Green card or ESTA visa waiver – which do I need?

United States Green Card information and application

Learn all about the Green Card for permanent US residence

Citizens of the United Kingdom have several options when it comes to obtaining legal authorisation to enter and stay within the United States. For short term US travel with a 90-day limit, UK citizens often apply for ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation) to enjoy the many benefits of visa-free US travel. For longer stays, or for trip purposes including working or attending school, a non-immigrant visa is required. To live and work permanently in the United States, it is usually necessary to first obtain an immigrant visa. Getting an immigrant visa is one path to having a Green Card. This article focuses on understanding important aspects of the Green Card to help United Kingdom citizens better understand available options for US travel and residence.

Is the Green Card the same as a Permanent Resident Card?

Historically, the Green Card has also been known as the Resident Alien Card, Alien Registration Receipt Card, Certificate of Alien Registration, and Permanent Resident Card. Officially, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) refer to this card by its form number: Form I-551, which is printed in the corner of all the newer cards.

What is a US Green Card?

The Green Card is also known as a Permanent Resident Card. This photo identification card provides verification that the cardholder has the right to work and permanently reside in the United States. Individuals that have this card for five or more years are eligible to apply for United States citizenship. Most cards require renewal every 10 years.

What is the history of the Green Card for nonimmigrant status?

Foreign nationals were first required to register in the United States in 1940, following the Alien Registration Act after World War II. Initially this registration took place at post offices, and later the procedure was moved to ports of entry and immigration offices. The name “Green Card” was adapted as the common name because the first cards were green, and it was simpler to say than Alien Registration Receipt Card. Since this card represented the right to live and work in the US, it was commonly counterfeited, so much so that between 1952 to 1957 the card was redesigned 17 times to combat fraud.

What are the new security features of the Green Card?

In recent years, as part of the Next Generation Secure Identification Document Project, USCIS has worked with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deter card counterfeiting and improve the card’s security. The modern Permanent Resident Card was designed in 2017. Improvements to the card include the enhanced embedded security features of a Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) chip and holographic images within the card’s layers.

How can I qualify for a Permanent Resident Card in the US?

There are multiple eligibility categories to qualify for a Permanent Resident Card. An individual must be eligible in at least one category. Some of the common classifications for determining eligibility include:

  • Family of a US citizen or permanent resident (an immediate relative, fiancé(e), or widow(er))
  • Employment (a skilled or exceptional immigrant worker, investor, or physician working in an underserved area)
  • Special Immigrant (religious worker, an abused or neglected juvenile, an international broadcaster, employee of the United States government in Iraq or Afghanistan, or a NATO employee or family member) 
  • Refugee or asylum seeker living in the US for at least one year
  • Victim of human trafficking or a crime that also has a current non-immigrant visa
  • Victim of abuse
  • United States continuous resident since 1972

There are many more unique circumstances where an individual may qualify for a Green Card. The USCIS website provides an extensive list for public review.

What is the application process to obtain a Green Card?

Once eligibility for a Permanent Resident Card is established, the next step is to be sponsored or petitioned by someone else. The petitioner usually files a petition on the applicant’s behalf. There are numerous petition options to choose from depending on the type of sponsorship (through work, family, as a refugee, etc.). If the applicant is in the US, the next step is to file an adjustment of status. From there, the applicant will have an in-person appointment at an Application Support Centre (ASC), and then await the decision. If outside of the US, the applicant must go through consular processing which involves several steps. The primary parts of this process consist of applying for an immigrant visa, entering the United States as a permanent resident, and finally receiving the Green Card once within the United States.

How does the Green Card Lottery work?

The Green Card Lottery, also known as the Diversity Immigrant Visa Programme, is administered by the United States Department of State under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1990. Each year, 55,000 immigrant visas are made available with the goal of diversifying immigrant populations within the United States. Applicants are selected from countries with low immigrant populations for the previous five years. To apply, applicants should complete an entry form on the Department of State website. This application is free, and payment is only required if the applicant is selected to continue in the process. Eligibility requirements for acceptance into the lottery programme include:

  • Country of citizenship
  • Education and work experience
  • Having a good state of health 
  • No criminal history
  • Having the means for supporting oneself

Do I need to apply for the United States Visa Waiver Programme if I already have a Green Card?

The ESTA United States Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) is intended for citizens of eligible countries to obtain temporary permission to enter the US Individuals that have already obtained a Green Card have permanent permission to reside in the US and therefore should not require temporary authorisation. This applies even if the Permanent Resident Card is lost or stolen while the cardholder is outside of the United States. For this situation, Form I-131A, the Application for Travel Document should be filed through the USCIS website.

More about US travel with ESTA

For United Kingdom citizens seeking to temporarily visit the United States, the ESTA visa USA may be the preferred travel authorisation to get due to its simple application process, fast approval results, and two-year validity period. Participants in the United States Visa Waiver Programme can use the same convenient travel authorisation for vacation or tourism, business trips, to study without credit, or to receive medical treatment. Learn more here 

Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.

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