Permanent Residency

This information outlines several ways that it is possible to become a permanent resident of the United States. For more information about permanent residence in general, the ISO recommends consultation with a qualified immigration attorney.

Permanent Residence: What is it?

A person who has permanent resident status in the United States has the right to live and work in the U.S. This right may last for a lifetime or it can be ended in some circumstances by an uninterrupted absence from the United States of more than a year or two.

Permanent residents are said to have immigrant status in the U.S., in contrast to foreign nationals who are here temporarily in nonimmigrant status, such as F-1 students, J-1 scholars, or H-1B temporary workers. A permanent resident is said to have a green card, an outdated reference to the permanent residence identification card, which used to be green but is now pale red, white, and blue. Permanent residents are also often said to have PR.

Permanent residence is not the same as citizenship. Permanent residents of the U.S. remain nationals of their home country. They do not hold U.S. passports and they do not owe allegiance to the U.S. They may not vote in elections, and they may not hold elective office. After a certain period of physical presence in the U.S. (five years in most cases, three in some), permanent residents can apply for U.S. citizenship if they choose, but it is not necessary to become a citizen to retain the right of permanent residence.

There are several avenues for acquiring permanent residence status in the U.S. Following is a brief summary of the options. For more information, the ISO recommends consulting a qualified immigration attorney.


Obtaining Permanent Residency

The laws governing immigration in this country of immigrants have changed drastically over the years. At present, legal immigration is tightly limited, with preference given to close family members of U.S. citizens (and permanent residents) and the professionally skilled and highly talented who come to the country to take up specialized or high level jobs. Within these limits, various provisions of current immigration law attempt to ensure equity and national diversity in the continued flow of new residents to the U.S.

It is possible at present to become a permanent resident of the U.S. in five ways: through the petition of a close relative, by a successful application for political asylum, through the petition of an employer, by winning the annual green card lottery, or through self-sponsorship.


  • Family-Based PR: If you have a mother, father or spouse who is a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S., that relative may be able to file a petition with USCIS to obtain permanent residence for you. If you have a child or sibling who is a U.S. citizen and is at least 21 years old, that relative can also petition for permanent residence for you. Depending on the relationship between you and whether your relative is a citizen or permanent resident, it can take several months to more than 10 years for you to obtain permanent residence this way.


  • Asylum: If you can prove to the satisfaction of immigration officials that you have a well-founded fear of persecution should you be forced to return to your home country, you may be able to obtain permanent residence in the U.S. through an appeal for asylum. Applications for asylum must generally be filed within one year from last entry into the U.S. An asylum application often takes years to complete and is best done with the aid of an attorney. The majority of asylum applications are eventually denied, although applicants from countries whose governments are considered by the U.S. to be hostile to the United States have often experience higher approval rate.


  • Diversity Lottery: After several prior experiments in making permanent residence available through a lottery system, Congress instituted the diversity lottery program in 1993. This program allots 55,000 green cards every year under a complex formula that favors nationals of countries that have contributed fewer immigrants to the U.S. in recent years. Recent diversity lotteries have favored applicants from Africa and most of Western Europe, since these areas have been least represented in immigration to the U.S. in recent years. Millions of people apply for the annual diversity lottery. Regional allocations for the diversity lottery will change every year in response to changing immigration patterns. Registration for the diversity lottery, which usually takes place for a thirty-day period in Fall each year, is simple and does not require an attorney or agent of any kind. Please see for information on applying for the Diversity Lottery.


  • Employment-Based PR: If you have a permanent, professional level job in the U.S., and if your employer can prove that there are no qualified U.S. persons available for the position, you may be able to obtain permanent residence through the petition of your employer. A second employment-based option is the Outstanding Professor/Researcher petition, in which an employer demonstrates that the employee meets criteria which show that he or she has risen to the very top of his or her field of expertise. In the case of Southeastern teaching faculty positions, different standards apply. Please see the ISO for further information.


  • Self-Sponsorship: Certain highly accomplished scholars may find two routes to permanent residency available to them without having to have a permanent job offer, or any job offer for that matter. The first possibility is for an alien who can be documented to be of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, and business. This category is reserved for those who are at the very top of their field. When a job offer is not involved, the scholar must demonstrate his or her intent to continue to work in his or her field. Only faculty and researchers of international reputation - who can document that reputation - will qualify for permanent residency under this category. The second possibility for a scholar to sponsor himself/herself for permanent residency is through the national-interest waiver application. The national-interest waiver may be filed either by the alien or employer. If it can be demonstrated that the work being done is (1) in the national interest and that (2) the scholar's continued presence is crucial to the on-going work, the scholar - acting on his or her own - or the employer acting on the scholar's behalf may be able to obtain permanent residence through a national interest waiver. A letter from an interested U.S. government agency recommending the waiver is very useful when applying fora national interest waiver.