What Is the Difference Between a Green Card and a Visa?

Visas and Green Cards are both documents for foreign nationals that give the holder certain rights to stay in the country of issue.

While almost all countries and territories around the world issue visas, the Green Card is unique to the United States of America.

The key difference between the two is that US visas allow the bearer to enter the country and stay for a certain period of time for a specific purpose, while a Green Card is a permit for immigrants that grants permanent residency in the United States.

What Is a US Visa?

A United States visa is an entry permit. There are various types of US visa that allow foreign nationals to travel to the country for different reasons and different lengths of time.

These types of visas can be grouped into 2 categories: immigrant visas and non-immigrant visas.

Visas are issued by US embassies and consulates abroad. Travelers must arrange an appointment and attend an interview in person. They must submit a completed application and the necessary supporting documents for the type of US visa they require.

A US visa is usually issued in the form of a stamp in the traveler’s passport. This must be presented at border control on arrival in the United States.

Non-immigrant US visas

Non-immigrant visas are needed for temporary visits to the US.

Examples include the following:

  • B-1 visa (required for business trips)
  • B-2 (US tourist visa)
  • The combined B-1/B-2 visa
  • H visas (for temporary workers)

It is worth noting that not all foreigners need a visa for holidays and business trips.

Nationals of countries in the US Visa Waiver Program can authorize their trip using the US ESTA instead. This is done by filling out a quick online application, avoiding the need to go all the way to an embassy.

Immigrant visas for the US

Immigrant visas for the United States are visas that allow the holder to move to the US.

Foreign nationals who wish to live in the USA in the long term must obtain an immigrant visa before entering the country.

It is more difficult to obtain an immigrant visa than a non-immigrant visa. The application process is more complex and may require a sponsor.

It is usually necessary to have an immigrant visa before obtaining a Green Card.

An immigrant visa without a Green Card is not a path to US citizenship.

What Is a Green Card?

A Green Card is a permanent residence permit for the United States of America. It is a physical card issued to foreign residents.

The Green Card grants the holder most of the same rights and privileges as US citizens. These include the right to work and reside permanently in the USA. These rights cannot be revoked except in extreme circumstances.

In 3-5 years, Green Card holders can apply for US citizenship.

Unlike a visa, foreigners apply for and receive their Green Card after arriving in the US.

How to get a Green Card

In most cases, it is necessary to already have an immigrant visa before applying for a Green Card. Once an individual has an immigrant visa and enters the US, they are eligible to apply for the Green Card.

Green Cards can be obtained in the following ways:

  • Family
  • Work
  • Lottery
  • Humanitarian reasons

Immediate family members of US nationals and current Green Card holders are eligible to apply for a Green Card themselves.

In some cases, individuals moving to the US for work may be granted Green Cards tied to their jobs. Their families may also be eligible.

There is also an annual lottery for immigrants from around the world. There are 50,000 Green Cards available to winners. The selection is largely random.

Green Cards may also be granted on a humanitarian basis to certain individuals, including the following:

  • Refugees
  • Asylum seekers
  • Victims of human trafficking
  • Victims of certain other crimes or abuse

What Are the Differences Between a Green Card and a Visa?

There are various differences between a Green Card and a US visa.

United States Visas:

  • Usually allow a certain length of stay
  • Come in different types for different purposes
  • Must be obtained before traveling
  • Are typically a stamp in the passport
  • Do not allow the holder to gain US citizenship

Green Cards:

  • Allow permanent residency
  • Grant almost all the same rights as US citizens (bar the right to vote and the right to federal funding)
  • Are obtained in the US
  • Are a physical card
  • Allow the holder to apply for US citizenship after 3-5 years

It is also important to remember that in most cases, foreigners must first obtain an immigrant visa to enter the US, and then apply for their Green Card.