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When will my green card arrive?

Many aspiring immigrants are confused and concerned when they learn that their wait for a green card could be a long one. There are good reasons to want that card in your hand quickly, but there is also some good news for those who are waiting. 

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Many come to the United States, hoping to become permanent residents (green card holders) through the lottery, through sponsors or through other qualified means. But when they make it through the application process and learn that the wait can be long, unpredictable, or both, they panic.

Once a foreigner sets foot in the U.S. with the intention of immigrating, they are not allowed to travel outside the country (unless they decide not to return of course). And once a person on a student visa marries a U.S. citizen, the student visa become invalid. Also, no one without either U.S. citizenship, a valid green card or a valid working visa or permit is allowed to work in the United States. Understandably, this throws many people into a total panic. After all, not many of us can go two years without working for an income, and most of us would like to be able to visit family members abroad, especially if an emergency arises.

Five years ago, when my husband and I applied for his green card, we waited over 2 years before the application was approved, and another 6 months for the actual green card. Last year, when our friends applied in the same county, the wait was only 7 months. The waiting periods depended on the amount of traffic the former INS, and now, the BCIS (agency that took over INS duties) is handling. How many applications are there? Is there enough staff to handle them? It is not only the number which counts, but also the complexity. If the agency has many simple cases, that could obviously go faster. Waiting and processing times are announced each month and are usually accurate, but with a margin of error, possibly of a few months. They do fluctuate, and they can change. Basically, they are based on an educated guess by the agency on how quickly they can manage their workload.

The good news, that many applicants don't know about, is that most aspiring immigrants with a pending application are qualified for work authorization. When an alien petition and an application for a green card is sent in, make sure to also apply for work authorization. You can also apply later, separately. Normally, only a few weeks after your application has been sent in, you will get a call in for a brief interview and fingerprinting, where the agency will take your photograph and provide an i.d. card. The card is good for work for one year. You must apply for a social security number as well, and, to be on the safe side, if you have not received your green card by 4 months prior to expiration of your work permit, apply for a renewal right away, so you won't have a lapse in your ability to work. It is the law for employers to check your status and comply with its terms.

For many, there is more good news. If you have never overstayed a visa or been illegal/undocumented, you should apply for travel permission. This too is a document that can be filed with your application (for fastest results) or later on. It requires a photograph, much like a U.S. passport photograph, and is valid for one year. It generally takes about one month to receive your document. With this too, if you have not received your green card within 8 months, apply for renewal of your travel document.

Note that the current green card is the I-155. As of a few years ago, green cards must be renewed every 10 years. It does not mean your actual status will expire in 10 years, but it does mean that you will need to renew the card in order to enjoy many of the benefits of permanent resident status, such as working and traveling. In addition, those with a temporary green card, MUST apply to have their conditional status removed by filing Form I-751, within the 90 day period before your status will expire. In this case, you WILL lose your status if you don't apply, so it's extremely important to do so. Hold onto your green card and guard it carefully. A woman recently contacted us when she found out she lost if just days before a trip abroad. This can mean having to cancel your trip, or at the very least, going through a great deal of stress and spending lots of time (and possibly money) trying to get it replaced quickly. You may not succeed on time either.

Getting a green card means less paperwork, fewer applications, no more waiting for that stressful INS interview, a sense of accomplishment and permanence. It also starts the countdown to the date you can apply for citizenship. That's important, because until you are a citizen, you can always lose the green card because of something like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and getting charged with a fairly minor crime.

Nevertheless, although the wait may be frustrating and a bit nerve wracking, most applicants will be able to work, and many will be able to travel the world, throughout the process. For the majority, once the paperwork is out of your hands, the process is fairly smooth and you can start living your life.

Good luck!

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� Peter and Jennifer Wipf. 1999-2005. All rights reserved. No duplication without explicit written permission.

From Jennifer Leavitt-Wipf,
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