F1 to Green Card: How International Students Can Stay in the U.S. Permanently
If you came to the U.S. to study, then you are probably here on an F1 visa. And chances are that you like the U.S. then you’ll want to know how to live here permanently. Living in the U.S. permanently requires a green card, or lawful permanent resident status. There are many ways that international students can go from F1 to green card, and we’ll cover most of them below.
Overview of the F1 to Green Card Process
An international student here on an F1 visa should first learn the basics of the green card process. Note: the process for getting a green card when you’re already in the U.S. is very different from getting a green card from outside the United States.
Because the government has so many immigration agencies, we’ll first review which one handles the green card process. An F1 student already in the U.S. will ultimately send the green card application to an agency known as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, or “USCIS.”
In the process of becoming a resident, USCIS ultimately requires you to file a Form I-485 (This is the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status). When an international student successfully files a Form I-485, USCIS grants him or her “Adjustment of Status” or “AOS.” This is because the F1 student is “adjusting” their “status” from F1 to green card.
But the green card process involves more than just filing a Form I-485. Usually, a petition must accompany Form I-485. The petition, commonly Form I-130 or Form I-140, is sent before or with the I-485.
The petition is the key to the green card process. It tells USCIS how you qualify to file a Form I-485. For example, if a person with an F1 Visa marries a U.S. citizen then the citizen files a petition using a Form I-130. The Form I-130 tells USCIS that your spouse wants you to live in the U.S. with a green card. So to review:
- You file for a green card in the U.S. with the immigration agency known as USCIS.
- The F1 to green card process is known as Adjustment of Status or “AOS” for short.
- You file an AOS application USCIS using Form I-485.
- But you cannot file a Form I-485 without a petition, Form I-130 or Form I-140. So how you qualify for a petition is the key to going from F1 to green card.
Below, we’ll review the two common petitions that allow an international student to go from an F1 to green card.
The Two Most Common Ways to Go From F1 To Green Card
Number One: F1 To Green Card Through Marriage
Probably the most common way to go from F1 to green card is through marriage. If you marry a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, then your spouse can file a petition, Form I-130. Form I-130 allows you to file Form I-485 with USCIS. You have to file both forms to go directly from F1 to green card.
But be careful.
It depends on who you marry
- Marriage to a Lawful Permanent Resident (Someone with a green card): If you marry a Lawful Permanent Resident then the path from F1 to green card is longer. The law says that there are a limited number of green cards per year for spouses of Lawful Permanent Residents. If there are no green cards available in this category, spouses of Lawful Permanent Residents, you have to wait to file your Form I-485. How long you wait depends on something called the visa bulletin. (We will explain the visa bulletin in a later post. For now, think of it as a counter telling people how many green cards are available for spouses of green card holders)
- Marriage to a U.S. Citizen: On the other hand, if you marry a U.S. citizen then there is no wait to go from F1 to green card through marriage. There is an unlimited number of green cards available for spouses of U.S. citizens (you do not need to check the visa bulletin). Thus, you can file with USCIS the Form I-130 with the Form I-485 at the same time.. USCIS refers to this as a “one-step AOS.” USCIS calls it a “one-step” because you file both form I-130 and form I-485 together.
The F1 to Green Card Timeline
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the F1 to green card timeline when you file through a spouse.
- Timeline if you’re married to a Lawful Permanent Resident: As stated, getting a green card through a Lawful Permanent Resident spouse is longer and can take up to three to four years. ( Remember the visa bulletin?). This is because you will sometimes the Form I-130 and Form I-485 separately. If you filed these forms separately, you have to wait for Form I-130 to be approved and for USCIS to notify you when to file Form I-485 (Again, remember the visa bulletin?). This means that F1 to green card timeline requires waiting for the time to process each form individually.
- Timeline if you’re married to a U.S. Citizen: For F1 to green card through marriage to a U.S. Citizen, the timeline is typically shorter. This is because you will file Form 1-130 and Form I-485 together. Here, the F1 to green card process is about one to two years depending on where you live. It takes this long because the local USCIS office will likely interview you and your spouse. The time it takes to schedule an interview is longer in bigger cities like New York or Los Angeles.
Number Two: F1 To Green Card Through Employment
The next most common way an international student can become a resident is through an employer, or through a job you’re hired for. Most refer to the process as “Employment-Based” immigration or “EB” for short. This section will cover the two most common categories of EB cases, EB1, EB2 and EB3.
Before reviewing the specifics of EB1, EB2 and EB3, it’s important to review the F1 to green card Process generally. As mentioned, to file a Form I-485 with USCIS, usually you need to also file a petition. So, for example, F1 to green card through marriage requires a petition on Form I-130. EB cases are similar. But instead of Form I-130, you’ll use a Form I-140. But be careful — the F1 to green card process through work is more complicated than F1 to green card through marriage.
The complications of getting a green card through work
It’s more complicated because there are a few extra steps before your company can file an I-140 petition for you. The employer must show that there are no U.S. workers that the company could hire besides you. In other words, before a company can start the F1 to green card process it has to show that you’re not taking a job away from a qualified U.S. worker.
For EB2, the job an employer offers you must require a Master’s Degree or a Bachelor’s Degree plus 5 years experience. For EB3, the job has to require at least a Bachelor’s Degree.
Timeline of getting a green card through work
The F1 to green card timeline is typically shorter through EB2 since the U.S. government prioritizes immigrants with jobs that require more education and experience. But be careful: whether a job is in category EB2 or EB3 is determined by the government. Figuring out whether the job offered is EB2 or EB3 is complex and greatly affects the F1 to green card process. For that reason, it’s highly recommended that you use an experienced immigration attorney before your company starts to advertise the job it offered you.
Assuming that no qualified U.S. worker applies during the advertising process, then you can proceed with Form I-140. So in this way, the process of going from international student to permanent resident through a job is similar to the one through marriage. Both F1 to green card processes essentially involve a petition (Form I-130 or I-140) filed before or with Form I-485. The F1 to green card timeline for an employment case varies. This timeline depends on whether you file in EB2 or EB3 and how many other people are filing in this category.
F1 to Green Card Timeline
You can typically expect your case to take about 1 year (12 months) from to receive a decision. However, this timeline can vary greatly depending on your category of petition (I-140 or I-130), the location where you filed (USCIS Service Center), and your specific circumstances (you have a criminal history).
For example, the f1 to green card through marriage timeline is typically a little longer in big cities. This is for two reasons. One, when you file for a green card through marriage, USCIS often wants to interview you and your spouse. Scheduling a green card interview extends the processing times. Two, USCIS offices in big cities handle more applications so it takes longer to schedule them.
The timeline may also be affected if you’re not scheduled for an interview. USCIS sometimes waives interviews depending on current policies. For example, Employment-Based green card cases typically don’t require an interview until Family-Based green card cases.
Potential Problems in the F1 to Green Card Process
Below, we’ll review the three most common issues that can cause USCIS to deny your green card case.
You must maintain your F1 status at the time you file for your Green Card if you are using an Employment-Based Petition.
Note, you do not need to maintain F1 status after you file your green card application. But if you fail to maintain your nonimmigrant visa status before you file the I-485, it can have serious implications. If you file an Employment-Based green card application while out of F1 status, USCIS can deny your application.
There is an exception, however. Under the provision of section 245(k) of the INA, you may still be eligible to adjust your status even if you have violated your nonimmigrant visa status, as long as you meet certain criteria. Section 245(k) allows for forgiving certain status violations related to employment, permitting you to adjust your status without being penalized for such violations.
To qualify for the exception under 245(k), you must demonstrate that you have not been out of status for more than 180 days and have not worked without authorization for more than 180 days since your last entry into the United States. This exception can provide relief if you have engaged in unauthorized employment or violated your nonimmigrant status inadvertently.
Immigration violations can affect the F1 to Green Card Process
Immigration violations can affect the F1 to green card Process. Form I-485 asks about 80 questions about your immigration history, and how you answer them can change the outcome of your case.
Without reviewing all 80 questions, it’s helpful to look at some common immigration violations that USCIS will look for. First, USCIS will look to see if you have ever lied to immigration to get an immigration benefit, like your F1 Visa. So, for example, USCIS wants to know if you lied on your DS-160 when you applied for a visa at a U.S. consulate. It also wants to know if you have worked in the U.S. without permission or fell out of status. All of these can impact your ability to become a green cardholder.
If you think you have committed an immigration violation, then it’s best to consult with an immigration attorney before filing.
A criminal history can affect your ability to go from F1 to green card
Criminal convictions can also greatly affect the process of becoming a permanent resident. Immigration does not treat all crimes the same. The best practice is to consult an immigration attorney if you have ever been arrested. Some international students assume that if a criminal court dismissed their case in some form, their criminal history will not come up. This is not true, however.
So if you have had any contact with law enforcement (police or court), then consult an immigration attorney before filing.
Do you need to maintain F1 while waiting for green card approval?
Legally, you’re only required to maintain your F1 visa up until you apply. Once USCIS has accepted your I-485 application then you no longer need to maintain your F1 status. However, it’s recommended that you do your best to maintain F1 status. The reason is if USCIS denies your application for your green card (AOS) or you have to withdraw your application, then you’ll still be in the U.S. lawfully. In other words, the green card application keeps you in the U.S. lawfully but if it’s not approved, then you can’t stay in the country. Keeping your student visa acts as a safety net to protect you in case your green card application doesn’t work out.
Two exceptions. First, INA 245(k) allows you to be out of status for under 180 days and still get your green card. See the above explanation. Second, if you are married to a U.S. citizen and he/she files for you, then you do not need to maintain your status before filing.
Tens of thousands of international students across the United States succeed in getting a green card. Many have gotten their green cards through work, and many through marriage. Whichever path you choose, make sure to hire a reputable immigration attorney to guide you through the process.
F1 Visa Attorney: Online Search
Before you do anything, you should consider the complicated nature of immigration laws. This is especially true for F1 student visas. It’s always wise to consult one-on-one with a qualified immigration attorney.
If you’re looking for a lawyer to assist with your F1 visa, you can search for a qualified representative through the American Immigration Lawyer Association’s (AILA) database. AILA is the largest association of immigration lawyers in the U.S.