If you're not an American and you don't have a green card, you're probably living a little under the gun in this country. If you commit any felony, you can be deported immediately. And once you finish your temporary work or your education, you may no longer be allowed to stay. But who wants to go back to a home country where you can't have pizza delivered 24 hours a day and where the television has fewer than 200 channels? Forget that crap. Priority #1 is staying put, in the land of the free. If you haven't yet figured out how to even get here, you should first check out our world-renowned "SoYouWanna get a visa?" but once you're in, you'll need to start focusing on how to get a green card.


Okay, this little area of life can be confusing, mainly because there are so many damn terms for the same thing. Let's start with the basics: in terms of whether you're allowed to live in the U.S. or not, there are four legal statuses that you can have:

  1. You can just be an outright foreigner with no right to come to this country.

  2. You can obtain a visa that allows you to spend a finite amount of time here, usually for a discrete purpose.

  3. You can become a permanent resident, which allows you to live here indefinitely with almost all of the rights of a U.S. citizen.

  4. You can be a U.S. citizen.

If you fall into the fourth category, we applaud your cautiousness, but really, get the hell out of this SYW. If you fall into the first category, you'll need to get a visa before you start worrying about anything else. This piece is focused on those foreigners who are in the second category - here on a temporary visa - who are hoping to get promoted to the third category: permanent residents. The "green card" is the importantly-titled government document that certifies your status as a permanent resident. So everyone in the third category has a green card, and everyone in the second wants one.

If your concern is that you want to get promoted from the third category to the fourth (i.e., you're a permanent resident who wants to become a U.S. citizen), this SYW isn't for you. You've already got it good, what are you bitching about? The only real distinctions between green card holders and citizens is that only citizens can vote, can collect some sort of government benefits, and can never be deported. Okay, some of those benefits are worthwhile, but if you don't even have the green card yet, that should be your first priority.

There are a variety of ways to obtain a green card, but this piece will focus only on the three easiest and most prevalent: getting an employer to sponsor you, entering the diversity visa lottery, or marrying a U.S. citizen. Some of the methods that we do not cover include investing huge amounts of money in the U.S. economy and being a world-class performer. Hey, if you got that kind of cash or skill, you can figure it out yourself. This piece here is for the rest of us.