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 They are renewable every ten years, which seems plenty at first, and they can be withdrawn – commonly for committing a serious crime, later discovery that the application was fraudulent or concealed important information, or being out of the U.S. for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:


William Kay

Bill Kay was a London business journalist until he emigrated to Pasadena, ten miles north of Los Angeles, from where he writes a financial advice column for the London Sunday Times. He was City Editor of The Times and the Mail on Sunday and has written a dozen books, including a Pasadena murder-mystery novel, as well as dipping into screenwriting and stand-up comedy. He attended Westminster City School and The Queen's College, Oxford, and still manages to follow Chelsea Football Club. He has two adult sons, Andrew and Ben - and two grandchildren, Jackson and Indiana - all in London.
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  • Gillian Ladley

    Just to be pedantic, the new Green Cards are now actually green. They also have profiles of all the US Presidents and all the State flags on the back. It’s pretty nifty. I know because I went route number 1 and married a US citizen, and got my Green Card a few months ago.

    I’d be really wary of offering number 9 as a route to a Green Card. It’s a really gray area, like hopping on a plane via visa waiver/ESTA and then getting married. The authorities don’t like it because by entering via visa waiver/ESTA you’re saying your intention isn’t to apply for employment (or get married).

    Best thing about having a Green Card is being able to walk through the citizen passport lines in both the UK and the USA!

    • getyourownshoe

      Yep – being a spouse of a US Citizen, I must say one of the biggest perks is being able to walk through the VISA/Citizen passport lines when entering the US. :)

  • JLo

    I have to agree that point number 9 is a shady one. New York in particular is filled with expats that just ‘got on a plane’ and found a job that made them illegal immigrants. If you truly want to live here it’s not worth risking a permanent ban for a quick fix job under the table.

    I do however recommend that anyone coming here with an intention to stay for a longer time gets their green card, you should ask your employer to start the process as soon as you arrive if you are on a work visa. People don’t realize that when you lose your job, you have to leave immediately if you don’t have a green card, no matter whether you were fired or just let go – there’s no difference in US law. And if you want to buy a house and have kids here – definitely get a green card first.

    • gn

      I believe the rule is that, if you come here on a visa waiver, you must not have the intent to remain permanently. You would have to be able to argue with a straight face that you came here for a short vacation and then accidentally bumped into your future spouse / a great job.

  • Stephanie

    Funny to hear this from a Brits perspective. I should give you my tips on how to get leave to remain in the uk

  • A P

    This is funny, Brits want to be Americans and Americans want to be Brits. How do I get my hands on a EU passport?

    • gn

      Discover an Italian great-grandparent.

    • bohemond

      Have two Irish grandparents? Then you qualify for Irish citizenship. This counts even if they came from what is now Ulster/NI.

  • A P

    Can’t out governments just get along? Why do they get to decide where we live? We’re all earthlings right? We should be able to live where we want.

  • Matt R

    “The U.S. is surprisingly bureaucratic and intensely suspicious of people who infringe the law.”
    And of those who do not either.

  • Susan C.

    My husband came over using a Fiance Visa (we did it ourselves). Takes a bit of time (less than a year with no issues) and money but well worth it. A friend of mine on the other hand came over not intending to get married but did and they had all sorts of hassles and probably spent more money and time not to mention lawyers. She was able to stay but it was a pain in the butt.

    • Susan

      My husband is now a US citizen as well. 4 years from when he entered the US. He retains duel citizenship although we haven’t been back to the UK since he left.

  • EmmaK

    Yes I did get one in the end but it took a long time. I have not yet flown with it and look forward to going in the more convenient citizens line though!

  • john

    i live i brasil and i would like to know if i want to buy a house so i can go on holiday ones a year can i??

  • john

    sorry i forgot the n