How to Get a Green Card

The ultimate guide to getting a green card

How to Get a Green Card provides people guidance on the most readily obtainable forms of U.S. lawful permanent residence.  Find out how to work with U.S. officials, prepare and present the right documents, and work your way through the bureaucratic maze; and what to expect every step of the way.

Whether you're living in the U.S. or another country, learn about these immigration possibilities:

  • spouses, fiancés, and other family
  • green card lotteries
  • U visas
  • asylum or refugee status
  • other non-work based categories

See below for a full product description.

Available as part of Nolo's Immigration Bundle

  • Product Details
  • The U.S. immigration system is an enormous bureaucracy, so it’s vital that you understand it before attempting to apply for a green card. Making a mistake can lead to delays and hassles or even ruin your chances for success.

    How to Get a Green Card provides everything you need to know about qualifying for permanent U.S. residence if you don’t have an employer sponsoring you.

    Find out how to work with U.S. officials and prepare and present the right documents at the right time to get a green card through:

    • parents, siblings, or adult children
    • a U.S. spouse or fiancé
    • green card lotteries (diversity visa)
    • political asylum or refugee status
    • a U visa for crime victims, or
    • another category you might qualify for.

    The 15th edition covers the latest income requirements for family-based green card applicants; the lifting of country-based travel bans; lower procedural hurdles for U visa applicants; the addition of a COVID vaccination requirement; an increase in the number of refugees accepted to the United States; additions to the list of countries whose citizens may obtain Temporary Protected Status; and more.

    “A definitive book that is also easy to read.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram

    “Green card seekers: Look no further…”—Asian Week

    Number of Pages
    Included Forms

    Sample Filled-In Forms

    • Sample Form I-102, Application for Replacement/Initial Nonimmigrant Arrival-Departure Document
    • Sample Form I-539, Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status
    • Sample Form I-129F, Petition for Alien Fiancé(e) (as used by an unmarried couple)
    • Sample Form G-325A, Biographic Information
    • Sample Form I-134, Affidavit of Support
    • Sample Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
    • Sample Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence
    • Sample Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship
    • Sample Form I-600A, Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition
    • Sample Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant
    • Sample Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal
    • Sample Form I-730, Refugee/Asylee Relative Petition
    • Sample Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant
    • Sample Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Resident or Adjust Status
    • Sample Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization
    • Sample Form DS-3032, Choice of Address and Agent
    • Sample Form DS-2001, Notification of Applicant(s) Readiness
    • Sample Form I-864, Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the Act
    • Sample Form I-864A, Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member
    • Sample Form I-90, Application to Replace Permanent Resident Card
    • Sample Form I-131, Application for Travel Document
    • Sample Form I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
    • Sample Form I-918, Petition for U Nonimmigrant Status
  • About the Author
    • Ilona Bray, J.D., University of Washington School of Law

      Ilona Bray, J.D. is an award-winning author and legal editor at Nolo, specializing in real estate, immigration law and nonprofit fundraising. 

      Educational background. Ilona received her law degree and a Master's degree in East Asian (Chinese) Studies from the University of Washington. She is a member of the Washington State Bar. Her undergraduate degree is from Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in philosophy. She actually viewed law school as an extension of her philosophy studies, with its focus on ethics, fundamental rights, and how people can get along in society—of particular concern to her as the daughter of a WWII refugee. 

      Working background. Ilona has practiced law in corporate and nonprofit settings as well as in solo practice, where she represented immigrant clients seeking asylum, family-based visas, and more. She has also volunteered extensively, including a six-month fellowship at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project in Seattle and a six-month internship at Amnesty International in London. She is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers' Association (AILA), the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE), and the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). 

      Working at Nolo. Ilona started at Nolo in 2000 as a legal editor. Since then, she has not only continued to edit other writers' books and online articles, but also has taken an active role in planning and authoring new Nolo books. Many of these have become consistent Nolo bestsellers and award-winners, among them Effective Fundraising for Nonprofits, Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, and Selling Your House.  Ilona particularly enjoys interviewing people and weaving their stories into her books. She also won the 2012 "Best Blog" award from the National Association of Real Estate Editors (NAREE). 

      Spare time. (What spare time?) Ilona enjoys swimming, gardening (though she's still looking for a vegetable the squirrels won't eat every last morsel of), cooking gluten- and sugar-free meals, and writing children's books.

    • Loida Nicolas Lewis

      Loida Lewis is a former INS attorney with over 15 years experience handling U.S. immigration matters. Co-author of How to Get a Green Card, she is licensed to practice law in both New York and the Philippines.
  • Table of Contents
  • Your Immigration Companion

    1. Types of Green Cards We Cover
    2. How Much You Can Do Without a Lawyer
    3. Using This Book

    1. America: A Nation of Immigrants

    1. America’s Earliest Settlers
    2. Early Immigration Restrictions
    3. Today’s Immigration Laws
    4. Looking Forward

    2. All Ways to Get a Green Card

    1. Family-Based Relationships
    2. Employment-Based Relationships
    3. Special Immigrants
    4. Entrepreneur Immigrants
    5. Asylum and Refugee Status
    6. Diversity Visa Lottery
    7. Amnesties
    8. Private Bills

    3. Short-Term Alternatives to a Green Card

    1. How Do Foreign Nationals Enter the United States?
    2. Types of Visas
    3. Tourists Who Can Visit Without a Visa
    4. The Importance of Staying Legal
    5. How to Extend a Visitor Visa
    6. Changing Your Reason for Staying
    7. What to Do If USCIS Denies Your Extension Application
    8. Tips on Filling Out Form I-539

    4. Will Inadmissibility Bar You From Getting a Green Card?

    1. What Is Inadmissibility?
    2. The Possibility of Waiving Inadmissibility
    3. Most Troublesome Grounds of Inadmissibility
    4. Reversing an Inadmissibility Finding

    5. How Long You’ll Have to Wait

    1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens: No Waiting for Eligibility
    2. Relatives in Preference Categories: Longer Waits
    3. Dealing With the Wait
    4. Can You Predict How Long You’ll Wait?
    5. Revocation of a Petition or Application

    6. Fiancé(e) Visas

    1. Who Qualifies for a Fiancé Visa
    2. Quick View of the Fiancé Visa Application Process
    3. Detailed Instructions for the Fiancé Visa Application Process
    4. How to Bring Your Children on a Fiancé Visa
    5. Marriage and After

    7. Green Cards Through Marriage

    1. Who Qualifies
    2. Special Rules in Court Proceedings
    3. Quick View of the Marriage-Based Green Card Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Marriage-Based Green Card Application Process
    5. Bringing Your Children
    6. If Your Marriage Is Less Than Two Years Old
    7. If You Marry Again
    8. Common Questions About Marriage and Immigration

    8. Your Parents as Immigrants

    1. Who Qualifies to Petition for Parents
    2. Who Qualifies as Your Parent
    3. Quick View of the Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process

    9. Child Immigrants

    1. Who Qualifies
    2. Definition of “Child”
    3. Quick View of the Application Process
    4. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process
    5. Automatic Citizenship for Some Children

    10. Orphan Immigrants in Non‑Hague Convention Countries

    1. Who Qualifies as an Orphan Child
    2. Who Can Petition for an Orphan Child
    3. Preadoption Requirements
    4. Starting the Adoption Process
    5. After the Petition Is Approved
    6. Filing for a Visa
    7. Automatic Citizenship for Adopted Orphans

    11. The Diversity Visa Lottery

    1. Who Qualifies for the DV Lottery
    2. How to Apply for the DV Lottery
    3. After You Win—The Green Card Application
    4. How to Bring Your Spouse and Children

    12. Your Brothers and Sisters as Immigrants

    1. Who Counts as Your Brother or Sister
    2. Quick View of the Application Process
    3. Detailed Instructions for the Application Process
    4. What Happens After Filing Form I-130

    13. Refugees and Asylees

    1. Who Qualifies
    2. Who Is Barred From Qualifying
    3. How to Apply for Refugee Status
    4. How to Apply for Asylum
    5. If Your Asylum Application Is Denied
    6. Asylees Can Bring Overseas Spouses and Children to the United States
    7. Getting a Green Card After Asylum Approval or Refugee Entry
    8. Revocation of Asylee Status
    9. Temporary Protected Status (TPS)
    10. Deferred Enforced Departure (DED)

    14. Military Veterans and Enlistees

    1. Which Military Members Qualify to Apply for Citizenship Without a Green Card
    2. Which Military Members Qualify for U.S. Permanent Residence

    15. Cancellation of Removal: Do Ten Illegal Years Equal One Green Card?

    1. Applying in Court Proceedings
    2. Who Qualifies for Cancellation of Removal
    3. Who Is Not Eligible for Cancellation
    4. Preparing a Convincing Case
    5. How to File
    6. Approving Your Application
    7. Additional Types of Cancellation of Removal

    16. Adjustment of Status

    1. Who Is Allowed to Use the Adjustment of Status Procedure
    2. People Who Can’t Adjust Status at All
    3. How to File
    4. After You Apply
    5. Interview and Approval

    17. Consular Processing

    1. How Your Case Gets to the U.S. Consulate
    2. Forms and Documents You’ll Need to Provide
    3. Attending Your Visa Interview
    4. Approval of Your Immigrant Visa
    5. Arriving in the United States

    18. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

    1. Who Are the DREAMers?
    2. How to Renew DACA

    19. U Visas for Crime Victims Assisting Law Enforcement

    1. Who Is Eligible for a U Visa
    2. How to Apply for a U Visa
    3. Your Legal Status While U Visa Is Pending
    4. Green Card Possibilities After U Visa Approval

    20. Acquiring Citizenship Through U.S. Citizen Parents

    1. Who Qualifies for Acquisition of U.S. Citizenship
    2. Obtaining Proof of U.S. Citizenship
    3. Dual Citizenship

    21. Filling Out and Submitting Immigration Applications

    1. Don’t Give False Answers
    2. Get the Latest Forms and Fee Amounts
    3. Tips for Filling Out Forms
    4. When Additional Proof Is Required
    5. Submitting Photographs for Identification
    6. Fingerprinting Requirements
    7. Keep Your Own File
    8. Tips for Filing Applications

    22. Tracking Your Application Through the System

    1. Understanding U.S. Government Culture
    2. How to Track Your Application Online
    3. What to Do When Things Go Wrong
    4. Inquiring About Delays
    5. Speeding Up Processing in Emergencies
    6. Reporting Wrongdoing

    23. Keeping, Renewing, and Replacing Your Green Card

    1. Renewing or Replacing Your Green Card
    2. When U.S. Immigration Authorities Can Take Away Your Card
    3. Planning to Apply for U.S. Citizenship

    24. How to Find and Work With a Lawyer

    1. Where to Look for a Lawyer
    2. Deciding on a Particular Lawyer
    3. Paying the Lawyer
    4. Managing the Lawyer
    5. Firing a Lawyer


    • How to Access the Sample Filled-In Forms on the Nolo Website
    • List of Sample Immigration Forms Available on the Nolo Website



  • Sample Chapter
  • Chapter 2:
    All Ways to Get a Green Card

    The official name for the green card is the Permanent Resident Card or Form I-551. It has been called a “green card” because, when it was first introduced in the 1940s, the color of the plastic identification card with the alien’s photo, registration number, date of birth, and date and port of entry was green.

    Over the years, the card’s color has been, at various times, blue, white, and pink, but now it is green again.

    There are several ways a person can obtain a green card—that is, become a lawful permanent resident. The most popular ones are through family and work. The other ways include proving that you’re fleeing from persecution, making large investments in the United States, and a few more obscure bases.

    This book covers the green card categories most readily available to ordinary people, with an emphasis on family categories. However, this chapter will tell you a little about the other major green card categories, and where to go next if you’re interested in them.

    A. Family-Based Relationships

    Recognizing that the family is important in the life of the nation, the U.S. Congress created ways for family members to be reunited with their relatives who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

    1. Related or Engaged to a U.S. Citizen

    If you are the spouse (opposite sex or same sex), child, brother, sister, or parent of, or are engaged to be married to, a U.S. citizen, you can become a lawful permanent resident. The person to whom you’re related or engaged must start the process by filing a petition with USCIS or the U.S. embassy in your country of residence.

    If you are the widow or widower of a U.S. citizen and it was a good-faith marriage (not a sham to get a green card), you can petition for a green card for yourself, provided you file the application (Form I-360) within two years of the death of your spouse (unless your spouse had already filed a Form I-130 for you), you weren’t legally separated at the time of death, and you haven't remarried.

    2. Related to a Lawful Permanent Resident

    If you are the spouse or unmarried child of a lawful permanent resident, you can obtain a green card— someday. First, the relative who has the green card must file a petition with USCIS. But you’ll have to wait several years, until you reach the top of a waiting list, to apply for the actual green card.

    3. Other Relatives

    If you are the aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, grandmother, or grandfather of a U.S. citizen, or if you are the brother, sister, parent, or fiancé of someone who holds a green card, you do not qualify for a green card based on a “family relationship.” Understandably, the U.S. Congress had to draw the line on what constitutes a family for the purpose of immigration.

    If you believe you qualify for a family-based green card, or are helping someone who does, here’s where to go next: Readers who are engaged to U.S. citizens, see Chapter 6. Readers who are married to U.S. citizens or permanent residents, see Chapter 7. Readers who are parents of U.S. citizens, see Chapter 8. Readers who are children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, see Chapter 9. For how to bring in an orphan child, see Chapter 10. Readers who are brothers or sisters of U.S. citizens, see Chapter 12.

    B. Employment-Based Relationships

    If you do not have a close family member who is a U.S. citizen or who holds a green card, you might be able to obtain a green card through a job offer from an employer in the United States—as either a priority or a nonpriority worker.

    1. Priority Workers

    Priority workers are people with extraordinary ability (such as an internationally known artist), outstanding professors and researchers, and multinational executives and managers. Another name for this category is “employment first preference.”

    Such highly skilled people have a relatively easy immigration process. Some do not even need a job offer, and none are required to go through the difficult labor certification process that other immigrating workers must pass, in which the Department of Labor determines that there are no qualified U.S. workers available and willing to do the same job.

    2. Other Workers

    Applicants who have been offered jobs that require graduate degrees in the arts or sciences or a profession (such as a law degree), or a master’s degree in business administration (MBA), or a bachelor’s degree plus five years of specialized experience are eligible for immigrant visas. This category is known as “employment second preference.”

    These applicants will first need certification from the Department of Labor saying that no qualified U.S. worker is available, willing, and able to do the job.

    Also, ordinary professionals (without graduate degrees) and skilled or unskilled workers (factory workers, plumbers, domestic workers, carpenters, and the like) may apply for labor certification and a green card on the basis of a job offer. This category is known as “employment third preference.”

    If you believe you qualify for any of these employment-based green cards, consult an experienced immigration attorney. As explained earlier, this book doesn’t cover employment-based immigration. The employer who has offered you a job (and you must have a job offer in almost all categories described above) might have an attorney it works with regularly. In fact, the Department of Labor’s labor certification rules require the employer to pay attorneys’ fees and other costs.

    Be Ready to Wait

    It could take you a long time to become a permanent resident under some of the immigrant visa categories described in this chapter. Once you or your petitioner files the first petition form to set the process in motion, however, it might become difficult for you to come to the United States as a tourist or another nonimmigrant, or to have your status as a nonimmigrant extended. That’s because, in order to obtain most nonimmigrant visas, you have to prove that you plan to return to your home country after your stay on the visa—and it’s hard to prove permanent ties to your home country if you’re simultaneously planning to leave it behind and get a U.S. green card.

    The only groups who need not be concerned with this warning are diplomats (A visas), employees of international organizations (G visas), intra- company transferees (L-1 or L-2 visas), and workers in specialty occupations that require a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent (H-1B visas).


    C. Special Immigrants

    Certain categories of people may obtain a green card by special laws intended to benefit limited groups. These include, for example:

    • priests, nuns, pastors, ministers, rabbis, imams, and other workers of recognized religious denominations
    • former employees of the U.S. government, commended by the U.S. Secretary of State for having performed outstanding service to the government for at least 15 years
    • medical doctors who have been licensed in the United States and have worked and lived in the United States since January 1978
    • former employees of the Panama Canal Zone
    • retired officers or employees of certain international organizations who have lived in the United States for a certain time, plus their spouses and unmarried children
    • foreign workers who have been employees of the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong for at least three years
    • foreign children who have been declared dependent in juvenile courts in the United States, and
    • international broadcasting employees.

    All these people fall into a green card category known as “employment-based fourth preference” or EB-4.

    If you believe you fit one of these categories, consult an experienced immigration attorney. Special immigrants are not covered in this book. Your employer-petitioner might be willing to hire an attorney for you.

    D. Entrepreneur Immigrants

    An alien entrepreneur from any country who invests at least $1.8 million in a business (or $900,000 if the business is in an economically depressed area) and who employs at least ten U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents is eligible for a green card. Each year, 10,000 immigrant visas are set aside for this millionaire immigrant category, which is designed to create employment. This category is also known as “employment-based fifth preference” or “EB-5.”

    Are you financially able to qualify for a green card based on investment? If so, it’s well worth hiring an experienced immigration attorney to analyze the latest legal developments and help with your application.

    E. Asylum and Refugee Status

    People who can prove that they fled their country based on past persecution or out of fear of future persecution owing to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion may apply for legal status as refugees (if they’re outside the U.S.) or asylees (if they’re already inside the U.S.).

    A person who gains U.S. government approval as a refugee or an asylee can apply for permanent residence status later (more specifically, one year after being admitted to the United States as a refugee or one year after asylee status is granted).

    For more information on applying for refugee or asylee status, see Chapter 13.

    F. Diversity Visa Lottery

    The Immigration Act of 1990 created a green card category to benefit people from countries that in recent years have sent the fewest numbers of immigrants to the United States. You can enter the lottery if you are a native of one of those countries and meet certain educational and other requirements. Because the winners are selected through a random drawing, the program is popularly known as the “green card lottery.” Its official name is the “Diversity Immigrant Visa Lottery.” There are 50,000 winners selected each year. They are chosen by dividing the world into regions and allocating no more than 7% of the total green cards to each region.

    However, even if you win the lottery, you still have to make it through the green card application process—and many people fail, because they’re inadmissible or the government can’t process their applications by the deadlines set by law.

    For more information on applying for the visa lottery, and what to do if you win, see Chapter 11.

    G. Amnesties

    Once in a while, Congress gives blanket green card eligibility to people who have been living in the United States illegally. The most recent amnesty was offered in the early 1980s. Although anti-immigrant commentators regularly complain that every new law that benefits immigrants is an “amnesty,” there has been no actual amnesty offered since that time.

    Some lawmakers have proposed bills offering an amnesty-like path to a green card in recent years, at least for “DREAMers,” or those who were brought to the U.S. when young. Keep your eyes on the news and the Nolo website for updates, and beware of the many scammers urging immigrants to pay to submit an application when no such application exists.

    Interested in learning more about a past or upcoming amnesty? Consult an experienced immigration attorney or a local nonprofit. Do not go to a USCIS office unless you want to risk deportation

    H. Private Bills

    You might have heard of people who became permanent residents by means of a private bill passed by the U.S. Congress. However, such cases are rare. You must have very special circumstances—and strong political ties—to get a private bill passed. Look into the possibility of a private bill where the law is against you but your case has strong humanitarian factors. Private bills succeed when an injustice can be corrected only by a special act of the U.S. Congress.

    The successful ones tend to be people in unusually tragic situations, such as a family that came to the U.S. seeking cancer treatment for a child, only to have the father and mother of the child killed in a car wreck.

    A private bill must be sponsored by one or more members of the House of Representatives and one or more members of the Senate.

    It must be introduced in both houses of Congress, then recommended favorably by the Judiciary Committee to which it has been assigned in both houses, after having been favorably reported on by the Subcommittee on Immigration of both houses.

    Both houses of Congress must approve the bill during a regular session. The president of the United States must then sign it into law.

    Thus, if you are a foreign-born person facing deportation, you will have to go through the eye of a needle before getting your private bill passed by Congress and signed by the president. In short, hiring the best immigration lawyer in town will likely give you a better chance to obtain a green card than will the private bill route.

    We hope you enjoyed this sample chapter. The complete book is available for sale here at

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