Green Card vs. Visa: How Are They Different?

In a Nutshell

A common misconception is that a green card and a visa are the same thing. While the two are similar, there are differences between green cards and visas. To avoid confusion, you should first understand what a visa is and what a green card is. This article explains both, then highlights the differences between green cards and visas.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Updated November 1, 2022

What Is a Visa?

Most people who want to travel to the United States will need a U.S. visa first. You can apply for a visa through your local U.S. embassy or consulate before traveling. The United States offers two main types of visas: nonimmigrant and immigrant visas.

Nonimmigrant visa holders may visit the United States for specific reasons. Common nonimmigrant visa categories include student visas, tourist visas, work visas, H-1B visas, and more. Nonimmigrant visas are temporary documents. As a nonimmigrant visa holder, you can’t stay in the United States permanently.

An immigrant visa is harder to get, but it’s necessary if you’d like to live in the United States permanently. To get a green card later, you first need an immigrant visa. You can apply for an immigrant visa before traveling to the United States. In most cases, you need a family member who is a U.S. citizen to sponsor you for your immigrant visa.

What Is a Green Card?

Green cards are physical documents that prove you have U.S. permanent resident status. They are also known as permanent resident cards. U.S. immigration law allows you to live, work, and travel within the United States as a permanent resident. You need to have an immigrant visa before you can get a green card. 

You may begin your green card application process with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). USCIS is an agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If you apply from within the United States, you’ll use the adjustment of status process. Alternatively, you can apply through consular processing at your home country’s local U.S. consulate or embassy, run by the U.S. Department of State. 

Important Facts About Green Cards

Green cards have expiration dates. You must renew your green card every 10 years before it expires. Most people meet the eligibility requirements to apply for U.S. citizenship after being lawful permanent residents for five years. If you get your green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen spouse, the timeline is only three years. 

You may get a green card for relative, employment, humanitarian, or lottery reasons. Every year, the government runs a diversity visa lottery. This is also known as a green card lottery program. This program allows 50,000 foreign nationals to become eligible for permanent residency. These individuals come from countries that don’t send many immigrants to the United States.

Green Card vs. Visa: What Are the Differences?

One major difference between a green card and visa is when you get each one. You should get a visa before traveling to the United States. You can only get a green card after arriving. When you arrive at a U.S. port of entry, immigration officials will stamp your visa into your passport. Green cards are physical documents separate from your passport. Unlike green cards, visas do not always permit you to have an open-ended stay. Nonimmigrant visas have an expiration date and are conditional on a specific purpose for travel. 

Note that getting a nonimmigrant visa isn’t typically a path to getting a green card. But immigrant visas can be paths to permanent resident immigration status. You must get an immigrant visa before getting your green card. After three or five years as a green card holder, you will gain eligibility to apply for U.S. citizenship. After this period of time, you can begin the naturalization process. If approved, you will officially become a U.S. citizen.