A green card is a physical, plastic card that allows non-U.S. citizens to live and work in the U.S. permanently. If you want to become a U.S. citizen, you first have to get a green card. How long it takes to get a green card depends on the visa category through which you apply (family, employment, investment, asylum, etc.), which field office/service center is processing your application and for some, your country of birth.
Other factors can also impact how long it takes to get a green card. For example, some immigrants may receive an RFE (request for more documentation) from the USCIS after filing their paperwork, which is an additional delay that not everyone experiences.
Let’s dive into some common visa categories and average timelines associated with them. It is impossible to predict the exact timeline as they fluctuate constantly – these estimates were derived from attorney interviews and the USCIS website. We update this article periodically, but it’s best to consult an immigration attorney for latest estimates in your region/visa category.
How long does it take to get a green card through marriage?
If your spouse is a U.S. citizen or green card holder, he/she can sponsor you for a green card. The process is usually much faster if the sponsoring spouse is a U.S. citizen (vs. a green card holder).
U.S. citizen married to a foreign national & living in the U.S.
For simplicity sake, this scenario assumes the foreign national is living in the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa (like the H1B). Under this scenario, the green card process is currently taking 10-15 months from start to end (on average). Government filing fees will run you a total of $1,760 (includes biometric fees). If you choose to work with an immigration attorney, you are looking at anywhere from $2400 – $3800 in legal fees.
For more information about adjusting your status while living in the U.S. we recommend reading: Obtaining a Green Card Through Marriage (Living in the U.S.)
U.S. citizen married to a foreign national & living abroad
Under the current administration, this process is taking anywhere from 11-19 months. Government filing fees for the various forms and medical examination total ~$1400. If you choose to work with an immigration attorney, expect to pay anywhere from $1800 – $3000 in legal fees (based on a sample of NY based lawyers). For more information about this process, we recommend reading 6 Steps to Applying for a Spouse Visa (From Abroad)
Green card holder married to a foreign national
Green card holders have to take additional steps when sponsoring a spouse. Spouses of green card holders are placed on a waiting list for a visa number. Your “priority date” is based off the date you file Form I-130, the first step in the green card process. Until this date arrives, you cannot proceed to the next stage of the process. You can find this date in the monthly Visa Bulletin under the F2A category in family sponsored categories. Until recently, it was taking anywhere from 2 – 3.5 years for spouses of green card holders to get their green cards. For many people, it made more sense to naturalize, become U.S. citizens and then sponsor their partners.
However, in July 2019, the F2A priority date became “Current” (symbolized with a C in the Visa Bulletin). This is very good news for green card holders – it allows you to file the paperwork in the same manner as a U.S. citizen, without having to wait for a visa number. As long as you see the “C”, you are looking at a green card timeline on the shorter side (under 2 years). Filing fees and attorney fees in this category are similar to what’s outlined for U.S. citizens above.
How long does it take to get a green card through employment?
Every year, the United States awards 140,000 employment based green cards to eligible immigrants. No one country can receive more than 7% (9,800) per year. As a result of this cap, some countries (notably India and China) face lengthy backlogs.
There are 5 employment based categories through which an immigrant can apply for a green card – EB1, EB2, EB3, EB4 and EB5. Which category you apply under will dictate your timeline, along with your place of birth and the service center processing your application.
Let’s take a look at some well-known work visas – the H1B and the L1. If you hold an H1B visa, your employer will likely apply for your green card under the EB3 or EB2 category (depending on skill level). If you are born in India or China, you face a long wait, possibly decades. Please note, it’s your country of birth that matters here. So if you are an Indian citizen, but born in another country, you are in luck. For H1B visa holders NOT born in India or China, it can take roughly 18 – 30 months to get your green card once you initiate the process. This assumes no delays such as RFEs (requests for evidence).
The L1 visa allows companies to transfer employees to their branches, subsidiaries or affiliates in the U.S. There are two types of L1 visas, the L1A and the L1B. The L1A visa used to be one of the fastest ways to immigrate to the U.S. (outside of marrying a U.S. citizen). L1A visa holders can apply for green cards in the EB1 category and often obtain green cards within a year or two. As of recently, the EB1 category has retrogressed (meaning there are backlogs) across all countries, so the timeline is longer at this time (3 years or so).
L1B visa holders apply for green cards visa under the EB2 category so the timeline to get a green card is similar to that of H1B visa holders applying via EB2.
While the EB5 category is employment based, it is limited to business investors and requires substantial investment in the U.S. so we will address this in the next section.
How long does it take to get a green card through investment?
If you have $500,000 – $1,000,000 to spare, you can invest your way to a green card through the EB5 program. The EB-5 program sets an annual limit of 10,000 visas and no single country can use more than 7% of available visas. India, China and Vietnam currently face backlogs which means the EB5 applications coming from these countries exceed the number of immigrant visas available to them.
You apply for a green card in this category by filing Form I-526 and once that is approved, the I-485. The average processing time for Form I-526 is currently 20.5 – 27 months and the I-485 is 10 to 20 months. Some service centers are severely backlogged and taking even longer to process the I-485. Additionally, folks from India, China and Vietnam cannot file Form I-485 until their country backlogs clear up. For India, it is taking anywhere from 5-6 years to get a green card via the EB5 route. It is best to consult an attorney to get the most accurate estimate.
To learn more about the EB5 program, we recommend reading How Investors Apply for an EB5 visa.
Are there other ways to get a green card?
Yes. We outlined the most common paths above, but here are other options. Some are more complex, difficult to secure or have lengthy waits:
- Extraordinary ability visas – If you can demonstrate high levels of achievement in science, art, education, business or athletics, you may be eligible for an EB1 visa. The bar is set very high. For more information, we recommend reading Choosing between the EB1 and O1 visa
- National Interest Waiver Program – This program is reserved for those with exceptional skills that serve our national interest. To learn more, we recommend reading Getting a green card through the National Interest Waiver Program
- Other family members – U.S. citizens can sponsor their parents, siblings and children in addition to their spouses. The wait for a sibling is 10+ years making it an unattractive option for most. To learn more about sponsoring a parent as a U.S. citizen, we recommend reading How do I sponsor my parents for a green card?
- Asylum / Refugee – The United States offers asylum to people who have suffered government persecution or have a reasonable fear of persecution in their homeland on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
- Green card lottery – Learn more about the Diversity Lottery here
For a full list of green card eligible categories, go here.
Getting a green card is a complex process. If you need help with your green card process, you can find pre-screened immigration lawyers with over a decade of experience on Ask Ellis. We look forward to helping you!
*The content and materials available via Ask Ellis are for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice