Getting a US green card as an international student: A step-by-step guide

Getting a US green card
A US green card allows you greater rights and privileges in the US than a non-immigrant visa. Source: Jeenah Moon/Getty Images/AFP

If you’re close to the finish line of completing your studies in the US, you might be wondering what comes next. Many international students arrive in the hopes of extending their American dream beyond the university, but maybe held back by the complex procedures involved in immigration to secure work visas or a US green card. 

While obtaining a lawful permanent resident status in the US takes a lot of time and even more effort, the payoff of a successful application is worth the trouble. As a US green card holder, you have the right to legally live, work, and travel in the country without worrying about your visa status. You have the added perk of enjoying other privileges such as Social Security benefits and legal protection under US laws. 

So, how does one actually transition from an F-1 student visa holder to a permanent resident in the US? Here’s one way to do it: 

A step-by-step guide to getting your US green card

Step 1: Complete your degree 

This might be stating the obvious, but as an international student, your chances of immigrating and getting a green card in the US hinges upon you graduating and getting your degree. It’s the first crucial step required to get a job after graduating, especially in a field that is related to your study programme. 

Maintaining your student status as an F-1 visa holder is important to keeping your future prospects open. As an international student, you’re not allowed to leave the US for more than five months at a time.

If you’re away for more than that, you need to acquire a new I-20, student visa, and a new SEVIS record, which makes you ineligible for the Optional Practical Training (OPT) or the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for another year. 

Step 2: Work under the OPT programme 

How to get a US green card

Graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics from US universities can extend their Optional Practical Training (OPT) to work up to 24 months after completing their studies. Source: Loic Venance/AFP

While under the F-1 visa, you’re eligible to apply for the OPT, a temporary work programme that authorises you to work before and after graduation for up to 12 months in a field that is related to your degree studies. To qualify for an OPT, you must have completed a full year of academic study in the US. 

If you’re a graduate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), you may apply for an extension of up to 24 months to continue your post-study OPT work under certain conditions. If you belong in this category, there’s even more good news: in Jan. 2022, the Biden administration included 22 new in-demand STEM fields of study in the OPT to attract more international talents to the US. 

Step 3: Switch your visa type  

The F-1 visa might allow you to work under the OPT provision, but it’s still non-extendable once it ends. You’ll have to secure another visa to retain your right to work and live in the US. 

For this, you’ll need the H-1B visa, a work visa for specialty occupations that requires highly specialised knowledge learned through a bachelor’s degree qualification or higher. The only problem? The application has to be filed by your employer from a US-based company that is willing to sponsor your visa. 

Your visa is attached to the company, and you’re not permitted to work elsewhere or start your own business once you get the H-1B. The visa lasts for three years and can be extended for another three afterwards. 

How to get a US green card

If you hold a H-1B visa and are looking to secure a green card, your employer will have to submit the application on your behalf, and begin the process by filing documents to the Department of Labour (DOL). Source: Bryan R. Smith/AFP

This step is often the make-it-or-break-it step for many prospective immigrants who graduated from US universities. You’ll need to rely on strong professional connections, and must have proven yourself to be indispensable to your industry as there is a strict quota for the H-1B visa among a pool of talented applicants. 

Step 4: Begin your US green card application 

Once the maximum period of six years is up with the H-1B, your employer will need to apply for a green card through an H-1B visa petition on your behalf. You may also find a new employer willing to sponsor your green card for the application. 

The jump from a H-1B to green card status is far from an easy leap. The process involved in securing a permanent residency in the US can take months and consists of multiple stages with no guarantee of a successful outcome, so you’ll need to plan carefully and begin the process while your H-1B visa is still valid. 

At this stage, the application is beyond your control. Your employer will need to submit Programme Electronic Review Management (PERM) certification to the Department of Labour (DOL), after which several reviews and processes, including proof that no local US workers are available to fill in for your position. Only when your employer demonstrates that there are no local employees for the job can they proceed with the Form I-140 to show that you’re eligible for a US green card. 

Are there other ways to secure a US green card?

Unfortunately, the pathways to immigrate to the US as a foreigner with no business or familial connections to the US are extremely limited. Apart from the H-1B, those intending to work and remain in the US can apply for either the L-1 visa, or the extremely niche EB-1 visa granted to Persons of Extraordinary Abilities Green Card, which are usually reserved for famous entertainers or award-winning researchers. 

If you want to live and work in the US after graduating, it’s best to choose your degree programme wisely to cater to the US job market. Otherwise, you’ll be looking at years of bureaucratic frustrations and getting your American dream cut short prematurely.