A permanent resident or "green card holder" is an immigrant who has been granted the privilege of living and working permanently in the United States.
In order to become a permanent resident, you must obtain an immigration visa number. U.S. law limits the number of immigrant visas available each year. This means that even if the USCIS approves an immigrant visa petition for you, an immigrant visa number may not be issued to you right away. In some cases, several years could pass between the time USCIS approves your immigrant visa petition and the State Department gives you an immigrant visa number. In addition, U.S. law also limits the number of immigrant visas available by country. This means you may have to wait longer if you come from a country with a high demand for U.S. immigrant visas.
You must go through a multi-step process to become an immigrant:
- In most cases, your employer or relative (known as the petitioner) must submit an immigration petition to USCIS. (Exception: Certain applicants such as priority workers, investors, certain special immigrants, and diversity immigrants can petition on their own behalf.)
- USCIS will send a notice to the petitioner if the visa petition is approved.
- USCIS sends the approved petition to the Department of State's National Visa Center where it will remain until an immigrant visa number becomes available.
- The beneficiary (the person seeking the immigration visa) will receive two notices from the National Visa Center: one when the visa petition is received, and again when an immigrant visa number is available.
- If you are already in the U.S., you may apply to adjust to permanent resident status. If you are outside the U.S., you will be notified to go to the local U.S. consulate to complete the processing for an immigrant visa.
Immigrant visa numbers are assigned based on a preference system.
Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, including parents, spouses and unmarried children under the age of 21, do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number to become available once the petition filed for them is approved by the USCIS. An immigrant visa number will be immediately available for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
Other relatives in the remaining categories must wait for a visa to become available according to the following preferences:
- First Preference: Unmarried, adult sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. Adult means 21 years of age or older.
- Second Preference: Spouses of lawful permanent residents, and the unmarried sons and daughters (regardless of age) of lawful permanent residents and their children.
- Third Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.
- Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens, their spouses and their minor children.
If your immigration is based on employment, you must wait for an immigrant visa number to become available according to the following preferences:
- First Preference: Priority Workers including aliens with extraordinary abilities, outstanding professors and researchers, and certain multinational executives and managers.
- Second Preference: Members of Professions Holding Advanced Degrees or Persons of Exceptional Ability.
- Third Preference: Skilled Workers, professionals and other qualified workers.
- Fourth Preference: Certain special immigrants including those in religious vocations.
- Fifth Preference: Employment Creation Immigrants.
Contacting the NVC: You do not need to contact the National Visa Center while you're waiting for an immigrant visa number to be assigned to you, unless you change your address or there is a change in your personal situation that may affect your eligibility for an immigrant visa.
Researching Wait Times: Approved visa petitions are placed in chronological order according to the date each visa petition was filed. The date the visa petition was filed is known as your priority date. The State Department publishes a bulletin that shows the month and year of the visa petitions they are working on by country and preference category. If you compare your priority date with the date listed in the bulletin, you will have an idea of how long it will take to get an immigrant visa number.
Source: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services