Green cards: What you need to know

Learn the various benefits of having a green card.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Moving to the United States and legally being able to stay is the dream for many people around the world. One way to do this is by applying for and getting a green card. Also known as a permanent resident card, a green card comes with several benefits beyond being able to live anywhere in the U.S.

In this article, we explain the major reasons to obtain a green card, including specific benefits for employees, entrepreneurs and students. This information may help you determine if you want to pursue permanent residence in the U. S.

What is a green card?

A green card is an identity document (somewhat like a driver’s license, but it has nothing to do with driving). Green card holders can permanently live and work in the United States.

General benefits of a green card

There are many reasons to get a green card, but you may not realize all of the advantages that this status offers. Below are the biggest benefits of a green card.

Green card holders living in the United States are called lawful permanent residents (LPRs) because they’re legally authorized to live in the U.S. indefinitely. LPRs don’t need to be financially sponsored by American employers, which makes it much easier to get a job. They also don’t need to have a job to stay in the country, whereas people with a work visa might need a job.

LPRs can own property, are eligible for financial aid at American colleges and universities and can join the army. They can’t, however, vote in most governmental elections, because they aren’t legal citizens.

Sponsor relatives

Having a green card means you can help your spouse or unmarried children of any age become LPRs. To do this, you must file Form I-130 (known as the petition for alien relative) to certify your relation to your spouse or child.

If the petition is approved and a visa number is available, your spouse or child under age 21 will be invited to apply for an immigrant visa. If they’re already legally in the U.S. they (or you, if they’re very young) can adjust their resident status to permanent by filing an I-485 form. You must file separate petitions for each relative you’d like to help acquire a green card.

It can help to speak with an immigration attorney to understand the nuances of your family member’s status and if they’re eligible to adjust their resident status.

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Apply for citizenship

Reasons for becoming a citizen may include the desire to:

Once you have a green card for five years, you may choose to apply for citizenship. You can do this after only three years if you’re married to a U.S. citizen and you obtained your green card because you were married to this person. 

You can apply to become a citizen online by submitting a Form N-400, otherwise known as the application for naturalization. (Naturalization is the process of a green card holder becoming an American citizen.)

Live anywhere

There are no limitations on where you can live within the United States when you have a green card or a work-sponsored visa. But if you have a green card, you can also live in any other country for up to six months, then easily re-enter America by showing your green card at customs.

Travel abroad freely

If you have a green card, you can travel abroad without any worry that you may not be admitted when you return to the United States, as long as you present a valid, unexpired green card at the time of reentry.

While it’s possible to return to the United States if you lose your green card abroad, the process for re-entry can be time-consuming and costly if you don’t have your green card with you: You have to complete Form I-131A, pay a non-refundable deposit (currently $575) and submit a photograph of your green card as well as a police report confirming that the green card was either lost or stolen.

Social security

Having a social security number (SSN) can be really helpful for building a new life in America. The U.S. government created SSNs to track employees’ earning histories and, in turn, compute their social security benefits down the road. You’re entitled to a certain amount of money each month after you retire. The amount is based on the age you retire at and how much you earn throughout your lifetime.

If you request a social security number at the same time that you apply for your visa, your card will be sent to the same address as your green card within three weeks of your arrival in the United States.

If you don’t request a SSN when applying for your green card, you have to visit your local social security office when you arrive in the U.S. Bring your:

  • Passport 
  • Machine-readable immigrant visa (MRIV) or green card
  • Birth certificate

A representative at the office will help you with the application. You should receive the SSN card in the mail within two weeks.

Qualify for a mortgage

Anyone with a green card may be eligible for a Federal Housing Administration- (FHA-) insured mortgage. An FHA mortgage may qualify you to pay a very low down-payment (as low as 3.5 percent of the purchase price) if you purchase property. This could make the difference in becoming a homeowner.

Obtain health insurance

Green card holders are qualified to obtain health insurance through Medicaid or through the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). There’s a five-year waiting period between when you become an LPR and when you can actually get this coverage. Still, having health insurance can give you greater access to all kinds of healthcare.

Green card benefits for employees

A green card means you have more job opportunities. For one, unlike a visa, there’s no need for an employer to sponsor you. For another, some companies require applicants to be American citizens or LPRs. 

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Green card benefits for entrepreneurs

Currently, through the EB-5 investor program, entrepreneurs may be eligible for green cards—and the benefits that come with them—if one of the following applies:

  • They invest at least $1,050,000 in a commercial enterprise within the United States.
  • They invest at least $800,000 in a commercial enterprise in a rural area or an area of the U.S. with high unemployment.
  • They have a detailed plan to create or maintain 10 permanent full-time jobs within the U.S.

Green card benefits for students

International students on a student visa can’t apply for federal financial aid. On the other hand, students with a green card can qualify for in-state tuition if they choose to attend a state university in the state where they live. They can also apply for federal financial aid to any state school.

Speak with an immigration lawyer

Becoming a U.S. citizen is no small feat, and the paperwork can be confusing at times. Although you don’t need to work with an immigration lawyer, they can help ensure the forms are properly filed, walk you through all the steps and answer any questions you have along the way. An immigration lawyer can be especially helpful if you’re not a native English speaker.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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