You hear a lot about the necessity of having a green card in order to legally live and work in the U.S. But what is a green card and how do you get one? 

To begin with, “green card” is only a nickname for the card you need. The official name is Permanent Resident Card. Green cards got their nickname because they were, in fact, green in color from 1946 until 1964. 

Green card eligibility and process 

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains that many different types of green cards exist. Which one you should apply for depends on your particular situation. All require that you file both an immigrant petition and a green card application form. Most immigrants require a sponsor to file their immigrant petition for them, but you may be able to file it yourself depending on your precise circumstances. 

The process you use likewise depends on your circumstances. For instance, if you already live in the U.S., you use the adjustment of status process and go through the USCIS. Conversely, if you live anywhere outside the U.S., you use the consular process in your country of residence, going through the U.S. Department of State. 

Green card categories 

The main green card categories include the following: 

  • Family-based green cards if you are the spouse, widower, child, parent or other relative of a U.S. citizen, including his or her fiancé or fiancee or the child of said fiancé or fiancee 
  • Employment-based green cards if you are a skilled worker, particularly in the science, education, business, arts or athletic field, or a physician or investor 
  • Refugee or asylee green cards if you came to the U.S. as a refugee at least one year ago or obtained U.S. asylum at least one year ago 

If you do not fit within any of the above categories, you may fit within others. In addition, you may be able to simply register for a green card if you immigrated to the U.S. prior to Jan. 1, 1972, and have continuously resided here ever since.