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Differences Between a Green Card and a Visa

It is important that you understand the difference between a green card and a visa — and which one would best suit your purposes.

Green cards and visas can be very confusing to some. Are green cards and immigration visas the same thing? How many kinds of visas are there? If I come to the United States on a visa is there any way I can upgrade that visa to permanent resident status? Is a visa a green card? If you are awarded a green card, how long are you permitted to stay in the United States?

What is the difference between a green card and a visa?

What is a Green Card?

U.S. residency cards are given to individuals who have been granted permanent resident status, or conditional resident status, and are also known as “green cards.” A permanent resident does not face any time limits on their stay in the U.S. Resident status can be achieved in numerous ways:

  • Marriage to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident;
  • Through another family member who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident;
  • Through refugee or asylee status;
  • Through sponsoring by an employer;
  • Through proof of extraordinary ability in a specific area;
  • After acquisition of U visa status or an approved VAWA petition;
  • Various other categories.

They are called green cards because they are green in color. They are given to foreign nationals who, for those who acquire permanent status, are permitted to stay and work in the U.S. for an unlimited period. Permanent status can lead to future American citizenship.

  • Green card recipients can live and work anywhere in the United States.
  • They do not need a work permit to obtain any employment.
  • They can travel abroad but there are some restrictions.
  • They must make the U.S. their place of permanent residence.
  • A green card holder can apply to have certain members of his or her family also obtain green cards (spouses and unmarried children).
  • Green card holders are eligible for many government benefits with some restrictions.
  • Green cards are good for ten years and should be timely renewed and replaced.
  • Permanent residents do not lose legal status if their green card expires; however, conditional residents will lose their conditional residency if they fail to timely renew. Conditional residents are those with a two-year green card.
  • After five years, permanent residents can apply for U.S. citizenship (naturalization); however, those who gained legal status through marriage to a U.S. and who are still married and residing with their spouse can apply early in the ninety-day period prior to the three year anniversary of the issuance of their initial green card.

Green card holders face certain restrictions:

  • They cannot vote in U.S. elections.
  • They cannot obtain U.S. passports.
  • They cannot serve on U.S. juries.
  • If someone receives a green card but then lives in another country, it may be revoked and the residency status considered abandoned. Return to the U.S. after such a move may be possible in certain circumstances, and a qualified attorney can assess this option for you.
  • Green card holders remain citizens of another country. When they travel outside the U.S., they must carry the passport of their home countries with them along with their green card.

Also, residents of the U.S. can be deported if convicted of a crime, depending on the type of conviction and the law under which he or she is charged. Morales & Sparks represents both foreign nationals and criminal defendants. At our firm, when a non-citizen is charged with a crime, our attorneys ensure that the client is fully aware of any and all immigration consequences that could stem from a conviction and we work very hard to minimize the effect a criminal charge could have on one’s immigration status.

It is not easy navigate the USCIS website when you are trying to figure out how to apply for a green card and whether you qualify. Applying for a green card is called “adjustment of status.” A “change in status” only refers to those with temporary status who are changing from one type of visa status to another.

After filing for adjustment of status, an appointment will be set for the applicant to take his or her biometrics (photo and fingerprints) at their local Application Support Center. In many cases, appearance at an interview will be required at the local USCIS district office. It is important to note that USCIS has the power to issue NTAs or a “Notice to Appear.” These are officially charges of removability (deportation) that are filed with the local immigration court. Therefore, it is critical that you ensure that you are eligible for adjustment of status before applying to avoid any risk of having to face an immigration judge.

The processing time for your case will depend on where you live in the U.S. Each local office is different. Processing times can be found here: https://egov.uscis.gov/processing-times/

What is a Visa in a Passport?

The word “visa” has two different meanings in immigration law and procedure. A visa as appears in a passport is simply permission to seek entry into the U.S. It does not guarantee entry. Visas are awarded by U.S. consulates abroad and they specify what type of non-immigrant (temporary) status the foreign national seeks to acquire. In other words, a visa in your passport will allow you to board a plane or appear at a port-of-entry, but ultimately it is up to the border agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection to decide whether the foreign national will be admitted in the status listed on the visa.

A visa allows an individual to enter the United States for a limited period; however, some types of visa status can be renewed indefinitely. Residents of other countries normally apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate or embassy in their home country. There are two types of visa applicants — non-immigrant and immigrant:

  • Non-immigrant visas are for people who want to stay in the U.S. for a temporary period. These can be tourists, cultural exchange participants, businessmen or women, students studying at American universities or workers who are here to perform a specific task and then leave the country.
  • Immigrant visas awarded by a U.S. consulate abroad mean that the foreign national will immediately become a resident upon admission to and physical entry into the U.S.

Foreign nationals can apply for many different kinds of non-immigrant visas. They include:

  • H1-B work visas. Many U.S. companies use the H1-B program to bring in skilled workers as temporary employees. The USCIS issues only a certain number of these visas every year and they are very coveted by both U.S. businesses and foreign nationals. Holders of an H1-B visa can apply for a green card.
  • J-1 temporary exchange visitor visas. Primarily used for cultural exchange programs, J-1 visa holders must be able to support themselves financially while in the U.S. (the program they are attending comes with a stipend or they have enough personal income to use). Students, interns and au pairs often use this program.
  • R-1 religious worker visa. Anyone who lives abroad but wants to come to the U.S. to work as a minister, priest, imam or rabbi, or in another religious occupation, needs this visa. There is a similar law that allows individuals in this capacity to apply for permanent residency.
  • NAFTA work visa. Only Canadians or Mexicans who work in qualifying occupations may be eligible for a TN visa.

Overstaying your non-immigrant status carries serious consequences. It is very important to understand the difference between expiration of a visa in a passport versus expiration of your I-94. The validity of a visa in a passport simply means that during that time period, you can seek to enter the U.S. It does NOT mean that you will have legal status in the U.S. during that validity period. Rather, it is the I-94 that sets the date by which you must leave. This date is often written on an entry stamp in a passport. Today, I-94s are electronically stored, and your expiration date can be searched for by visiting this government website: https://i94.cbp.dhs.gov/I94/#/home#section

Other Information About Visas and Green Cards

If you are awarded an immigrant visa for permanent resident status, you can stay in the United States on a permanent basis. U.S. citizens can petition the USCIS for immigrant visas for their:

  • Spouse.
  • Parent.
  • Son or daughter.
  • Brother or sister.

An American citizen can also petition for a foreign fiancé or an orphan adopted abroad.

Residents or green card holders can file petitions to sponsor the following relatives to also acquire resident status:

  • Spouse.
  • Unmarried sons or daughters.

Employers may also file a petition for an immigrant visa when they are looking to hire a skilled worker for a permanent job. There are even specialized categories under which a skilled worker can file a petition for an immigrant visa on their own.

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, sometimes known as the “green card lottery,” awards 50,000 immigrant visas each year. The program is aimed at diversifying the immigrant population in the United States and targets countries which have seen low immigration numbers in the past.

If you are one of the individuals randomly selected in the lottery, it doesn’t mean you automatically gain admission to the United States. It only means that your visa number could come up in the waiting line so that you can apply for admission as a permanent resident. Applicants must also have completed high school and have at least two years of work experience.

Interested individuals can apply for this visa through the U.S. State Department website and must do so within a certain timeframe announced by the government each year. While most people who apply in the Diversity Lottery do so from outside the United States, foreign nationals who are in the United States on another kind of visa can still enter their names into the Diversity Lottery. It is also not easy to “win,” since as many as 20 million people apply for the lottery each year.

There has also been some discussion in Congress recently about ending the Diversity Visa Lottery. As of this writing, the lottery is still in place. If possible, consult with a lawyer about the best way to apply for the Diversity Lottery while it is still in place.

Important differences between green cards and visas exist. It is vital to know which one will suit you and best meet your goals before you start applying. For example, a parent living abroad who has a U.S. citizen child in the U.S. should not apply for an immigrant visa if they only intend to visit their family member in the U.S. occasionally. On the other hand, if someone wants to live permanently in the U.S., it is important not to use entry on a non-immigrant visa for that purpose as this could lead to fraud accusations later. Applying for the wrong type of visa or making mistakes while applying for an Adjustment of Status to get your green card can lead to permanent consequences or further cost in attempting to correct the mistake.

How Morales & Sparks Can Help If You Are Having Difficulties With Green Cards or Visas

As you can see from the notes above, applying for a green card or a visa can be complicated and time-consuming. Trying to do it all on your own can feel isolating and overwhelming.

One of the best things you can do to help yourself is to work with an immigration lawyer, like the Austin-based law firm of Morales & Sparks. Our highly trained professionals have experience in navigating the often-byzantine world of green cards and visas. When you choose Morales & Sparks, you are choosing to work with a firm with some of the top lawyers in the state who have the knowledge and the experience you need in the area of immigration law.

If you are interested in immigrating to the United States or want to apply for Adjustment of Status to obtain your green card, call us at any time. Or, if you are already in the United States, come and see us. We will work with you to find the best way to achieve your immigration goals. If you do not have any viable options, our attorneys will honestly advise you. We will not accept money for legal work where there is no viable option, and everyone deserves an honest opinion before submitting any application with the immigration authorities.

You can contact us at any time to schedule an appointment. You can call us at (512) 930-5511 or visit our website and schedule a consultation. You can contact one of our lawyers 24 hours a day. We have law offices in CentralTexas and we provide all our services in English or Spanish.

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is to provide general information and is not to be constituted as legal advice. If you need help with a specific issue, please seek the advice of an attorney.