How long does it take to get a green card?

The green card process can take months or years, but it’s worth the wait.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

As much as we wish we could offer a straightforward response to the question, “How long does it take to get a green card?”, the answer depends on a variety of factors, including the green card category you’re applying for, the number of green cards available each year per category, the volume of applications received by the USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) and more. 

In general, it can take anywhere from seven months to several years to receive a green card. We advise being patient and closely following the USCIS instructions for the application process—any mistakes will only cause things to take longer. 

Let’s take a closer look at what makes the USCIS green card processing time so long, as well as when to expect a green card in the different categories.

Green card processing times

In order to handle the sheer scale of applications received each year, the USCIS uses field offices located throughout the United States. Your application is sent to your nearest field office based on your zip code. Since applications are geographically dependent, offices servicing more densely populated areas (like New York City and Los Angeles) have substantially longer wait times than offices in less populated areas.

Additionally, some key forms, such as Form I-130 (family or marriage green card) and Form I-129 (employment green card), are handled by USCIS service centers. These tend to have longer wait times due to the large number of applications they receive.

Then, although you may qualify for one visa type or another, certain categories of applicants have greater priority than others. For example, if you’re not the immediate relative (meaning spouse, unmarried child or parent) of a U.S. citizen, you fall into what’s known as a “preference category”, for which annual limits apply. This might mean you’ll wait years before a visa becomes available to you. 

Where you fall on the waitlist is directly dependent on your priority date, which is the date that either your labor certification or your family-based I-130 petition was first filed. You can check if and when your priority date becomes eligible for a visa on the USCIS’s Visa Bulletin, which is updated on a monthly basis. 

Lastly, thanks to recent national crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, the immigrant visa backlog is worse, so wait times continue to be longer. 

Below we discuss the processing times for various types of visas in more detail.

Family-based immigrant visas processing time

Several factors determine your family-based visa processing time, primarily the type of family relationship for the basis of your green card eligibility, the status of your relative (U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident), your country of origin, the location from which you are applying for the green card and whether or not USCIS requests additional evidence while deciding your case. 

Obtaining a family-based immigrant visa involves the following steps:

  1. Submit Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) to prove the family relationship
  2. Submit Form I-485 (Application for Adjustment of Status) if the applicant is inside the U.S. or Form DS-260 (Immigrant Visa Application) if the applicant is living abroad

The longest wait during the green card process usually occurs between filing the family relationship form and submitting the actual green card application. Family-based visa applicants are hit especially hard by annual visa limits, as all categories other than the spouses, parents and minor children of U.S. citizens are subject to them. 

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Here’s a breakdown of estimated timelines for some of the family-based visa categories:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens: Green card applicants who are married to U.S. citizens can submit their Form I-485 and Form I-130 together, speeding up the process significantly. If you currently live in the U.S. with your spouse, you can expect a wait time of about 12 to 22 months. If you live outside of the U.S., your wait time will be about nine to 13 months.
  • Spouses of green card holders: In general, spouses of permanent residents will wait around 12 to 22 months to receive their green card if they live in the U.S. If they live abroad, the wait time is about 18.5 to 32.5 months. 
  • Widows of U.S. citizens: Widows and widowers of U.S. citizens can apply for a green card within the two-year window following their spouse’s death. The application process and timeline is nearly the same as for spouses of living U.S. citizens. 
  • Parents of U.S. citizens: This category has no limit on the number of visas that can be issued, so it usually takes an average of one to two years before receiving a green card if approved.
  • Minor children of U.S. citizens: There’s also no limit to the number of visas issued in this category, so children under 21 can usually get their visa within one to two years of applying. 
  • Minor children of green card holders: These children need to wait until a green card becomes available. Check the current Visa Bulletin to determine when you may be able to file your petition. The entire process takes about three years, though it may take slightly longer for citizens of Mexico, China, India and the Philippines. 
  • Unmarried, adult children of U.S. citizens: Since they have to wait to submit a green card application until a visa becomes available, the average time for this group is around seven to eight years. It’s substantially longer for citizens of the Philippines (around 10-plus years) and Mexico (about 20-plus years).
  • Unmarried, adult children of green card holders: The average time from start to finish for these children is around eight to nine years. Citizens of the Philippines and Mexico need to wait significantly longer before applying, around 10-plus and 20-plus years, respectively. 
  • Married adult children of U.S. citizens: This timeline averages about 13 to 14 years. Citizens of the Philippines and Mexico need to wait 22 or more years on average before applying. 
  • Siblings of U.S. citizens: On average, these applicants have the longest wait time of all categories, around 14 to 16 years. Citizens of India need to wait about 16 or more years, and Mexico and the Philippines are subjected to substantially longer times, about 20-plus and 24-plus years, respectively.

Green card through marriage processing time

On average, the total processing time for marriage green card applications is around 17 months and depends largely on whether you’re married to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, as well as whether you’re applying from inside the U.S. or outside. The following are timeline estimates for the process according to these two factors: 

  • Living abroad with a U.S. citizen: It takes about two to three weeks after filing Form I-130 to receive a Receipt Notice from USCIS. If approved, the case is transferred to the National Visa Center (NVC), where it’s processed and forwarded to the U.S. consulate or embassy after about three to five months. Then, a month after receiving the interview letter, you have your interview, after which you receive a visa to travel to the U.S. if approved. Finally, the green card itself arrives within approximately six months after the foreign spouse arrives in the U.S. The entire process takes about 11 to 17 months.
  • Living abroad with a permanent resident: You need to wait around seven to 10 months after filing Form I-130 and any supporting documents for approval of this application. Once approved, the case is transferred to the NVC and you wait for a visa number to become available. This time varies depending on your country of origin. When a visa is available and you submit the green card application, it usually takes around three to five months for NVC to make a decision. If approved, you attend an interview around one to two months after receiving the notice. Finally, after arrival to the U.S., the foreign spouse receives the green card by mail within six months to the new U.S. address. The entire process takes about 23 to 32 months.
  • Living in the U.S. with a U.S. citizen: Within about two to three weeks after filing Form I-130, you receive a receipt notice containing your case numbers from USCIS. At this point, you also receive the date for your biometrics appointment, which usually occurs about three to five weeks before your marriage interview. The next notice from the USCIS will inform you of the date and time of your marriage interview, which usually occurs between four to 12 months after first applying. Your green card should arrive at your address about two to three weeks after your interview takes place, although it can sometimes take longer. The entire process takes around 10 to 13 months.
  • Living in the U.S. with a permanent resident: It takes around 11 to 15 months for USCIS to process your Form I-130, after which you must wait for a visa number to become available. The time this takes varies. Once the visa number is available, you file Form I-485. It takes USCIS about nine to 11 months to process this. Usually within a month of your application being approved, you attend your visa interview. If approved, you receive the green card in the mail, usually within two to three weeks. The entire process takes about 10 to 13 months.

Employment-based green card processing time

The employment-based green card is one of the most sought-after visas. There are an extremely limited number available per year—around 140,000—that come in a wide range of categories with more and less competition. 

There are three stages to the employment-based green card process that differ slightly from other visa types. The most time-consuming factors are the wait between the three stages, as they don’t take place concurrently, and additional requirements in the PERM certification, if necessary. These stages and their current approximate processing times are as follows: 

  • Stage 1: PERM/Labor certification
    • Prevailing wage request: 2 weeks
    • Recruitment period: 60 days (30 days of recruitment plus 30 days that pass afterward)
    • Application: 24 weeks
  • Stage 2: I-140 immigration petition 
    • Once reached, six months is standard
    • Optional premium processing reduces wait to 15 days for a current fee of $1,225
  • Stage 3: I-485 application to adjust status
    • Around six months after submitted

Check the status of your application

You’re in the hands of the various immigration authorities once you submit your forms and documents, but it’s encouraged to regularly check on the status of your application. 

Once you’ve located which field office or service center is handling your case, you can check the processing time using USCIS’s free tool. The timeline is presented in a range of two numbers, the first reflecting the time it takes to complete 50 percent of cases (the median) and the second reflecting the time it takes to complete 93 percent of cases. The majority of cases, but not necessarily all, fall between these two processing times.

How to speed up green card processing

In most instances, it’s challenging to successfully speed up your green card process, but you can take some steps to ensure the best possible outcome. 

First, understand the average and expected timeline and check the status of your application at various points in the process. The more you’re aware of where your application is moving, the more you’ll be aware if something doesn’t seem right. 

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Second, if you believe your application has fallen behind the rest in your category and context, you can contact the USCIS directly via their Contact Center. This isn’t the easiest option, however—you have to navigate a complex automated phone menu, and when you’re finally able to speak with a live person, they’re likely not to be the officer handling your case. In rare cases, connecting with the call center will lead to scheduling an appointment at your local field office to discuss the matter further.

Third, in the case of true emergencies, it may be possible to ask immigration authorities to expedite processing. For example, this may be an option for an immigrant hoping to marry and receive a family-based visa before receiving a life-saving organ transplant. In this case, you need to provide proof of the emergency along with the correct paperwork. 

Finally, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of preparing all your paperwork accurately before filing on time. Mistakes or omissions on applications, intentional or not, may result in weeks or months of additional wait time. Carefully read and follow any instructions the USCIS sends you, and check your application and supporting documents several times before submitting to make sure you’ve included everything required.

Speak with an immigration lawyer

You don’t need an immigration lawyer to help with your green card process. However, in cases with more serious or complex circumstances, or if you want more support for the process, working with an immigration lawyer can be a good idea. 

Among other things, an immigration lawyer can help:

  • Ensure you meet the proper requirements
  • Determine if a family relationship qualifies you for a green card
  • Collect supporting documentation
  • Prepare you for your interview

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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.

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