Form I-551: The Guide to the Green Card

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • Form I-551, known as a Green Card, grants individuals permanent resident status in the U.S. for up to ten years.
  • The Green Card provides employment authorization, allowing individuals to work in the U.S.
  • Eligibility varies based on categories such as immediate relatives, refugees/asylum seekers, employment-based, and the Green Card lottery.
  • Required documents include a valid passport, birth/marriage certificates, financial documents, and more.

Do you want to immigrate to the U.S.? Or have you already started the process and are wondering what types of documents will grant you the permanent resident status you so desperately need? The good news is it’s much simpler than you think.

Form I-551 (or a Green Card as it was formerly known) is the document you need to get. This document will enable you to immigrate to the U.S. on permanent resident status. There are different ways you can get Form I-551. Let us show you how.

What is Form I-551?

Well, an I-551 Form is a Green Card. In the olden days, this document used to be green in color and was therefore called a “green card”. The basics of the document remains the same. It just got a new legal name – the I-551 Form.

The form grants you permanent resident status. This is permission to stay in the U.S. for longer periods of time. The document is valid for a maximum of ten years and needs to be renewed before it expires. People who received Form I-551 as a result of their marriage to a U.S. citizen first have a 2-year conditional period to complete after which they can renew their Green Card and receive one that is valid for 10 years.

In addition to permanent residency, a Green Card also grants you Employment Authorization. This is the right to work in the U.S. If you are in the process of applying for your I-551 Form, you can file for a Green Card EAD. This will grant you a temporary right to employment while you wait for your Green Card.

Take note a Green Card does not fulfill the role of a passport. You’ll need to carry both your Green Card and original passport (from your country of citizenship) whenever you want to cross the U.S. border. You will also need to replace a lost Green Card.

Who is Eligible for Form I-551?

There are different categories of eligibility for Form I-551. Your unique situation will determine the category of eligibility you need to pursue. Here are the four main categories.

1. Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens

There are a number of U.S. citizens who marry foreign nationals. These people are then an immediate relative of the U.S. citizen. Their U.S. spouse can then file a petition (an application) for an I-551 Form on their behalf.

Children can also be immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Only dependents under the age of 21 may be petitioned for in this category. Children over the age of 21 are no longer classified as dependent and are, therefore, not classified as immediate relatives.

Note, the parents of a U.S. citizen is not an immediate relative. Even if they are actually dependent on the U.S. citizen

2. Refugees and Asylum Seekers

People with extreme hardship in their home country may apply for asylum status (or also known as refugee status) within the U.S. They may then apply for a Form I-551 after that is fulfilled. There is no limit on the Green Cards issued to this category, but there is a limit on the number of people who may enter the U.S. on refugee status. Between 70,000 and 90,000 people are allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees every year.

3. Employment-Based Categories

These people are eligible for an I-551 Form for employment-related reasons. Their skills and knowledge make them valuable to the U.S. and they may apply for a Form I-551. Only 140,000 Green Cards may be issued to this category per year. There are also 480,000 Green Cards reserved and allowed for the immediate family members of the 140,000 professionals immigrating to the U.S. in this category.

4. Green Card Lottery

The Green Card lottery is open to specific countries and ethnic groups. The Green Card lottery strives to keep the U.S. diverse and therefore grants a yearly maximum of 50,000 people the right to move here.

Applying to the Green Card lottery is not a guarantee of success. You might have to apply for several years before you win one. You also may have won it, but you still need to comply with the ethnicity diversity criteria set out in the lottery regulations to actually be granted a Green Card.

Required Documents for the Form I-551

You’ll need to supply the person petitioning on your behalf with all the documents necessary for your application. The category under which you are filing for may require additional documents, but here is a short list of the basic documents you’ll need for a Form I-551 Form application.

  • Valid passport
  • Birth certificate
  • Marriage certificate
  • Financial documents (bank statements to confirm income and solvency)
  • Proof of the sponsor’s (your petitioner) U.S. citizenship or permanent residency
  • Proof of lawful entry to the U.S. (Form I-94)
  • Police clearance certificate (to establish the absence of a criminal record)
  • Prior-marriage termination papers (if you’ve been married before)
  • Immigration violation records (if you have a record)
  • Written employment confirmation from you U.S. employer (if applicable)

This list is the overall basic requirements. However, your specific situation may require more types of documentation. Consult an immigration attorney to get the best possible advice. You don’t want your application rejected because you didn’t include the necessary paperwork.

Form I-551 Application Process

For your convenience, we’ll go through a basic version of the Green Card application process. This is how it works.

1. Eligibility

You need to be eligible for an I-551 Form. You’ll need to go through the categories and find the correct one for your case. This step also demands that you find a petitioner. A petitioner is someone who is an American citizen who must file your application on your behalf. Most Green Card categories require you to have a petitioner (or sometimes also called a sponsor). Only refugees and asylum seekers don’t need a sponsor.

2. Form I-551 Approval and Petition

You might be eligible for a Green Card, but there may not be any more available in your category. Your application needs to go in when you are eligible and when there are Green Cards available. The USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) needs to approve your petition based on the specific criteria and availability of Green Card.

3. Additional Paperwork

You might have to file for the additional paperwork necessary to grant you the rights you need. Foreign nationals seeking an employment-based Green Card need to be cleared by the Department of Labor (DOL) through the filing of a labor certification request (or PERM certification), for example.

4. Immigrant Visa Number

Getting your immigrant visa number is a crucial step. This actually means that an immigrant visa has been assigned to you. The U.S. State Department’s National Visa Center issues these.

5. Adjustment of Status

People who are already in the U.S. and filing for a Form I-551 will seek an Adjustment of Status. People filing from abroad will follow the consular processing route.

How Much Does I-551 Form Cost?

The base fee for the filing of the I-551 Form is $985. You also need to go through a biometric screening appointment which costs $85 (if applicable).

Form I-551 Processing Time?

Every case is unique. Your situation differs from every other case. The general Form I-551l processing time is anything between 7 to 33 months. This depends on the different clearances, paperwork, or processes you need to complete to get your Green Card. You can always consider a Form I-551 stamp to grant you the right to re-enter the U.S. while you wait for the actual Green Card. You can also update your details with the USCIS and check your case status while you wait for your Green Card.

Read More


The Form I-551 is a sought after piece of paper. It grants you the right to live and work in the U.S. Find your category of eligibility and apply by following the guidelines provided above. The sooner you start, the better!

I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
Join over 100,000 visitors who are receiving our newsletter and learn more about finance, immigration, and more!
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

Get the Checklist