Once you get a green card, you’ll enjoy many rights and privileges as a legal resident of the United States, including the right to have a job. But it often takes a long time for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to process green card applications. During this waiting period, you can’t legally work in the United States unless you have authorization. If you want to work while you’re waiting for your green card to be approved, you have to apply for a work permit using Form I-765: Application for Employment Authorization.
In this article, we take a closer look at work permits, including how to get one while waiting for a green card.
What Is a Work Permit?
A work permit is also known as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and serves as proof that an immigrant or foreign national has permission to legally work in the United States. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issues EADs, which look a lot like a driver’s license and can also serve as a photo identification card.
Work permits shouldn’t be confused with work visas. Work visas grant permission for someone to live and work in the U.S., but that permission is usually tied to a specific employer. Because of this, U.S. employers, rather than workers, usually apply for work visas.
In contrast, someone with a work permit can work for any employer. As long as you have a valid work permit, you can switch jobs without completing additional paperwork and still have legal permission to work in the United States. You must renew your work permit each year for it to remain valid.
Why Do I Need an Employment Authorization Document?
Even though you might have permission from the U.S. government to enter and/or stay in the United States, that doesn’t automatically mean you can work here. If you want to have a job, you must first get permission, which often comes in the form of a work permit. This requirement for work authorization also applies if you’re in the middle of adjusting your immigration legal status.
Not everyone looking to work in the United States needs to have a work permit. For example, U.S. citizens don’t need to have one and neither do lawful permanent residents (LPRs) or green card holders. You also don’t need a work permit if you have an employment visa, like the H-1B. Just remember that a work visa like the H-1B is tied to a single employer.
How Do I Get a Work Permit?
You get a work permit by submitting Form I-765: Application for Employment Authorization. The timing of your application depends on your green card sponsor’s status.
- If you’re a relative of a U.S. citizen who is applying for a green card, you’ll apply for a work permit while applying for a green card.
- If your family member has a green card instead of citizenship, you need to wait until after you’ve submitted your green card application before applying for a work permit.
Who Can Apply for a Work Permit?
Only individuals with an eligible immigrant status may receive an Employment Authorization Document or work permit.
People with types of immigration statuses are eligible, including
- K-1 visa holders (fiancée)
- F-1 visa holders (students)
- Temporary Protected Status (TPS) immigrants
- DACA recipients
- Immigrants with pending adjustment of status applications (like a green card application)
Generally speaking, undocumented immigrants and B-1 or B-2 visa holders aren’t eligible to apply for work permits. For a more complete list of immigration statuses that can apply for work permits, please see the Form I-765 instructions.
How Do I Apply for a Work Permit?
Applying for a work permit requires you to complete and submit one application form. This process can be broken down into four steps, which we explain in more detail below.
Step 1: Prepare Form I-765
As far as USCIS forms go, Form I-765: Application for Employment Authorization is relatively straightforward to complete. The two biggest parts of the application are explaining why you want a work permit and providing your biographical and contact information.
You’ll also need a Social Security number (SSN) in addition to your work permit to legally work in the United States. If you don’t have an SSN, you can apply for one at the same time you apply for your work permit by checking the corresponding box on Form I-765.
Step 2: Prepare Supporting Documents
If you have not ever applied for a work permit before, you must provide all of the following:
- A copy of your current immigrant visa
- A copy of the photo page of your passport
- A copy of your Form I-94 travel document (You can search for your most recent Form I-94 online.)
- Two recent 2-by-2-inch passport-style photos of you
- A copy of your receipt notice that you’ll have received when you applied for a visa (if applicable)
- A copy of an additional form of identification, such as a copy of your birth certificate and photo identification card from your home country
If you’ve applied for a work permit before, you’ll also need to include a copy of any previously issued work permits.
Step 3: Pay the Filing Fee
The work permit filing fee is $410. However, the USCIS could change this amount in the future, so it’s best to check the USCIS’s online Fee Schedule for the most current information. To make a payment, you can use a personal check, cashier’s check, or money order. Check should be made payable to the “U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” You can also pay the filing fee with a credit card, though you must submit an additional form.
Certain applicants, such as those requesting consideration for DACA, also need to pay the $85 biometric services fee. Finally, not every work permit applicant must pay the filing fee, and a list of these applicants can be found in the Form I-765 instructions.
Step 4: Submit Form I-765
You can file Form I-765 either online or by mail. If you’re mailing your work permit application, you’ll need to use the proper USCIS direct filing address that corresponds to your reasons for applying and the eligibility category that applies to you. If mailing your application with supporting documents and payment, it’s best to make a photocopy of everything you sent, just in case.
How Long Will It Take To Get a Work Permit?
After the USCIS receives your work permit application, they’ll need about five to seven months in processing time. Just remember that delays to wait times due to backlogs are possible.
If you want a work permit but your relative only has a green card, then you should expect the wait to be much longer. This is because you’ll need a green card number before you can apply for a work permit. Waiting for this number plus applying for a work permit can easily take more than two years.
After the USCIS receives your application, they’ll send you a receipt notice. You can usually expect this within a few weeks after you submit your work permit application. An important piece of information contained in your receipt notice is your receipt number. This consists of 13 characters, and you can use it to monitor the progress of your work permit application on the Case Status Online USCIS website.
Can I Start Working After I Get My Work Permit?
No, because you’ll also need an SSN along with your work permit to legally have a job in the United States. But as mentioned earlier, if you don’t have an SSN, you should apply for one at the same time you apply for your work permit. Once you receive your work permit and have an SSN, then you can start working.
Before you begin working, your employer will ask you to fill out Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification. To complete it, you’ll need proof that you may legally work in the United States, and your work permit and SSN will serve as that proof.
Don’t forget that if you’re earning income in the United States, you’ll have to pay taxes on those earnings. If you don’t pay your taxes, you may find it much harder to become a U.S. citizen in the future.
What Happens if I Start Working Without a Work Permit?
Bad things can happen if you work in the United States without proper authorization. Negative consequences could include:
- A ban on re-entering the United States for 3-10 years
- Difficulty obtaining a visa or other immigration benefit or status
Even if you just work for a few hours or do so “under the table” for cash, you can still face these consequences.
In limited situations, working without a work permit won’t cause significant problems. For instance, the USCIS often allows a small amount of unauthorized employment when considering if they should grant you a green card. But given the severe consequences possible for working without a work permit, you shouldn’t risk it.
Getting a work permit while waiting for a green card can be complicated, but help is available. If you are eligible, our free web app will walk you through the work permit application process and help you prepare and file your application with the U.S. government. If our app isn’t a good fit, we may be able to refer you to an experienced immigration attorney to help. Click "Get Started" to see how we can help make your American dream come true!