What is a Green Card?

Those who have ever dreamed of emigrating to the USA will know there is no getting around a US Green Card. Principally, the Green Card is an identification card indicating the holder’s status to live and work in the USA permanently. Behind this legendary Green Card, however, is more than meets the eye. The easiest way to get a Green Card is by participating in the Green Card Lottery.

Green Card Definition

Green Card is the unofficial nickname for the permit allowing immigrants to permanently live and work in the United States of America.

  • The official name of the US Green Card is “Lawful Permanent Resident Card”.
  • It even has a more bureaucratic name: Form I-551.
  • Green Card holders are known as “Permanent Residents”.

Those who have a Green Card are allowed to emigrate to the USA and stay there for as long as they like. Owning a Green Card is the basic requirement for moving to the USA. That means that anyone who would like to permanently live and work in the USA requires, firstly, a Green Card. A person with a nonimmigrant visa is dependent on their job or the purpose of their stay in the USA, but a Green Card differs in that it gives the holder total freedom. Green Card holders can choose their place of work or where they want to live in the USA without limits and for however long they want.

Picture of a U.S. Green Card with a man

A Green Card opens the door to the USA!

Applying for a Green Card must be done through the U.S. immigration authorities at the “United States Citizenship and Immigration Services" (USCIS). The physical card itself is an inflexible and rectangular identification permit similar to a credit card. A Green Card holder is required to always carry their permit with them. You find more details about the set up of the actual Green Card (What is on the front of the card? Where do I find my expiration date?) in the following.

Dreams do come true and with a Green Card in your pocket, you’ve already made the dream of permanently living and working in the USA a reality!

How do I get a Green Card?

In general, there are three ways to obtain the Green Card:

  1. Via the workplace
  2. Via a family reunion
  3. By winning the Green Card Lottery

Depending on which category is selected, different requirements must be met. Getting a Green Card via the workplace or a family reunion can be a very lengthy, difficult process that may take several years.

The quickest and easiest way to a US Green Card is by winning in the Green Card Lottery. All you need is a bit of luck. By participating in the Lottery with The American Dream, we guarantee that your application will be submitted correctly and in-time. Besides, your chances to win lie between 1:25 and 1:50!

Does my family automatically receive a Green Card?

Unmarried children under the age of 21, possibly adopted children and stepchildren, as well as spouses can be issued a Green Card at the same time as the main applicant. 

Older children may apply for a Green Card later as part of a family reunion. 

Married children, regardless of age, parents or siblings, can only obtain a permanent residence permit through a relative of a U.S. citizen. This means that the Green Card holder can apply for citizenship after three or five years and then apply for a Green Card for his or her family members. 

If your family status changes during the Green Card application process, you must notify the USCIS immediately. This applies primarily to marriages entered during the Green Card process, as well as biological, adopted and stepchildren born or joining during this time.

History of the Green Card

The USA is known all over the world as the great melting pot. The country was found in 1776 and since then it has been the country of immigrants. During the 19th and early 20th century, immigration to the United States was, for the most part, unregulated and the USA was open to immigrants from all around the world. After the American Civil War, the U.S. Supreme Court enacted the first immigration restrictions; for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Over the course of time, federal agencies were established to specifically handle immigration rules and regulations. An example was the establishment of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1933.

The Green Card itself originated during World War II and was created in response to stricter immigration regulations. In 1940, Congress enacted the Alien Registration Act. This law laid the foundation for the first immigration law requirements and determined whether an immigrant was allowed to legally reside in the USA. On entering the USA, all immigrants were checked and issued an identification card.

Until 1945, Ellis Island was the point where most immigrants entered the USA

At the time, this identification card was not yet known as a “Permanent Resident Card”, but rather an “Alien Card” or an “Alien Registration Receipt Card”. Alien in this case means foreigner and refers to an immigrant. The first permits issued were actually bright green at this time. That is why a US immigration visa is known as a Green Card today.

Under the uniform set of rules defined by the US federally approved “Alien Registration Act”, every new legal immigrant received an “Alien Registration Receipt Card”. At that time, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was responsible for all immigration matters including the approval, issuing and design of the Green Cards. In 2013, the department was renamed the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Today, this department issues all US Green Cards which, since the turn of the century, do in fact have a green glimmer once again. Decades beforehand, they were even pink!    

New Green Card Design 2017

The design of the Green Card has changed many times since it was first introduced in the 1950’s. The new plastic card is far from the original identification document made from paper. The main reason behind the changes is to protect the society against fake Green Cards. New standards are regularly specified to prevent the reproduction of the famous permanent resident cards, just like for bank notes or other identification documents like passports.  

In 2017 it was time for the current Green Card to get a new look! Fundamentally, the design has the following distinctive features: 

  • Photo of the Green Card holder (both sides)
  • Predominantly green color (both sides)
  • a stylized image of the Statue of Liberty (both sides)
  • a stylized image of the American flag (both sides)
  • the Green Card holder’s signature is no longer on the back
  • the optical stripe is no longer on the back

An overview of the differences:

Picture of the differences between the old and the new Green Card design

 Source: USCIS

The front side:

  1. Surname
  2. Given Name
  3. USCIS #
  4. Category
  5. Country of Birth
  6. Date of Birth
  7. Sex
  8. Validity date
  9. Resident since date
  10. Fingerprint
  11. Photo of the Green Card holder
Picture of a Green Card with a new Design 2017

The front of a Green Card with the new design from 2017

The back side:

  1. Bar code
  2. Three lines of category codes
  3. Photo of the Green Card holder
Picture of the backof a Green Card with the new design from 2017

The back of a Green Card with the new design from 2017


Furthermore, a hologram has been added to the card to improve security standards. The Green Card holders signature is no longer on the card.

What will happen to the old Green Cards?

The new Green Card has been in circulation since May 1, 2017, but it is still possible for new applicants to receive a Green Card with the “old” design. Older Green Cards though are still valid. These will be issued by USCIS until they are no longer in stock. We have no influence over which Green Card our customers will receive, but at the end of the day, a Green Card is still a Green Card. Have you already applied for the current Green Card Lottery? Your chances to win a new Green Card are high, so don’t miss out and apply before the next winners are announced.   

Rights and Responsibilities of a Green Card Holder

A Green Card comes with certain rights and responsibilities. If all goes according to plan, a Green Card holder can live and work in the USA for as long as they like and even become a U.S. citizen after five years. 

  • Keep in mind that the intended purpose of a Green Card is to permanently move to America. 

US authorities expect Green Card holders to make the USA their new home. There will be, of course, some things to clear up before you make the final move. Generally speaking, the US authorities understand that making such a big move takes time and, if needed, you can take a few years to prepare for your new life in the USA. Even after the move, you can still spend time outside of the United States for up to one year – and up to two years if applied for beforehand. 

As a future Green Card holder, you not only have more rights, but also responsibilities. One of those includes filing a U.S. tax return every year.

The U.S. Citizens and Immigration Service (USCIS) expects you to file a yearly U.S. tax return. Filing with the U.S. tax return every year will also help support your intention to move to the USA if you need more time. It will also play an important role when you apply for American citizenship.

How long is the Green Card valid?

Fundamentally, the Green Card is valid for a lifetime. The identification card must be renewed, however, every 10 years just like your passport or driver’s license. A Green Card can be renewed by filing the Form I-90. Your status as Green Card holder is still valid even if the validity date on your physical Green Card has expired. 

Be aware, however, that you can lose your Green Card holder status. A Green Card will automatically become invalid if the holder:

  • stays outside of the USA for a period of time longer than 364 days without approval;
  • becomes a US citizen;
  • voluntarily gives up their status as Green Card holder by filing the appropriate forms with either a US embassy or a USCIS office;
  • commits a crime or violates immigration law. 

Read more about renewing or changing your Green Card here. 

Difference Between US Green Card and US Citizenship

US Green Card holders are not automatically American citizens. Green Card holders do have, however, the possibility to become American citizens after living in the USA for five years.

A Green Card holder is, as already mentioned, a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States. Those with a Green Card do not need to apply for an ESTA (travel authorization) or any another type of visa to enter the USA. For example, a Green Card holder who wants to study in the USA does not need a separate student visa. In contrast to a temporary US work visa, a Green Card holder is not tied to a specific employer, job or place of residence. Green Card holders can live anywhere they like in the USA – from Florida to Hawaii or even Alaska – and can work in any profession they want whether it be as an employee or a freelancer.

Below is an overview of the rights and responsibilities of a Green Card holder in comparison to visa holders and US citizens. This list is by no means exhaustive:



Visa Holders

Green Card Holders

US Citizens

Freedom to travel anywhere the USA

No restrictions

No restrictions

No restrictions

Are trips outside of the USA possible?

Yes, but restrictions depending on visa

Yes, up to 364 days and up to two years if approved beforehand

No restrictions


From 90 days to multiple years; always temporary

Unlimited; must be renewed every 10 years (mere formality)


Work restrictions




Option to become a U.S. citizen?


Yes, after 5 years of living most of the time in the USA


Right to vote


Limited to certain elections


Social Security

Depends on the visa

No restrictions

No restrictions

Jury Duty




Join the military


Yes, but only certain positions


Entitled to Medicare

Generally, no

Yes, after living in the USA for 5 years 


University Studies

Only with a F- or M-Visa with expensive “out-of-state” tuition fees

Yes, even with low
“in-state” tuition fees after the first year


Can I buy a Green Card?

USA fans often ask themselves if it is possible to buy a Green Card and make their dreams of living and working in the USA come true. Visit our article to find out more about the possibility of buying a Green Card.