Differences Between Green Cards and Visas Under the Law
The terms “green card” and “visa” are frequently used in the immigration process, but the distinctions between them are not always apparent. A green card is the photo identification card that a foreign national obtains when they become a lawful permanent resident in the United States. A lawful permanent resident thus is often known as a green card holder. You can apply for a green card if you are already living in the U.S., which is known as adjustment of status, or you can get a green card if you have recently arrived in the U.S. on an immigrant visa. A green card is a higher level of status than a visa, which is a document that allows a foreign national to seek entry into the U.S. at a border or port of entry.
A visa is stamped on a foreign national’s passport when they go to a U.S. consulate in their home country before traveling to the U.S. Technically, a visa does not automatically allow you to gain entry into the U.S., which is a decision made by a Customs and Border Protection officer. People who have visas generally are permitted to enter the U.S., though. A visa can be a non-immigrant visa, which means that the foreign national will stay for only a temporary period. Or it can be an immigrant visa, which means that the foreign national can get a green card soon after entering the U.S. While a foreign national usually will need to get their initial visa at their U.S. consulate, they may be able to adjust their status to a different type of visa or a green card when they are in the U.S. (If they leave the U.S. after a change of status to a different visa type, they will need to get a new visa document at their U.S. consulate before they return.)
Visas vs. Green Cards
Non-immigrant visa = a permit to enter and remain in the U.S. for a certain period of time and for a specific purpose Green card (or immigrant visa) = a permit to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely
The expiration dates of visas vary according to the type of visa. Non-immigrant visas last for only a few years in most cases, although the foreign national may be able to get an extension. If you are a lawful permanent resident, your green card usually will last for 10 years. However, this does not mean that your status expires or that you need to reapply for a green card. You simply will need to get a new green card by submitting Form I-90.
Certain groups of foreign nationals initially receive a status known as lawful conditional residence. These include people who get green cards through marriage or through investments that fall within the EB-5 visa category. They receive a two-year period of conditional residence in the U.S. and must upgrade to lawful permanent residence near the end of that period. Without making that adjustment, they will lose their right to stay in the U.S.
A visa number is a number assigned by the State Department to a foreign national who is already in the U.S. This helps the State Department determine when a foreign national will be eligible for a green card, since green cards are available only in limited quantities for certain categories each year. When a number becomes available in your category, the State Department will assign it to you. You do not need to worry about this number, which is just an administrative aid with no tangible form.
Travel with Green Cards
A green card cannot be used as a replacement for a tourist visa.
To maintain your green card, you must make your permanent home in the U.S. In other words, you cannot use a green card as a replacement for a tourist visa. Sometimes foreign nationals who have family members in the U.S. will try to get a green card so that they can visit their loved ones without the headache of applying for a visa. If your primary residence is in another country, however, you probably will lose your green card. (This is known as abandoning your U.S. residence.) If you later decide to make a permanent home in the U.S. after all, you will need to apply for a new green card.