Passports, a permanent residence card, a work authorization, and the words green card vs visa

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In the most basic terms, visas and green cards both permit immigrants to stay in the US; however, they do have some distinct differences. A visa is a pass that allows you to be in the U.S. for a specific amount of time – it has an expiration date. A green card, on the other hand, does not have an expiration date; it allows you to stay in the U.S. for as long as you want as long as you don’t violate the terms and conditions required for green card holders. It also allows you to leave the states and return freely while some visas do not. Read on to learn more about the differences between green cards and visas.

Visas in the US

There are two main categories of visas: immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas. Individuals who are traveling to the U.S. for a temporary purpose are classified under U.S. law as non-immigrants, since they do not intend to remain here permanently and must obtain a “non-immigrant visa – NIV”. Individuals who are traveling to the U.S. to live and work permanently are classified as immigrants and must obtain an “immigrant visa – IV” permitting them to stay indefinitely.

Within these two broad categories, there are numerous subcategories of visas – 185 in total. Most of them are non-immigrant visas. While some non-immigrant visas allow you to cross the border for as few as 72 hours, others allow you to visit for a substantial amount of time. You may even be granted permission to work or go to school, depending on the type of visa you receive.

Non-immigrant visas usually fall into one of the following subcategories:

  • Student visa

  • Tourist visa

  • Work visa

  • Business visa

  • Medical visa

Since there are so many different types of visas, it’s vital that you understand which type of visa you need before you apply. An immigration attorney can help you navigate the complicated process of choosing the right visa and applying for it.

Green Cards in the US

A green card allows someone to remain in the U.S. indefinitely. Green cards are more difficult to obtain than visas. To get a green card, you must meet certain criteria and go through a rigorous application and vetting process.

In order to qualify for a green card, one of the following must apply:

  • You must have an approved relative (or fiancé) that is a U.S. citizen

  • You must have family members living in the U.S.

  • You must be a preferred worker or business owner

  • You must have won an ethnic diversity lottery

  • You must fall into some other special immigrant category, such as being an asylum seeker

It can take a long time to petition for and receive a green card. Once you have it, however, you can legally live and work in the U.S. You will also enjoy many – but not all – of the benefits that citizens enjoy.

As a green card holder, you will be able to petition for your spouse or other family members to enter the U.S. on an immigrant visa. You may also apply for citizenship after meeting certain criteria. While it is considered permanent in nature, your green card may be revoked if you violate the law or commit another deportable act.

The Differences and Similarities of Visas and Green Cards

Although they serve different purposes, visas and green cards have some similarities. They also have many differences. The following is a quick guide for each.


  • Both are issued by U.S. Civil Immigration Authorities

  • Both are issued to people who are not U.S. citizens

  • Neither grants you the right to vote

  • Both can be revoked if you commit a crime or deportable offense

  • Both may allow you to work, but there are some exceptions


  • Green cards are harder to obtain than visas

  • Green cards require more vetting and paperwork

  • A green card allows you to stay permanently in the U.S.

  • Not all types of visas allow you to work in the U.S.

  • Visas are granted for a specific amount of time

If you need information regarding your immigration status, or if you’re interested in applying for a visa or green card, contact Juan Hernandez today. In addition to practicing immigration law, Hernandez is board certified in injury law – an honor belonging to only 2 percent of attorneys in the state of Texas.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.