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June 23rd 2023

What is the difference between a U.S. permanent resident and a citizen?

Both “citizen” and “U.S. permanent resident” are titles that grant foreign nationals the ability to live in the United States legally, but these terms are not interchangeable and have important differences that impact your rights and responsibilities.

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Many foreign nationals confuse the terms “citizen” and “U.S. permanent resident.” Both terms are titles that grant foreign nationals the ability to live in the United States legally, but these terms are not interchangeable and have important differences that impact your rights and responsibilities. 

What is a U.S. permanent residence? 

The term “permanent resident” refers to a foreign national who has been granted permission to live within the U.S. legally and indefinitely. In addition to being granted the right to live in the U.S. permanently, permanent residents also have the right to work in the U.S., either for themselves or for an American employer. While permanent residents are legally permitted to live and work in the United States, they retain citizenship in another country. 

Those who are granted U.S. permanent resident status are issued an alien registration card, also known as a Green Card. This document can be used as proof of employment eligibility; it can also be used to apply for a Social Security card. 

What rights do Green Card holders have? 

US permanent residents (“Green Card holders”) have several rights, including the following: 

  • They can receive a Social Security card, which makes them eligible for social security benefits, Medicare benefits, and supplemental security income 

  • Green Card holders can apply for visas for their spouses and for unmarried children so that they can reside in the U.S.

  • They can serve in specific branches of the U.S. military

  • Permanent residents are eligible for federal assistance, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Services for Survivors of Domestic Violence. Eligibility for these services depends on the length of time the individual has resided in the U.S. and their income.

  • Travel to other countries outside of the United States. Temporary or brief travel usually does not affect your lawful permanent resident status

What responsibilities do U.S. permanent residents have? 

Green Card holders are required to do the following: 

  • Follow all federal, state, and local laws

  • File U.S. income tax returns

  • Support democracy

  • Alert the USCIS of any change in address

What U.S. Permanent residents cannot do

U.S. Permanent residents are not permitted to do the following: 

  • Vote in U.S. elections

  • Travel outside of the United States for a prolonged period of time as it may jeopardize your residency status

  • Be eligible for all federal assistance available to U.S. citizens until they have actively retained their status as a permanent resident for a period of at least five years 

How to become a U.S. permanent resident 

There are a number of was that a foreign national can obtain a Green Card. 

Family sponsorship. One of the most common ways to become a permanent resident of the United States is to be sponsored by a relative who is a U.S. citizen or Green Card holder. You must be able to prove you are related to your family member, who must demonstrate that he or she can support you by earning an income of at least 125 percent above the federal poverty level. 

U.S. citizens can sponsor foreign family members including spouses,  parents, children, and siblings.= Permanent US residents can sponsor spouses and unmarried children. To initiate this process, U.S. citizen sponsors must file a Form I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative and an Affidavit of Support. Once the necessary documentation is filed, the U.S. State Department will assess the application to determine eligibility and assign a visa number. After the number is assigned, you will be eligible to apply as a permanent resident. 

Employer sponsorship. Foreign nationals can also apply for U.S. permanent residency if they are sponsored by an employer. This type of sponsorship is easier for individuals who have exceptional abilities that benefit the interests of the United States; doctors, scientists, professors, and artists, for example. Individuals who are not considered “exceptional” will be required to obtain a labor certification prior to applying for permanent residency. 

Employers can apply for a Green Card for their employees by filing an Immigrant Petition, Form I-140, with their local service center of U.S. Immigration. To obtain permanent residency, you will need to file Form I-485 with your labor certification, as well as an Immigrant Petition. These forms should be filed with the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

U.S. Green Card Lottery. While more difficult than the two previous options, it is possible to obtain U.S. permanent residency via the U.S. Green Card lottery, a government-sponsored program. Through this program, 50,000 people are selected at random to receive a green card. This program affords citizens of underrepresented countries an opportunity to become a legal U.S. resident. In order to qualify for a Green Card through this program, you need a minimum of two years of high school education or work experience in a field that requires a at least two years of experience or training. 

You can register for the U.S. Green Card Lottery online if you pay a registration fee. 

Asylum. You can also apply for a Green Card if you are seeking asylum from your home country due to life-threatening circumstances such as war or persecution. Those who are granted asylum are eligible to apply for a Green Card after they have resided in the U.S. for at least one year. 

What is U.S. citizenship? 

Citizenship is the highest status that can be granted under U.S. immigration law and offers the permanent right to live in the United States. 

There are several ways to become a U.S. citizen. The most common route is through birth, but children who are born outside of the U.S. and have at least one U.S. citizen parent can also become citizens. Individuals who are not born in the U.S. but wish to obtain citizenship must be naturalized. 

What rights do U.S. citizens have? 

US citizens are granted access to all protections of the federal government including: 

  • Eligibility to vote in U.S. elections

  • Ability to petition for foreign national spouses, married and unmarried children, siblings, and other relatives to live in the U.S.

  • Apply for a driver’s licenses

  • Attend public schools and schools of higher education 

  • Open bank accounts

  • Obtain Social Security numbers 

  • Work with U.S. employers including the federal government

  • Eligibility for all federal benefits, including Social Security benefits, Medicare benefits, food, housing assistance, and more

  • Right to a U.S. passport and ability to travel to countries outside of the United States for any period of time without impacting citizenship status

  • Obtain citizenship for children who are born outside of the United States

  • Run for political office

How to become a U.S. citizen

There are several ways you can obtain U.S. citizenship if you are not born in the United States or if you were not born to at least one parent who is a U.S. citizen.  

Naturalization. To become a naturalized U.S. citizen you will first need to obtain a Green Card through family sponsorship, employer sponsorship, the U.S. Green Card lottery program or asylum. Once you obtain your Green Card, you can become a naturalized citizen as long as you meet certain requirements. 

Different requirements may apply, but generally speaking, you must:

  • Be a minimum of 18 years old at the time of filing Form N-400, Application for Naturalization.

  • Have held Green Card for at least 5 years prior to filing 

  • Show that you have lived for at least 3 months in the state or USCIS district where you apply. 

  • Demonstrate continuous residence in the United States for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400. 

  • Show that you have been physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing Form N-400. 

  • Be able to read, write, and speak basic English. 

  • Have a basic understanding of U.S. history and government (civics). 

  • Show good moral character. 

  • Demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution.

Through marriage. You can also become a U.S. citizen through marriage. Your spouse will need to submit a Form I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative as well as supporting documentation such as a marriage certificate to USCIS. Once USCIS receives and processes your paperwork, USCIS will interview you and your spouse to determine if your marriage is real or if it was arranged for the purposes of obtaining citizenship. 

Applicants for citizenship for marriage must also meet residency requirements. You must have held a Green Card for a minimum of three years and you must have lived in the U.S. continuously for three years before applying for citizenship and have been married to and living with your U.S. citizen spouse in that period of time. You will also need to meet personal requirements, be at least 18 years of age, and have good moral character.

Through military service. Green Card holders are permitted to join certain branches of the military. If you follow this route, you can also apply for citizenship. Similar to other methods of becoming a U.S. citizen, you need to demonstrate good moral character and demonstrate an understanding of U.S. government. You can apply to become a .U.S citizen after serving in the military by completing and filing Form N-400 or N-426. 

Which is more beneficial: permanent residency or citizenship? 

Many foreign nationals wonder whether becoming a permanent U.S. resident or a U.S. citizen is a better option. Applying for a Green Card does allow you to legally reside in the United States and provides you with access to certain benefits. Becoming a permanent resident can also be a lengthy process. Furthermore, if residency is granted, you will still be considered a citizen of your home country and your residency could be affected if you travel outside of the United States for a period a year or more. 

U.S. citizenship will grant you access to more rights and privileges; your residency cannot be revoked, you cannot be deported, you can vote and run for political office, and you can receive all federal benefits, for example. However, applying and being approved for U.S. citizenship can be a lengthy, difficult process. 

The takeaway 

If you are a foreign national and you would like to reside in the United States for a prolonged period of time, becoming a citizen or a permanent resident ensures that you can legally reside in the country indefinitely.  

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