What is the Main Difference Between a Visa and Green Card?

In short, the main difference between a visa and a Green Card is that a Green Card allows a foreign national to live in the United States permanently while a visa does not grant permanent status on its own.

What is a Visa?

A Visa is a document given to foreign nationals that permits entry to the United States for select purposes. The visa document is administered by the United States Department of State at U.S. embassies and consulates throughout the world. After a foreign national receives his or her visa, the visa document is presented at a United States port of entry, where the United States Customs and Border Protection determines whether entry to the United States will be permitted.

Non-Immigrant vs. Immigrant Visas

All visas fall into one of two “categories” of U.S. visa: non-immigrant or immigrant visa. The main difference between the two categories of visa is the length of the visa holders stay in the United States.

Non-Immigrant Visas

Non-immigrant visa holders may only stay in the United States for a select period of time, as opposed to permanently. Thus, non-immigrant visa holders will have a clear departure date that may be months or years, depending on what type of non-immigrant visa the visa holder has. For example, the B-2 tourist visa expires after a span of months, while the H-1B work visa expires after a span of years.

Immigrant Visas

Immigrant visa holders may become permanent residents in order to stay in the United States permanently. However, immigrant visas do not grant a foreign national permanent residency in the United States. Instead, immigrant visas are part of the process to receive a Green Card, which does grant permanent residency. An immigrant visa holder typically receives his or her immigrant visa prior to entering the United States, and must receive a Green Card thereafter in order to stay in the United States as a permanent resident.

What is a Green Card?

A Green Card is administered to foreign nationals who qualify to be United States lawful permanent residents. The Green Card is a photo identification card that proves the Green Card holder’s permanent resident status. A Green card is a prerequisite to become naturalized as a United States citizen. Typically, a Green Card is administered to individuals who enter the United States with an immigrant visa. However, individuals who are already in the United States on a non-immigrant visa may seek permanent residence in the United States by applying for a change of status.

What are the Requirements for Obtaining a Visa?

Requirements to obtain a visa depend on the type of visa sought. Only certain individuals will qualify for an immigrant visa, based on the circumstances that bring them to the United States for permanent residency, including adoption, marriage, familial status, and more. Non-immigrant visas may be obtained for a variety of different reasons that require entry into the United States on a temporary basis, including work, education, health care, tourism, competition, and more. Thus, both immigrant and non-immigrant visas are administered based on an individual’s specific circumstances and qualifications.

What are the Requirements for Obtaining a Green Card?

Requirements for obtaining a Green Card vary depending on the reason a foreign national is seeking Green Card status. The United States Department of State has several Green Card eligibility categories, each with its own set of criteria and requirements for Green Card applicants. A Green Card may be obtained after receiving an immigrant visa, or by changing status.

Obtaining a Green Card Through Consular Processing

Individuals living outside the United States who qualify under a Green Card eligibility category may seek a Green Card through consular processing by following the steps below:

File an Immigrant Visa Petition

In order to begin the process, an individual must seek an immigrant visa based on the immigrant visa category that matches his or her circumstances. Petitions are filed with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Relevant immigrant visa categories include family-based (such as spouses, children, and parents, Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative); employment-based (Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker); special categories (Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), and Special Immigrant); and humanitarian programs. Most categories require an individual already living in the United States, such as a spouse or employer, to submit an immigrant visa petition on the foreign national’s behalf.

Receive Petition Decision

After a petition is filed with, the USCIS will notify the applicant of its decision. If the petition is approved, the USCIS will forward the approved petition to the United States Department of State’s National Visa Center (NVC). The NVC will notify the applicant of updates regarding the visa, including when an immigrant visa number is available, when to submit processing fees, and supporting documentation. Applicants can track their status on the Consular Electronic Application Center (CEAC) and submit other necessary documentation.

Submit Affidavit of Support and Financial Documents

Through the CEAC, an applicant must also submit Form I-864, Affidavit of Support. This form indicates that an individual already living in the United States is accepting financial responsibility for the individual coming to live in the United States. The U.S. sponsor who is accepting financial responsibility for the applicant must also submit documentation evidencing his or her finances.

Complete Online Application

After Form I-864 and financial documents are submitted and all fees are paid, the applicant must submit Form DS-260, Immigrant Visa Electronic Application using the CEAC. Once Form DS-260 is submitted, the applicant must print the confirmation page to bring with them to the consulate interview.

Attend Interview at Consulate or Embassy

After an individual’s immigrant visa petition is submitted, he or she will need to attend an interview at the U.S. Embassy or Consulate nearest to them where a U.S. official will ask questions relevant to the individual’s desire to live in the United States permanently.

After Immigrant Visa is Granted

Once an individual’s visa petition is approved and an Immigrant Visa is granted, he or she will receive a sealed Visa Packet that must be brought to a United States port of entry when the individual seeks entry into the United States, and must not be opened prior to arrival at the port of entry. So long as the individual has paid all United States Citizenship and Immigration Services fees, the individual’s Green Card should arrive by mail to the individual’s United States address within 45 days of arrival in the United States.

Obtaining a Green Card by Adjusting Status

Individuals already living inside the United States can seek to change their status if they qualify under a Green Card eligibility category. Those who qualify under a Green Card eligibility category may seek a Green Card through adjustment of status by following the steps below:

File an Immigrant Visa Petition and Change of Status Petition

Much like consular processing, an applicant seeking to change his or her status must have someone (such as a spouse or employer) submit an Immigrant Visa Petition that pertains to the reason he or she seeks to stay permanently in the United States. Unlike consular processing, Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status must also be filed after the immigrant visa petition is approved; however, some immigrant visa categories allow Form I-485 to be submitted at the same time as the immigrant visa petition.

Attend an Application Support Center Appointment

After Form I-485 is filed, an applicant will have to attend an appointment to provide fingerprints, photograph, a signature, and an acknowledgement that the applicant has provided true and accurate information. The individual will receive a notice in the mail informing him or her of the appointment time, date, and location.

Attend an Interview

Similar to consular processing, some applicants may have to attend an interview prior to receiving approval of their change of status application. However, an interview is not required for all applicants. Thus, an individual will receive a notice of the interview time, date, and location if one is necessary.

After Change of Status is Granted

After an applicant’s change of status is approved, he or she will first receive a notice of approval. The applicant’s Green Card document will be sent soon thereafter.

How Long Does a Green Card and a Visa Last?

Non-Immigrant Visas

Non-immigrant visas are valid for as long as the particular type of non-immigrant visa allows. Thus, not all non-immigrant visas are valid for the same length of time. Some non-immigrant visas are valid for a term of years, while others are valid for only a term of months. Similarly, some are renewable but have a cap for how many times it may be renewed.

Immigrant Visas

Immigrant visas are generally only valid for as long as it requires to receive a Green Card after entry into the United States. However, immigrant visas are not valid for longer than six months. Thus, an individual in the United States on an immigrant visa should receive his or her Green Card within six months of arrival on the immigrant visa.

Green Cards

Green cards are valid for permanent residency inside the United States. However, like other forms of identification, Green Cards need to be renewed to ensure the document reflects the Green Card holder’s current characteristics. Green Cards must be renewed within six months of the expiration date shown on the document.