Two Muslim women at an immigration rally.

Green Card Vs. Citizenship: What’s The Difference

An old quote says no matter how adverse and difficult your past is, tomorrow is a new day. And you will always have opportunities to begin again.

And that is the optimistic mindset that new immigrants should embrace after immigrating to the United States.

The number of foreign-born legal immigrants increased to over 46.2 million by November 2021. And that is a significant increase in the legal immigration population compared to early and mid-2020.

Almost 14% of the American population is comprised of legal immigrants. And nearly 80% of the immigrants in the country live here legally.

The United States harbors, embraces, processes, and naturalizes more citizens per capita than any other country.

Over one-fifth of all the world’s immigrants reside in the United States. The United States contains the most diverse immigrant population in the world as well.

And why not? Immigrants founded the United States of America.

So, if you are on the way to transitioning from immigrant status to becoming a permanent resident or naturalized citizen, then you are in good historical company.

However, anything that is worthwhile is never easy to attain. And that is what is sometimes heartbreaking about immigration – one is never entitled to status or a place to reside in the United States because they need it or want it.

We do not mean to say this in a discouraging tone – only in a realist one. No matter how difficult your past, you can start again. 

You can rebuild your life the way you want to on your terms after legally immigrating to the United States.

But things take time. 

Contrary to popular belief and TV or film depictions, it can take multiple years for an immigrant to get a green card. And after receiving a green card, it takes several more years before an immigrant can become a naturalized citizen.  

Attaining permanent residency status or naturalized citizenship is not something that is easily or instantly attainable. There is a long and multi-step process of application review and assessment.  Moreover, for green cards, processing times also differ depending on your eligibility category and where in the country your case is being processed.  Processing times for naturalization also vary depending on what part of the country you live in. 

Furthermore, the immigration law and practices of foreign countries differ from United States immigration laws. Depending on where you come from, immigration may not be allowed, or the process can take much longer and cost more money relative to immigrating from another country.

Applying for a green card (also known as permanent residency) or naturalized citizenship is a legally daunting, time-consuming, expensive, and intimidating process. 

Not knowing American immigration law, which is expansive and constantly evolving, or having the assistance of a professional immigration attorney, only makes the process more challenging to navigate.

And if you are experiencing the United States as a new immigrant, you may not know how to apply for a green card or citizenship or appreciate the difference between both.

Green card vs. citizenship: what’s the difference? Which is better? Does one apply for one before the other?

Is one better than the other?

Here is everything you need to know about applying for a green card or naturalized citizenship.

Is a Green Card the Same as Citizenship?

woman holding the American flag

In a word, no. The two legal statuses could not be more different.

A green card holder is a permanent legal resident of the United States. As a permanent legal resident, you are still legally a citizen of your native country.

You are a non-citizen with the permanent right to legally live and work in the United States in the most basic terms.

You can travel with your native country’s legally issued passport and a green card as a permanent legal resident of the United States.  Your green card is a legal document that proves your legal status to reside in the United States as a non-citizen. Carry it with you at all times.

Green cards got their colloquial name because from 1946 to 1964, green cards were always green.

Since then, the color of a green card has changed from time to time. A green card can be green, yellow, blue, or pink as well. 

However, if you become a permanent resident and get a green card, it’s worth repeating that you are not an American citizen; you only gain the legal right to reside and work in the country. You must also pay taxes and meet continuous presence and residence requirements as a permanent resident in order to be eligible to naturalize later.

When you become a naturalized citizen, you become an American citizen and gain all of the accompanying rights of an American citizen as if you were born in the country. This includes the right to vote. 

American citizens automatically become citizens after being born on American territory or having one parent with American citizenship. 

Or one can become a naturalized citizen.

A naturalized citizen is a non-citizen permanent resident or a green card holder who undergoes the laborious legal and application process to gain citizenship.

Once you become a naturalized American citizen, you automatically gain the legal rights and privileges of a U. S. citizen as if you were born in the country. 

What Are the Benefits of U.S. Citizenship vs. Green Card?

The benefits of being a permanent resident with a green card are not the same as being a naturalized citizen. However, depending on your circumstances, obtaining either status has unique benefits.

Additionally, there are some common benefits to being either a permanent legal resident with a green card or a naturalized citizen, such as the right to live and work in the United States, receive a social security number, bank account, driver’s license, and own private property.

Green card holders and naturalized citizens must also file state and federal income tax returns. And if you are a man between the ages of 18 and 25, you must officially register with the United States Selective Service.

Green card holders and naturalized citizens also have the right to petition and sponsor the immigration of close relatives from their native country. However, naturalized citizens have more benefits and legal opportunities than green card holders in this regard. (More on that later).

And with either status, you have the right to apply for any social benefits program offered by the federal government.

Both green card holders and naturalized citizens can serve in the American military.

And as plentiful as these common benefits are, this is where they end for green card holders and naturalized citizens.

Can You Become a U.S. Citizen Without a Green Card?


The first level of becoming a legal immigrant in the United States is to become a permanent legal resident with a green card first.

There is no legal express lane to becoming a naturalized citizen.

You must get a green card and go through the time-consuming application process.

Can I Stay on a Green Card Forever?

a woman opening her luggage

Yes and no.

After becoming a permanent resident of the United States and getting a green card, your status to live in the United States is permanent.

However, you must renew your green card every ten years. And your green card is the Legal proof of your legal status in the country.

Something important to note is that even if your 10-year green card expires, you still remain a legal permanent resident, but you can encounter problems in certain areas. You can only lose your permanent resident status if an immigration judge takes it away in a deportation proceeding, or if you abandon your status by staying outside of the United States for too long.  

However, if your green card is expired, you cannot travel abroad with it and it could affect other aspects of your life, in a practical sense, as well. If your green card has expired, Abogada Ashley can help you with the renewal process. 

Is a U.S. Citizen a Permanent Resident?


Once you become a naturalized citizen, you are no longer a permanent resident. You enjoy all the legal rights granted to American citizens as if you were born in the country.

Permanent residents are non-citizens with the right to live and work in the United States. 

Permanent residents are citizens of their native country. And they must carry their native passport and green card to prove their permanent residency status.

What Are the Disadvantages of Having a Green Card?

As legally beneficial as it is to attain a green card and enjoy its status, being a permanent resident is socially and legally limiting in many ways.

Relative Petitioning Limits

You have the right to petition and sponsor the immigration of a close family member. However, you are only limited to petitioning and sponsoring a spouse and a child under 21, or an unmarried adult son or daughter (who is over the age of 21).

And your relatives are considered “preference relatives” under American immigration law. So what does that mean?  

Your petition and sponsor application are subject to visa limitations and different waiting periods depending on where your relative is immigrating from and when your petition was filed. Compare this to an “immediate relative” which is the spouse, unmarried child (under 21), or parent of a U.S. citizen. There are no limits on visa availability for these immigrant relatives and apart from waiting for normal government processing times for the petition, there is no additional waiting period.

In addition to sponsoring immediate relatives, naturalized citizens can apply to petition and sponsor their siblings and married children.  Siblings and married children of U.S. citizens are preference categories and as such, they are subject to extra waiting periods and visa limitations.

If you are a permanent resident filing a petition for your family member, it will be de-prioritized and typically take longer than if you are a U.S. citizen filing for an immediate relative and in some cases, a non-immediate relative. 

For context, look at this 2017 State Department list of immigrant visa issuances. 

Social Status

Green card holders cannot vote in American elections or run for public office.

And since you are still a citizen of your native country, you can never apply for or own an American passport.

Travel Status

As a green card holder, you own a passport issued by your native country. You can’t just travel to any country because a green card is not an American passport.

So, you can only travel to countries that have agreements with your native country when it comes to visa issuance and travel.

You need to apply for visas or get special travel permits or permissions whenever you leave the United States to visit another country.  Depending on where you are going, this may not be necessary as long as you have your native passport. You may have to apply for official permission or a re-entry permit, even with a green card, depending on the country you visit and how long you plan to be gone from the United States.

If you leave the United States for six months to a year, your permanent residency status could be revoked.


If you commit a crime or serious offense, you could be placed into removal (deportation) proceedings and potentially lose your permanent resident status.

It Could Take Years to Apply for Naturalized Citizenship

To become a naturalized citizen, you must first become a permanent resident.

However, it usually takes years before you can apply to become a naturalized citizen. 

You need to become proficient in English, learn American history and civics, stay out of legal trouble, and prove moral and civic character before applying and taking the official test to become a naturalized citizen. There are limited exceptions to the general English language and civics test requirements. 

The application process is long, arduous, and not easy, so it would be wise to get the help of a good immigration lawyer.

Children Status

As a green card holder, your child automatically becomes an American citizen if they are born in the United States or a territory.

If you visit your home country and have a child there, your child becomes a citizen of your native country. And you will be legally unable to bring them to the United States until you have petitioned them and their case is approved.

What Are the Disadvantages of Becoming a U.S. Citizen?

There are very few disadvantages to becoming a naturalized citizen compared to staying a permanent resident forever.

How Long Does It Take to Become a U.S. Citizen With a Green Card?

woman checking the time on her phone

There is no set standard length of time for finalizing the process, but it will take years.

It takes at least five years to get a green card, but it could take longer.

If you are a permanent resident who obtained your status through marriage to an American citizen, then you could be eligible to naturalize in as little as three years provided certain requirements are met. 

Green Card Rights and Duties

You will be able to live and work in the United States indefinitely.

However, you will enjoy more legal and civic rights as a naturalized citizen.

U.S. Citizenship Rights and Responsibilities

Naturalized citizens enjoy all of the rights of American citizens. Calling yourself a “naturalized” citizen is just a legal term. You are an American citizen!

Naturalized citizens can vote, serve on juries, get a driver’s license, own property, and apply for an American passport. 

Naturalized citizens can legally file a petition for any of their biological children who are born abroad. 

Steps to Citizenship in the United States

You must be at least 18 years old and have resided in the United States for five years as a permanent resident.  In some cases, it is three years. And you must have been physically present on American soil for 30 months continuously within that five-year time frame. If you have spent a lot of time outside the United States since you became a permanent resident, you need to make sure this won’t affect your eligibility to naturalize. 

You must have lived in your home state for at least three months before applying for citizenship at your local United States Citizenship and Immigration Service office.

You should have basic reading and writing fluency in English.

And you should be prepared to take and pass on tests based on American history, government, and civics.  Depending on how your age and how long you have been a permanent resident, you might not have to meet the English language requirement. If you have certain medical disabilities, you may also be exempt from the civics test as well.

You should not have a criminal record; certain acts or convictions can bar your application. If you have been convicted of serious criminal offenses, your chances of becoming naturalized become slimmer. If you have any criminal history, you should definitely talk to an immigration lawyer before filing for your citizenship.

To apply to become a naturalized citizen, you will need to fill out Form N-400 and pay the $725 fee.


I Have a Green Card, but I Want to Become a Citizen of the United States. How Can I Tell if I’m Eligible for Citizenship?

You must have been a permanent resident in the United States for at least five years before applying for citizenship. In some cases, it is three years.

You should not have a criminal record. 

Having a criminal record may not exempt you from naturalizing, but you would not look good next to applicants without one, from a discretionary standpoint.

You should read and speak basic English, but the more fluent you are, the better.

Have You Ever Needed to Apply for Citizenship or a Green Card?

No, because I am a U.S. citizen by birth. But I am an immigration law attorney and I have helped many people with their permanent residency and citizenship cases, and I understand the process.

Green Card vs. Citizenship: Which Do You Believe is Better?

I don’t believe one is better than the other. You must apply for a green card before you become a citizen.

And depending on your personal circumstances, having a green card may be good enough.

The choice is yours to make, but you should not decide alone. You should get the help of a good immigration attorney.

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