Should you become a U.S. citizen or just keep your green card? While a green card allows you to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely, there are some major benefits of U.S. citizenship that a green card does not offer. By the end of this article, you will have a clear understanding of the difference between having a green card and citizenship. For those of you with complicated circumstances, you will know exactly what questions to ask a lawyer.
When can green card holders apply for citizenship?
Before we dive in, let’s talk basics for 30 seconds. A green card, also known as permanent residency, allows someone to live and work in the US permanently, but you keep your home country citizenship and passport. In order to become a US citizen, you first need to have a green card for at least three or five years, three years if you got your green card through a US citizen spouse and five years if you got a green card in any other way, such as employment. The majority of people cannot jump to citizenship without having a green card first. Make sense?
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Green Card Benefits
A green card comes with the following benefits:
- The right to live and work in the U.S. permanently
- Ability to sponsor your spouse or unmarried children to live in the U.S.
- Travel freely in and out of the U.S. (but cannot remain out of the U.S. for unlimited time)
- Lower university fees – Green card holders are eligible for in-state tuition at some universities.
- Access to some public benefits (but not all)
Benefits of U.S. Citizenship
So why would someone give up their green card and pay $725 to become a US citizen when they can already live and work here permanently? What does US citizenship get you?
No more paperwork
You have to renew your green card every 10 years, which costs $540. Once you become a US citizen, you are done with the USCIS, no more paperwork ever.
Cannot lose U.S. citizenship, except in rare circumstances
You can lose your green card and be placed into removal proceedings if you commit certain crimes. This is a tricky area. Some crimes are treated differently under immigration law than criminal law and what might seem like a minor brush up with the law can have serious immigration consequences. US citizens cannot be removed unless they committed fraud to get their green card or citizenship, such as not disclosing deportation orders to the immigration officer or lying about their identity, in which case you can get de-naturalized. This is very rare and not something most people have to worry about.
Another huge benefit of US citizenship is the US passport. It is one of the most powerful passports in the world and allows visa free travel to many, many countries. If you’re from a country like Canada or Singapore, that’s not all that attractive as those passports are pretty powerful. For most of the world though, the US passport is something to be coveted.
Right to vote
US citizenship allows you to vote and even run for office. But sorry folks, you can’t run for president. For that, you have to be born in the US.
Live abroad for as long as you want
US citizens can live abroad without worrying about abandoning their green card. With a green card, you have to spend at least six months out of every year in the US to maintain your status. If you need to leave the country for a year or two, you have to apply for a reentry permit and have a good reason for leaving. Not only that, when you leave the U.S. for a couple of years, this resets your clock for citizenship eligibility. This means it may take longer for you to become a U.S. citizen.
Ability to sponsor family
One of the biggest advantages of US citizenship is the ability to sponsor family members. As a US citizen, you can sponsor your spouse, your parents, and your unmarried children under the age of 21 as immediate relatives. Immediate relative means that there is no wait for a visa number and that an immigrant visa is always available for these categories should you choose to apply.
You can also petition married children and children over the age of 21, but as preference relatives. Preference relatives means that there are a limited number of immigrant visas available every year and since most years there are more applications than visas, there ends up being a wait list and the wait is much longer. Green card holders cannot sponsor their parents, but they can sponsor their spouse and unmarried children of any age. But as preference relatives. Again, like I said, preference relatives implies there are a limited number of immigrant visas available every year, so green card holders typically have to wait a much longer time when they sponsor their relatives.
Access to federal jobs & benefits
Lastly, US citizenship gives access to certain federal jobs and benefits that are not available to anyone but citizens.
Before you go from green card to citizenship…
We’ve talked about all these great benefits of US citizenship, but here are three things to consider before you go from green card to citizenship.
The first is dual citizenship. Does your home country allow dual citizenship? Not every country does. For example, before I became a US citizen, I was a citizen of India. India does not allow dual citizenship. So when I became a US citizen, I had to formally renounce my Indian citizenship. So that is something to ask yourself, does my country allow dual citizenship? And if it doesn’t, is this something I want to do?
Second, have you ever been arrested even if you weren’t convicted? As I mentioned earlier, there are certain crimes that are treated differently under immigration law than criminal law, so if you’ve ever had any arrests in your past, no matter how small, talk to an immigration attorney before you apply for naturalization. You do not want to put yourself at risk for deportation without checking on this first.
Green Card vs. Citizenship Tax
Lastly, do you plan on living in the US forever? If the answer is no, there are two things you need to consider. When you become a green card holder, you become a US tax resident. US tax residents are taxed on their worldwide income. Typically, green card holders and US citizens are taxed in the same way. However, green card holders may have more opportunity to use foreign tax credits to minimize their liability. However, this is very individual specific and best discussed with an accountant.
The second thing to consider is the exit tax. If you ever decide to give up your green card and US citizenship because you no longer want to live in the US, you need to think about the exit tax. The exit tax applies to US citizens and long-term permanent residents. By long-term permanent residents, I mean anyone that has had a green card for eight years out of the last 15. If you even had a green card for one day in that year, that year counts. The exit tax is a very complicated area that is best discussed with an accountant.
Applying for U.S. Citizenship
If you’re thinking about US citizenship, do it now. The line is getting longer and longer. Forms have gotten longer, processing timelines have gone up, but be sure to talk to an attorney if you’ve ever been arrested or have a complex immigration history.
So how do you become a US citizen? This article walks you through the naturalization process step by step and be sure to grab this citizenship guide where I share my best tips. If you found this article helpful, share it with your fellow immigrants!
If you need help with your immigration process, connect with pre-screened immigration lawyers with over a decade of experience on Ask Ellis.
*The content and materials available via Ask Ellis are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice