F-1 to Green Card: The complete guide to getting started
This guide is intended to help you decide which path will help you change your F-1 visa to a Green Card.
If you’re an international student living and studying in the United States and considering staying in the country to work, further your studies or live out the American Dream, then you may want to become a permanent resident.
Below, we share the different options to change your F-1 visa to a Green Card to help you decide which path fits you best.
The F-1 visa is for international students who are in the U.S. to attend an academic program or English Language Program. They’re typically allowed to remain in the country until they’ve completed their full-time academic courses of study at approved educational institutions.
Technically, the F-1 visa is issued to applicants who have an intent to return to their home country upon completing their studies, unless they participate in the post-completion optional practical training (OPT). This program allows foreign students to participate in work that’s directly related to their major area of study for up to one year following graduation.
For international students with degrees in certain science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, they may be eligible for a 24-month extension of their post-completion OPT authorization to work. However, the F-1 visa holder is still expected to return to their home country after the degree, OPT, or STEM OPT program is completed, unless they become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.
One option for students who are in the U.S. on F-1 visas and wish to become Green Card holders is to apply for an EB-1 visa, also known as first-preference employment-based visas. This visa is intended for foreign nationals with extraordinary abilities, including the following:
For applicants based on extraordinary abilities, they must also meet at least three out of 10 of the following criteria:
Because many F-1 visa holders usually find it hard to meet the criteria to apply for an EB-1 visa, this option isn’t often considered a path to a Green Card. If you want to apply for an EB-1 visa, you can either find a sponsoring employer in your area of specialty or petition for yourself.
If you are petitioning through a sponsoring employer, the employer is typically required to pay for your petition and follow the applicable visa and labor laws. For self-petitioners, you are required to file Form I-140, Petition for Alien Worker and pay the fees yourself. Because EB-1 visas are typically only for people with exceptional abilities, have contributed major research, or have multinational positions in companies, it’s difficult to get approved unless you meet the requirements indicated above.
If you cannot meet the stringent criteria for the first-preference EB-1 visa, you may be able to secure an EB-2 or EB-3 visa, which are the second- and third-preference employment-based immigration visa categories, respectively. EB-2 visas are reserved for people in the following three categories:
The following criteria apply to EB-2 visa applicants:
For an employer-based EB-2 visa, your employer will need to file a Form I-140 and an approved labor certification from the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).
The EB-3 or third-preference employment-based immigration visa is reserved for skilled workers, professionals, and certain other workers. Skilled workers must have a minimum of two years of work experience or training in their fields, a labor certification and an offer of employment for a permanent, full-time position for which there are no U.S. citizens available to fill it. Moreover, professionals must hold at least a bachelor's degree and a job offer in their field. Unskilled workers must be able to perform unskilled labor work in the U.S. for which U.S. workers are not available and hold job offers. Sponsoring employers of EB-3 applicants must file labor certifications and Forms I-140 on behalf of the applicants.
Foreign students with F-1 visas may also receive Green Cards when they marry U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Timing is important for this process. There is a 90-day rule that must be followed, which means that F-1 visa holders are likely to be denied if they apply for a marriage-based Green Card during the first 90 days of being in the U.S. as there is a presumption of preconceived intent.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will investigate the application and marriage to establish that you indeed intended to leave the U.S. within the period allotted in your temporary visa yet fell in love and decided to stay only after you were admitted to the country.
Your spouse must petition for your Green Card on your behalf by filing Form I-130. You may then submit Form I-485 to adjust your status. Have in mind that rigorous background checks, interviews, and reviews of documents will take place to determine the validity of your marriage before you will be granted a Green Card.
If going back to your country endangers your life or exposes you to harsh persecution or conditions, you may be eligible to petition for asylum. Granted petitions for asylum typically allow the “asylee” to remain in the U.S. and work. This type of petition can be filed within 12 months of your entry to the U.S. on your F-1 visa using Form I-589. Asylum claims can be especially difficult, so consider getting help from an experienced immigration attorney with your case to provide the necessary evidence and present the case in the most favorable light.
Each year, the U.S. government holds the Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery, also known as the “Green Card Lottery,” in October to November. While this is another option for F-1 visa holders, there’s no guarantee to receiving a Green Card with this method as the selection process is random and there is a cap on visas that may be given away.
If selected, however, you may proceed to providing USCIS with documents that confirm your eligibility, an application for a Green Card, and other supporting documents. An interview will then follow before you are issued a Green Card visa if it is determined that you are eligible to permanently reside in the U.S.
To participate in the lottery, you are typically required to register during the specified time that the U.S. Department of State publishes each year.
For F-1 visa holders who have a relative who owns a business in the U.S., they may have that relative sponsor them for an immigrant visa, provided that the relative can show proof that the student is being hired because of his or her qualifications and not because of their relationship.
The relative is also typically required to demonstrate that efforts were made to recruit U.S. workers to fill the position yet were unsuccessful in doing so.
Certain F-1 students may be eligible to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces through the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest, or MAVNI program. While students on F-1 visas are normally not allowed to join the military, they may be able to receive an exception if they possess critical skills needed by the military. This program allows people who qualify to join the military and apply for U.S. citizenship using Form N-400. However, the program was closed indefinitely and is under review by the current administration, so it may not be an avenue for obtaining a Green Card in the near future.
An F-1 visa holder may consider adjusting his or her visa status to H-1B, which allows foreign nationals to live and work in the U.S. for sponsoring employers. It’s recommended that you start your search for an employer early on since the program is highly competitive and there’s an annual cap for the number of H-1B visas that can be issued. The sponsoring employer is responsible for filing your petition for an H-1B visa.
Alternatively, you may also participate in OPT or STEM OPT programs while waiting for a decision on your H-1B visa petition. Granted petitions will allow the H-1B visa holder to stay and work with the sponsoring employer for up to three years, with an option to extend for an additional three years. After completing the six years of work, the H-1B visa holder may then consider applying for a readjustment of status to secure a Green Card.
Successful Green Card applicants will have the right to remain in the U.S. permanently. These rights may be revoked, however, if the Green Card holder commits a crime or engages in activities that are considered as removable offenses. Furthermore, Green Card holders can work freely at any job they want other than certain types of elected positions.
Other benefits include getting a U.S. driver’s license, the right to purchase and carry a firearm under the laws of the state, being able to travel anywhere in the U.S., having the ability to petition for visas for your spouse and/or children under the age of 21, and receiving Social Security benefits after you retire, as well as Medicare benefits once you reach the age of 65.
Foreign nationals who are also Green Card holders are expected to follow the law, including local, state, and federal laws. Certain types of convictions are considered removable offences that may result in the loss of the Green Card status. If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25 and are male, you are typically required to register with the U.S. Selective Service, which is used if a military draft is initiated.
Green Card holders should also file their income tax returns, report all of their income to the IRS, support the government of the U.S., carry proof of residency status at all times, and carry health insurance (or be eligible for subsidized healthcare through your state’s healthcare marketplace).
Failure to follow these responsibilities may lead to the Green Card being revoked and the foreign national to be deported.
While the process of applying and obtaining the visa may appear daunting, this guide is intended to help simplify the process of starting your new life in the U.S. After you have been approved for your H1-B visa and are preparing to travel to the U.S., consider how you will live during your stay — especially how you manage your finances from setting up a bank account to managing your credit. In the U.S., credit history is important in securing things necessary for everyday life from credit cards to utilities and even your apartment.