to process these applications is anywhere from 1-20 years. The preference categories are as follows:
First: (F1) Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens;
Second: Spouses and children, and unmarried sons and daughters of Permanent Residents: (F2A) spouses and children of Permanent Residents and (F2B) unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of Permanent Residents;
Third: (F3) Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens; and
Fourth: (F4) Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.
- A member of a special category, this can include a battered spouse or child , a fiancé(e) or child of a fiancé(e), or a widow(er) of a U.S. Citizen.
Green Card Lottery
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program makes 50,000 diversity visas available annually, drawn from random selection among entries of individuals who are from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. While there is no fee to enter the lottery, if you win, you will need to pay the application fee and additional surcharges should you wish to proceed with the process. In addition, applying and “winning” the Green Card Lottery does not guarantee a Green Card, but rather allows you to apply for the visa. You will still need to go through the application process and qualify for the Green Card.