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What You Need to Know About Green Card Eligibility
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What You Need to Know About Green Card Eligibility

You may be eligible to apply for a green card (permanent residence) through your family, a job offer or employment, refugee or asylum status, or a number of other special provisions. In some cases, you may even be able to self-petition or have a record created for permanent residence on your behalf. In general, to meet the requirements for permanent residence in the United States, you must:

  • Be eligible for one of the immigrant categories established in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)
  • Have a qualifying immigrant petition filed and approved for you (with a few exceptions)
  • Have an immigrant visa immediately available
  • Be admissible to the United States

Each requirement is detailed below.

Eligibility for an Immigrant Category

Individuals who want to become immigrants (permanent residents) through their qualified family member, a job offer or employment, or a special category will generally be classified in categories based on a preference system. Except for immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen who are given the highest immigration priority and a few other exceptions, Congress has set a finite number of visas that can be used each year for each category of immigrants. The general categories are listed below.

Family Based Eligibility

Some relatives of U.S. citizens, known as immediate relatives, do not have to wait for a visa to become available. There is no limit to the number of visas that can be utilized in this category in a particular year. Immediate relatives include:

  • Parents of a U.S. citizen
  • Spouses of a U.S. citizen
  • Unmarried children under the age of 21 of a U.S. citizen
  • Note: U.S. citizens must be at least 21 years old to apply for their parents.

The qualified relatives of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in the remaining family based categories may have to wait for a visa to become available before they can apply for permanent residency. These categories include:

  • First Preference: Unmarried, adult (21 years of age or older) sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
  • Second Preference A: Spouses of permanent residents and the unmarried children (under the age of 21)) of permanent residents
  • Second Preference B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years or age or older) of permanent residents
  • Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children
  • Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children

Job or Employment Based Eligibility

People who want to become immigrants based on employment or a job offer may apply for permanent residence or an immigrant visa abroad, when an immigrant visa number becomes available according to the following employment based preferences:

  • First Preference: Priority Workers, including aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers
  • Second Preference: Members of professions holding an advanced degree or persons of exceptional ability (including individuals seeking a National Interest Waiver)
  • Third Preference: Skilled Workers, professionals and other qualified workers
  • Fourth Preference: Certain special immigrants including those in religious vocations
  • Fifth Preference: Employment creation immigrants (investors or entrepreneurs)

Eligibility Based on Refugee or Asylum Status

If you were admitted to the United States as a refugee or the qualifying spouse or child of a refugee, you are required to apply for permanent residence (a green card) 1 year after your entry into the United States in this status. If you were granted asylum in the United States or are a qualifying spouse or child of an asylee, you may apply for permanent residence 1 year after the grant of your asylum status.

If you are a refugee, you are required by law to apply for a green card 1 year after being admitted to the United States in refugee status.

If you are an asylee or asylee derivative spouse or child, you are not required to apply for a green card 1 year after being granted asylum or 1 year after being admitted to the United States in asylum status, although it may be in your best interest to do so.

For more information on green card eligibility for refugees and asylees, see our Green Card Through Refugee or Asylum Status page.

Other Ways

Although most immigrants come to live permanently in the United States through a family member’s sponsorship, employment, or a job offer, there are many other ways to get a green card.

A number of special immigrant programs are limited to individuals meeting particular qualifications and/or applying during certain time frames. To learn if you may be eligible for one of these special categories, see our Other Ways to Get a Green Card page.

Immigrant Petition

Immigrants in most categories will need an immigrant petition (Petition for Alien Relative, Immigrant Petition for Alien, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, or another petition) filed on their behalf.

A petition establishes the underlying basis for your ability to immigrate and determines your immigrant classification or category. Some categories of immigrants may be able to self petition. Most people immigrating based on humanitarian programs are exempt from the petition requirement.