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Understanding the Steps in the Green Card Process (2023)

So, your goal is to become a permanent resident in the United States? Before you get started, it is important to understand each part of the green card process. 

This blog will help you better understand the green card process steps, what the various stages of this process are and how the timeline of the application process plays out. As you petition for a green card, we want you to understand what to expect, giving yourself the best chance of success.

To begin, we understand that getting an employment-based green card can be a long and sometimes frustrating process. It can also be very rewarding. You have much to gain by leveraging your employment status to achieve lawful permanent residency in the U.S., and thankfully, the green card process steps are clear and straightforward.

Step 1: Understand the Three General Paths to a Permanent Residency

To begin, you must figure out how you'll qualify for a green card. There are three general ways you can qualify for a U.S. green card:

(1) Through employment (Form I-140)

You can qualify for a green card with an approved employment-based petition, such as an EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4, or EB-5 (we'll go into theses petitions in more detail later). Each of these petitions are associated with Form I-140, an immigration form that must be filed before (or at the same time) as a green card application.

(2) Through family (Form I-130)

The most common way to qualify for a green card through family is by marriage. However, before you can file your green card application, you must file Form I-130.

(3) For humanitarian reasons

Refugees, asylum seekers, and similar immigrants can also qualify to become green card holders.

Step 2: Select a Visa Category

This second step is only relevant for employment-based green card categories. There are several employment-based categories, you will need to determine which is the right fit for you.

Each category is nuanced, so be click the links to read further:

  • EB-1A: For individuals at the top of their field; eligible for self-petitioning; no PERM
  • EB-1B: For professors and researchers; no PERM
  • EB-1C: For multinational managers and executives; no PERM
  • EB-2 National Interest Waiver (NIW): For individuals with work of “national importance; eligible for self-petitioning; no PERM
  • EB-2 PERM: For individuals with an advanced degree or extraordinary ability; PERM required
  • EB-3: For skilled, professional, or other workers; PERM required
  • EB-4: For special immigrants; no PERM
  • EB-5: For immigrant investors; no PERM

Step 3: The PERM Labor Certification Phase (if applicable)

The Program for Electronic Review Management (PERM) Labor certification is the next step for EB-2 PERM and EB-3 petitions. 

The PERM shows the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) that you won’t be taking a job away from a U.S. worker. The PERM process is carried out by your sponsoring employer. It can take anywhere from 6 to 18 months, depending on whether or not your employer gets selected for an audit. These 18 months are broken down into the following steps:

  1. Prevailing Wage Request: Your employer obtains a prevailing wage from the DOL. This typically takes about two weeks.
  2. Recruitment Process: During this stage, your employer must work with the DOL to establish that there are no qualified U.S. workers for your proposed position, and that you are indeed the best candidate. This can often take several months to complete. 
  3. ETA-9089 Application: Next, your employer has to submit the ETA-9089 application to the DOL. The DOL can take around six months to review and approve the application.

Step 4: Petition Phase

Immigrants with petitions that don’t require the PERM can jump to this step, and EB-2 PERM and EB-3 applicants move to this step after the PERM is approved. 

During this phase, the immigrant petition is prepared. For employment-based petitions, Form I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker) is prepared with supporting documents. For family-based petitions, Form 1-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) is prepared with supporting documents. 

Depending on the legal services firm you work with and the petition type, it can take a few months to prepare the petition. Some petitions (like the EB-2 NIW or EB-1A) can require hundreds of pages of documents, whereas others are more straightforward.

Once the petition is prepared, it has to be printed on paper and shipped to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) service center. 

Some petitions are eligible for premium processing, meaning that they can be reviewed and approved by USCIS within 15 or 45 days. For others, you may have to wait years to receive an approval. You can check average processing times for each case type on USCIS’s website for an estimate. 

Step 5: Adjustment of Status Phase

Adjustment of status refers to the process of becoming a permanent resident (in other words, green card holder) from inside the U.S. 

During this phase, you file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status—the green card application.

Upon approval of the I-485, you’ll receive a green card.

If you are applying for a green card from outside the U.S., you will go through a separate process at a U.S. consulate. Each consulate has a slightly different process, so inquire with your consulate or a local immigration attorney for more details. 

Back to the I-485 for immigrants already present inside the U.S. There are a few things to consider regarding when and how you can file I-485:

  1. Certain visa-holders may have to wait 90 days before filing Form I-485 if they traveled recently. If you are on a single intent visa, your immigration attorney will likely advise that you wait 90 days before you file your application if you just re-entered the U.S. after international travel. Keep this in mind if you have travel plans and want to file a green card soon. Related resource: Dual Intent vs. Single Intent U.S. Work Visas
  2. You have to have a current priority date on the visa bulletin to file Form I-485. There is an annual limit to the number of green cards that are available for individuals from each country. Because of the high amount of green card applications born in India and China, there is often a backlog for these countries. Related resource: How to Read and Understand the Visa Bulletin.
  3. You cannot file the green card (I-485) application before filing an immigrant visa (I-140 or I-130), but you may be able to file concurrently. If you’re filing based on employment or marriage, you cannot file Form I-485 right away. But if your priority date is current, you can file concurrently (at the same time). This can speed up the overall process. Related resource: Should You Concurrently File The I-140 and I-485?
  4. Some individuals choose to wait to file the green card (I-485) application until after their immigrant visa (I-140 or I-130) is approved, even if they weren’t born in India or China. If you file an EB-1A with premium processing, you’ll receive a decision from the government in 15 days or less. In this type of situation, it doesn’t hurt to wait to file your green card application once your petition is approved. In the situation that your EB-1A is denied, you won’t lose time and money spent on the green card application.

Once your I-485 application is mailed to USCIS, you can expect to wait at least six months, likely longer, before your case is approved. 

During this time, you need to maintain legal status in the U.S. Many applicants choose to also file Form I-765, Application for Employment Authorization, and Form I-131, Application for Travel Document. Both are typically approved in a few months. Form I-765 provides green card applicants with a temporary EAD for work authorization, and Form I-131 enables them to travel internationally. 

There are a few events that will happen after you submit your green card application to the government:

  1. After a few weeks, you or your immigration lawyer will receive a Notice of Receipt of Application from USCIS. This receipt notice signifies that USCIS’s mail room has sent your application to the right place. On the receipt notice you’ll see a receipt number, which can be used to track your green card status online
  2. Later, you’ll receive a Notice for Biometrics Appointment. This notice will include a location and date for your appointment. There will be instructions on how to reschedule if necessary. At the appointment you’ll be required to provide fingerprints, a photograph, and your signature. This appointment is quick, and it allows USCIS to complete the background check that’s required for your case to continue on towards approval. 
  3. You may also receive a Request for Initial Evidence asking you to send in a medical exam.  
  4. Finally, you may receive an invite to a green card interview. USCIS can waive interviews for certain applicants, but you should be prepared to potentially attend if needed. This interview serves to clarify and confirm the details of your work history, current immigration status and green card application.

Explore Your Immigration Options

With USCIS backlogs and so many different visas, the green card application process and timeline can vary from person to person. Luckily, you don’t have to figure it out all on your own. When you work with Legalpad, you get a dedicated immigration team who understands and cares about your unique situation. So, when you find yourself wondering, “what are the steps for the green card process?” get in touch with us, we’re here to help.


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