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Green card - What is a green card?

Green card

Green card. It’s a term that is used often. But people don’t use the term very carefully. What does “green card” actually mean under the United State’s Immigration and Nationality Act?


Absolutely nothing.

“Green card” simply has no legal meaning whatsoever. Instead, it’s basically immigration slang. The problem is that people use it to refer to at least three immigration concepts. And these three concepts are very different from one another. Let’s have a look.

Green card meaning #1 – lawful permanent residency.

People most often use the term “green card” to refer to the concept of lawful permanent residency. A lawful permanent resident or LPR has the ability to live and work indefinitely in the United States. That means, unless the person does something to lose her status, she can live and work in the U.S. for as long as she wants. LPRs are still subject to immigration law, however. So if the person commits a crime, for example, she can be placed into deportation proceedings and lose her “green card.”

LPRs are also subject to restrictions on foreign travel. The purpose of this “green card” is to live in the United States. Under immigration law, if the person spends too much time outside of the country, the person is considered to no longer be a U.S. resident. As a general rule, the “green card” holder should not spend more than 6 months at a time outside of the United States.

How does someone get residency status? The most common route is through a family member. The process is different depending on whether the person is inside the United States already or applying from outside the United States. Additional routes include less common strategies like U-Visas for crime victims or VAWA petitions for abuse survivors. In limited situations, an employer may start the petition process. But this is generally limited to certain high-skill jobs.

Green card meaning #2 – work permit.

People also use the term “green card” to refer to temporary work authorization. There are many different ways that someone could be authorized to work on a temporary basis in the United States. A common one for our clients is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also called DACA or the Dream Act. A person with DACA has the ability to work legally in the United States while in DACA status. But she is not authorized to reside permanently in the country. (Learn more about DACA here).

But there are many, many other forms of temporary work visas. Each of these is designated by a letter of the alphabet. So this is sometimes referred to as the “alphabet soup.” Some common examples of temporary visas include:

  • Crewmember, such as on a cruise ship (D-visa).
  • Foreign national with extraordinary ability in Sciences, Arts, Education, Business or Athletics (O-visa).
  • NAFTA professional worker: Mexico, Canada, such as psychologist or lawyer (TN/TD-visa).
  • Performing athlete, artist, entertainer (P-visa).
  • Physician/doctor (J , H-1B-visa).
  • Religious worker (R-visa).
  • Specialty occupations in fields requiring highly specialized knowledge, such as computer programmer (H-1B-visa).
  • Temporary agricultural worker (H-2A-visa).
  • Temporary worker performing other services or labor of a temporary or seasonal nature (H-2B-visa).

It is important to understand that there is no general line to “stand in” for a temporary work permit. The ability to apply is always tied to a particular work authorization category, such as the ones listed above.

Green card meaning #3 – U.S. citizenship.

This last use of the term “green card” is just completely wrong and totally misleading. But even lawyers sometimes don’t understand the difference between U.S. citizenship and lawful permanent residency. For most of our clients, the most important difference is that U.S. citizens are no longer subject to U.S. immigration law. That is, they can come and go from the U.S. as they please, and it’s almost impossible to lose status as a U.S. citizen. Citizens – but not residents – have the right to vote in federal elections. Once someone has become a citizen, they are considered a full member of our society. As we always tell our clients, once they become citizens they have exactly the same rights and responsibilities as any other American.

Unlike residency, there is usually no way for a foreigner to directly apply for U.S. citizenship. Instead, the person has to first get residency status. Then in five years – or three if married to a U.S. citizen – they can apply for citizenship. You can learn more about the process of becoming a citizen here.

Conclusion – no more “green card.”

Instead of using the term “green card,” we encourage you to use the more accurate immigration concept. If you mean lawful permanent residency, say so. If you’re referring to temporary work authorization, be clear. This will help you communicate more clearly, whether to a lawyer or someone else. It also shows that you know what you’re talking about.

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All Sound Immigration attorneys are members of the American Immigration Lawyers Associations. They practice immigration law exclusively, focusing on helping families start new lives in the United States.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hi
    My husband and I came from Canada to the US with an H1B visa 21 yrs ago. We have had 2 Green Cards since then. We are divorcing now and I am looking for assurance that my Green Card is safe and I can live here with my kids as a non working adult (with assets and maintenance). Also am considering changing back to maiden name.

    1. Hi, Sandra. If by “green card” you mean a valid 10-year I-551, then yes – you may continue residing in the U.S. You can also potentially naturalize and become a dual U.S./Canadian citizen.

  2. Hello to my reader, my name is Shakiru Muritala. I am a lawful permanent resident in USA. I had left USA in 2005 to Nigeria due to depression feelings. I had no idea of what I was doing before I had Left. Now, I want to go back to New York. What should I do? By the way I am still in Nigeria presently.

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