What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and a Visa?

Immigration law is difficult to navigate in part because it is filled with terms that seem closely related but have critical differences. Many concepts are commonly confused, which can have serious consequences, as it can lead to applying for the wrong visa, misunderstanding requirements or deadlines, and more.

One of the most common questions we receive at Sintsirmas & Mueller Co. L.P.A. is about the difference between a green card and a visa. The following is an in-depth discussion of each term and their distinctions.

What Is a Green Card?

A green card is the document that identifies a person as a lawful permanent resident of the United States. There are many different ways to obtain a green card, but you will only receive this final document once you have completed the entire adjustment of status process or successfully entered the U.S. with an immigrant visa. A “green card holder” is simply another term for a lawful permanent resident.

You must replace your green card every ten years. This is a relatively simple process, so you should be able to live and work permanently in the U.S. so long as you don’t become deportable by violating the law.

Some immigrants will initially receive conditional green cards. After two years, a conditional permanent resident must apply to remove the conditions on their status. The immigrants who receive conditional green cards are typically investors or the newly married.

What Is a Visa?

A visa is the document you use to enter the United States. Usually, a visa is represented by a stamp on your passport. Visas come with expiration dates, meaning you only have a certain amount of time to seek entry into the United States.

Visas can come in one of two main categories: immigrant visas and nonimmigrant visas. Immigrant visas are visas that you use to enter the U.S. as a lawful permanent resident, while nonimmigrant visas allow you to stay in the U.S. temporarily (i.e. anywhere from a few months to several years). This is why visas are only sometimes related to green cards—generally, individuals with nonimmigrant visas do not become lawful permanent residents.

The difference is also critical because, even if you obtain an immigrant visa, you won’t necessarily become a permanent resident. You must successfully pass through inspection at a U.S. port of entry. A CBP officer will assess your documentation and make the final decision as to whether you can enter the United States.

Why Are They Commonly Confused?

People easily confuse green cards and visas because they often overlap. In many cases (but not always), a green card is the result of a visa.

Another factor that causes confusion is the concept of visa availability. If you are adjusting your status (i.e. obtaining a green card while residing lawfully in the U.S.), you will begin with an immigrant petition, which is generally filed by a sponsor. After that, you will most likely need to wait until a visa becomes available in your category, even though you are not technically obtaining a visa. This is because the U.S. government only grants permanent residence to a certain number of individuals each year, and agencies keep track of this data with “visa numbers.”

In general, making sense of complex and often contradictory terms within the immigration system will be much easier with guidance from a seasoned professional. The sooner you can get in contact with an expert, the easier it will be to make fully-informed decisions regarding your future.

Call Today to Learn What You Need to Know

When you bring your case to Sintsirmas & Mueller Co. L.P.A., we will be more than happy to answer all your questions. With over half a century of legal experience, we have developed a wealth of knowledge that we use to develop personalized, effective strategies for our clients. We also take every opportunity to share this knowledge with the individuals, families, and businesses we serve.

Give us a call at (888) 491-8770 or fill out an online contact form to schedule your initial consultation today!