Applying for a Green Card

After getting the go-ahead from USCIS, it's time to apply for your green card.

Once you're ready to apply for a green card -- most likely because a visa petition filed for you by a relative, fiancé, or employer has been approved and you've waited until a green card ("immigrant visa") is available -- it's time to figure out where to apply.

(If you're not sure what a visa petition is or whether you needed one, see First Step for Family and Employment Green Cards: The Visa Petition. One of the largest groups of people who don't need visa petitions are refugees and political asylees, who can apply for a green card after one year of gaining their status.)

While most green card applications must be made at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, many people would prefer to file paperwork while inside the United States, with the agency known as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). That's often because they are either already living in the U.S. or they want to join their family or start their new job there as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the choice is not always the immigrant's to make.

Who Can Apply in the United States

Only certain categories of applicants are allowed to file green card applications at a USCIS office. This right is usually limited to people who entered the U.S. legally and didn’t stay beyond the date on their I-94 card (put in your passport when you enter).

One important exception is immigrants who are the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen, such as a husband or wife, and applying on that basis. If they entered legally, or on a visa waiver, and even if they stayed past the date when they were expected to leave, they can normally still apply in the United States.

For other applicants, particularly those who entered the U.S. illegally or overstayed a visa, filing in the U.S. may cause their deportation. Anyone considering applying in the U.S. should consult a Nolo book specific to your situation or hire an experienced immigration attorney.

How to Apply in the U.S.

To apply for a green card in the United States, you need to apply for what is called "adjustment of status." Any local USCIS office can give you the packet of forms you need. Or you can call their forms line at 800-870-3676 and ask for an "adjustment of status" packet, or download the individual forms at www.uscis.gov. Some of these forms require paying fees to submit them.

In addition, you'll have to provide photos and various documents, such as a copy of your visa petition approval or asylum approval, a job letter from the employer who petitioned you saying the job is still open, your birth certificate, copies of certain pages of your passport, and more. It depends on what category you’re applying under.

After you’ve assembled everything (and made a copy for your records), you'll mail it to a USCIS service center. Months later, you'll be called in to have your fingerprints taken, and later still, you'll be called to your local USCIS office for an interview. If everything is in order, you will be approved for a green card at the end of your interview. The actual green card will be sent to you by mail, usually months later.

How to Apply From Outside the U.S.

When the time comes, an office called the National Visa Center (NVC) will start corresponding with you (and your petitioner). Once you’ve filled out an initial form and paid your visa fee, the NVC will transfer your case to a U.S. embassy or consulate in the country where you live.

(U.S. embassies and consulates outside your home country will normally refuse to accept your application, unless you can show a compelling reason why you are unable to apply at home, for example, because the U.S. has no diplomatic relationship with the government of your homeland.)

The consulate will then send you additional forms to fill out. and will notify you of the date and time for your interview, and give you instructions on getting a medical exam and photos beforehand. You'll have to prepare various documents to bring to your interview, such as your passport, police certificates, your birth and marriage certificates, and more. It depends on what category you’re applying under.

Even with an appointment, you'll still normally have to stand in line. At the interview, a consular officer will review your documents and talk with you. If everything is in order, you'll be approved for an immigrant visa, and your passport will be stamped. You'll need to use that visa within six months to enter the United States and claim your permanent resident status. The actual green card will be sent to you by mail, usually months later.


Consult a Nolo Book Specific to Your Situation

This article is an overview of the very complicated application procedures involved in immigrating. You'll need to know which forms to file and where, as well as the proper documents to bring to your interview, and this depends on what category you're applying under. Nolo books provide further help, with detailed instructions specific to the various types of visas and green cards:

U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray
Fiancé and Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration, by Ilona Bray, and
How to Get a Green Card, by Ilona Bray.