How to Get a U.S. Green Card: 10 Things to Know

A green card lasts ten years even though it says “permanent” on the actual card. (AP Photo/Khue Bui)

When most Brits first visit the U.S., they are content to sign the visa waiver form handed out on the airplane. Work visas are enough for thousands of others sent to America by their U.K. employers – or tempted across by U.S. firms or universities.

But for those with longer ambitions, the holy grail is the Green Card, which you keep even if you lose your American job. It’s the size of a credit card, off-white on the front and with no more than a green tinge on the back, carrying a photo of the holder and routine information such as name, date of birth – and renewal date. Like a credit card, it has a band on the back containing computer-coded information.

Although their holders are known as Lawful Permanent Residents, Green Cards are not forever. They are renewable every ten years, which seems plenty at first, and they can be withdrawn – commonly for committing a serious crime, later discovery that the application was fraudulent or concealed important information, or being out of the U.S. for more than 180 days in a 12-month period. On the last point, you can return if the circumstances were beyond your control.

So when I got the chance, after five years, I upgraded to U.S. citizenship – which is for life, and does not prevent dual U.K. citizenship. That lets you vote in the U.S., which Green Cards do not, and you are liable for jury service – not a plus for many people.

But the Green Card is the most a foreigner can obtain at first, and it does make living in the U.S. a comfortable proposition. That is why it is so prized. So how do you obtain one?

Here are ten tips:

1. Be related to a U.S. citizen, as a spouse, unmarried child under 21 or parent if the citizen is over 21. There are also special categories, including a battered spouse or child, being born to a foreign diplomat in the U.S., or widows and widowers of U.S. citizens. Stepchildren and stepparents may also qualify. Gay and lesbian couples still have difficulties, which are being challenged in the courts.

2. The U.S. holds an annual Green Card lottery, but Brits can forget that unless they have a spouse born in an eligible country, or parents are from an eligible country who were not in the U.K. at the time of your birth. This is for reasons of diversity, which strangely do not bar those from Ireland, Northern Ireland or the rest of Europe except Poland. Basically, the US authorities reckon enough Brits qualify through family or job.

3. Ask your U.S. employer to put in a good word. They must obtain labor certification and file Form I-140, Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker. You have to be at management level or equivalent, hold a degree or do work for which no similarly qualified U.S. citizens are available.

4. Bring money. Invest at least $1 million (£645,000), employ ten people or expand an existing business by at least 40%. You can get away with half that investment in designated employment areas. Beware scams. I visited an emigration fair in London offering Green Cards to retired people willing to buy three houses – one for themselves, the other two as a minimal property business. Passive “businesses” like that, particularly owned by those of retirement age, are subject to close investigation.

5. Work in a favored category of employment, such as broadcaster or doctor, or work for an international organization. Religious workers, including priests, rabbis, nuns, monks and deacons, are eligible. All can bring their families.

6. Be a nurse or physiotherapist (known in the U.S. as a physical therapist) with a job offer from a hospital or medical center.

7. Be adopted by U.S. citizens, as long as you are under 16 years old.

8. Be highly talented in science, arts, business or academia. You may then qualify as an Alien of Extraordinary Ability. You have to satisfy at least three of several criteria, and it is a great help to have had written work published. You also need as many letters of recommendation as possible, preferably from high-flown referees such as judges, company directors or college professors. The advantage is that you do not have to have a job, just means of support.

9. Relax. If you do not qualify for any of the above, just jump on a plane. Your visa waiver lasts 90 days and, without breaking the law, you can start looking for a job. Then take it step by step, from employment visa to Green Card. It might take a few years, but persistence takes you a long way in the U.S.

10. Before obtaining a Green Card, do not do anything to upset the authorities, even with a parking ticket. You are liable to be entered on the Department of Homeland Security’s computer and could face a disproportionate amount of hassle. The U.S. is surprisingly bureaucratic and intensely suspicious of people who infringe the law.

Have you obtained a Green Card, or perhaps you’re interested in getting one? Tell us your story below: