How to Get a Green Card While Studying for a PhD

Updated on April 8, 2024
At a Glance:
  • PhD students can apply for a green card by meeting certain requirements.
  • The EB-1 category is popular for PhD holders, with options like EB-1A for extraordinary talent and achievements, and EB-1B for professors and outstanding researchers.
  • Eligibility is based on proving significant contributions and useful work in the field.
  • Required documentation varies based on the specific green card category.
  • Applications can be submitted during studies or after receiving a PhD.
  • The process takes around 4-12 months, and fees include a $700 application fee and attorney fees.
  • Premium processing can expedite the I-140 petition.
  • A STEM degree is not mandatory, and if a petition is denied, legal assistance can be sought or additional documentation can be provided.

Obtaining a Green Card as a PhD student can be complex, involving extensive paperwork, adherence to numerous rules, and navigating various categories. This process may seem overwhelming, especially for international students unfamiliar with U.S. immigration procedures. This article aims to provide clarity and guidance on the steps required to legally secure a permanent stay in the U.S. through a PhD Green Card.

PhD Green Card Requirements

To qualify for a PhD Green Card, applicants must demonstrate substantial contributions and usefulness in their field, often through awards or significant achievements. While named a “PhD Green Card,” holding an actual PhD degree isn’t mandatory. It’s advisable to consult with an attorney to assess eligibility and ensure all necessary documentation is in place.

Green Card Options for PhD Students

PhD students can apply for a Green Card, but must demonstrate a valid reason for remaining in the U.S. The EB-1 Green Card is a common choice for PhD students and holders, offering several categories:

EB-1 Green Card Categories

  • EB-1A: For individuals with extraordinary abilities in areas like science, arts, business, and athletics. Requires proof of significant achievements, such as international awards.
  • EB-1B: Aimed at outstanding professors and researchers, this category has less stringent requirements than EB-1A but is more focused on academic and research accomplishments.
  • EB-1C: Suitable for executives and managers of multinational companies.

Note: EB-1A and EB-1B are popular among PhD students and holders, allowing for a streamlined application process without the need for employer sponsorship through the PERM process.

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How to Apply for a Green Card While Pursuing a PhD

Applying for a Green Card while studying in the United States on a student visa (typically an F-1 visa) for a PhD can be a multifaceted process. Here’s a general outline of the steps involved:

1. Understand Your Eligibility

Firstly, you need to identify under which category you can apply for a Green Card. Common categories for PhD students may include:

  • Employment-Based Green Cards (EB): These include EB-1 (for individuals with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors/researchers), EB-2 (for those with advanced degrees or exceptional ability), and EB-3 (skilled workers, professionals).
  • National Interest Waiver (NIW) under EB-2: If your work is in an area of substantial intrinsic merit and beneficial to the U.S., you might qualify for an NIW, which allows you to self-petition without a specific job offer.

2. Seek Employment or Decide to Self-Petition

  • Find a Job: If you go the employment route, you need a job offer from a U.S. employer willing to sponsor your Green Card application. For EB-2 and EB-3 categories, this usually involves the employer obtaining a labor certification.
  • Self-Petition: If you are eligible for EB-1 or a National Interest Waiver, you can file a petition yourself without an employer.

3. Adjustment of Status or Consular Processing

Once your I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker is approved, you have two paths:

  • Adjustment of Status (Form I-485): If you are in the U.S., you can file for an adjustment of status to change from F-1 to a permanent resident status. This process can be lengthy and involves background checks, a medical examination, and possibly an interview.
  • Consular Processing: If you are outside the U.S. or prefer this route, you go through the U.S. consulate in your home country. This also involves an interview and various documentation.

While your Green Card application is pending, it’s crucial to maintain your legal F-1 status. This means adhering to all the requirements of your student visa, including full-time enrollment and not engaging in unauthorized employment.

5. Gather Required Documentation

This typically includes:

  • Academic records proving your PhD status.
  • Documentation of your qualifications (publications, awards, etc.) for EB-1 or NIW.
  • Job offer and labor certification (for EB-2 and EB-3 through employer sponsorship).
  • Forms like I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker) and I-485 (Adjustment of Status application).
  • Biographical documents (passport, birth certificate, etc.).
  • Medical examination results.

6. Application Review and Interview

After submitting your application, USCIS will review it, and you might be called for an interview. Be prepared to discuss your application and your future plans in the U.S.

7. Wait for a Decision

The processing time can vary significantly depending on the category, your country of origin, and current USCIS workloads.

Important Considerations

  • Legal and Immigration Advice: Consider consulting an immigration attorney for personalized advice, especially for complex situations.
  • Changing Visa Status: If your F-1 visa expires before your Green Card is processed, consult an attorney to avoid unlawful presence.
  • Dual Intent Visas: F-1 visas are not dual intent, meaning they don’t inherently allow for immigrant intent. However, applying for a Green Card in itself doesn’t automatically invalidate your F-1 status.

This process requires careful planning and adherence to legal and procedural requirements. It’s important to stay informed and, if possible, seek professional guidance.

Documentation for PhD Green Card Application

EB-1A Green Card Documents

  • Award: A nationally or internationally recognized small award.
  • Scholarly Articles: Published works in trade or professional journals.
  • Significant Contributions: Evidence of significant contributions to your field.
  • Written Material: Articles by others detailing your abilities.
  • Membership: Proof of membership in associations requiring extraordinary abilities.
  • Leadership Role: Evidence of a crucial role in a recognized organization.
  • Judging Peers: Experience as a judge of others’ work in your field.
  • High Salary: Evidence of a substantial salary indicative of your field competence.

Note: USCIS allows for other comparable evidence if these categories don’t apply. Consultation with an attorney is advisable for proper qualification assessment.

EB-1B Green Card Documents

  • Distinguished Awards: Proof of receiving a renowned award in your field.
  • Research Contributions: Evidence of significant scientific or scholarly research contributions.
  • Judging Work: Participation as a judge of peer work.
  • Publications: Authored books or articles in recognized publications in your domain.
  • Professional Membership: Evidence of membership in organizations requiring outstanding achievements.
  • Scholarly Recognition: Publications by others about your work in the field.

Note: Like EB-1A, EB-1B may also accept comparable evidence. Working with an attorney is recommended to identify any additional qualifying evidence.

How Much Does PhD Green Card Cost?

The typical cost of obtaining a Green Card for a PhD holder in the United States, particularly through the employment-based (EB) pathway, can vary based on the specific circumstances and choices made during the application process. However, a general estimate of the typical costs can be outlined as follows:

Basic Application Fees

  1. I-140 (Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker): $700
  2. I-485 (Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status): $1,225 (including biometrics)

Optional Fees

  1. Premium Processing (I-907): $2,500
    • This is optional and is used to expedite the processing of the I-140.

Attorney Fees

Legal representation varies widely, but typically ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the complexity of the case and the attorney’s rates.

Additional Costs

  1. Medical Examination: Varies, but generally around $200 to $500
  2. Miscellaneous (e.g., document translation, travel for interviews): Varies
  • For an individual applicant: $700 (I-140) + $1,225 (I-485) = $1,925
  • For a family application (e.g., applicant plus spouse and one child under 14): $700 (I-140) + $1,225 (applicant I-485) + $1,225 (spouse I-485) + $750 (child I-485) = $3,900
  • For an individual applicant: $1,925 (basic fees) + $2,500 (premium processing) + Approx. $5,000 (average legal fees) = Around $9,425

Important Considerations

These are general estimates and actual costs may vary. Some applicants may choose not to use premium processing or may have higher or lower legal fees. It’s advisable to check the latest fees on the USCIS website and consult with an immigration attorney for accurate and personalized cost estimates. Costs can vary based on the specific Green Card category (e.g., EB-1, EB-2, EB-3) and any additional complexities in the case.

Pathways for STEM Employment in the US

The United States offers several immigrant pathways for STEM professionals seeking permanent employment. These pathways lead to lawful permanent residence, commonly known as a Green Card, and potentially U.S. citizenship.

Primary Steps in the Immigration Process

There are two primary pathways to Green Cards for STEM PhD students:

  1. Labor Certification: Most EB-2 and EB-3 visa petitions begin with the employer filing a labor certification with the Department of Labor (DOL). This step ensures no qualified U.S. workers are available for the job, and that hiring a foreign worker won’t negatively affect U.S. workers’ wages and conditions.
  2. Visa Petition and Adjustment Application: Following DOL certification, the employer files an immigrant visa petition with USCIS. The applicant then submits either an adjustment application (if already in the U.S.) or a visa application (if outside the U.S.).

Key Visa Categories for STEM Professionals

Within those pathways, there are several green card categories that STEM students can qualify for:

  • EB-1A (Extraordinary Ability): Individuals with exceptional abilities in sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics can self-petition for this visa. They must demonstrate sustained national or international acclaim and continue working in their field.
  • EB-1B (Outstanding Professors and Researchers): Internationally recognized professors and researchers can apply, provided they have 3 years of experience and a job offer from a U.S. institution.
  • EB-1C (Multinational Managers and Executives): This category is for managers and executives of multinational companies transferring to the U.S.
  • EB-2 (Advanced Degree Professionals): Professionals with advanced degrees or exceptional ability in sciences, arts, or business may apply, often requiring a labor certification waiver in the national interest.
  • EB-3 (Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Other Workers): This category includes skilled workers with at least 2 years of experience or training and professionals with a U.S. bachelor’s degree or equivalent.

Considerations for STEM Students Seeking Green Cards

The availability of immigrant visas depends on the employment category and the applicant’s country of chargeability. For certain categories like EB-2, applicants can seek a national interest waiver, bypassing the labor certification. While most categories require a job offer and employer petition, some, like EB-1A, allow for self-petitioning.

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Final Thoughts

Getting a PhD green card is certainly not going to be easy – and in most cases, it can be a time-consuming process. Still, with the help of a lawyer and by gathering the right documentation, you should be able to legalize your stay in the US by making use of your PhD or research.

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Green Cards for PhD Students FAQ

1. Can I Apply for a Green Card While on a Student Visa?

Yes, PhD students on a student visa can apply for a Green Card. However, the process involves satisfying specific eligibility criteria and navigating complex immigration procedures.

2. What Green Card Categories Are Available for PhD Students?

Common categories include EB-1 (Extraordinary Ability, Outstanding Professors and Researchers), EB-2 (Advanced Degree or Exceptional Ability), and sometimes EB-3 (Skilled Workers, Professionals).

3. Do I Need to Finish My PhD Before Applying?

Not necessarily. You can apply if you can demonstrate extraordinary ability or significant contributions to your field, even if your PhD is not yet complete.

4. Is a Job Offer Required for a Green Card Application?

It depends on the category. For EB-1A (Extraordinary Ability) and certain EB-2 cases (National Interest Waiver), no job offer is required. For EB-1B, EB-2 (with labor certification), and EB-3, a job offer is typically necessary.

5. How Long Does the Green Card Process Take?

Processing times vary depending on the category and current USCIS backlogs. EB-1 applications generally process faster than EB-2 and EB-3.

6. Can I Stay in the U.S. While My Green Card Application is Pending?

Yes, you can remain in the U.S. on your student visa while your Green Card application is processed, as long as you maintain your student status.

7. What Documents Will I Need for My Application?

Key documents include your academic records, evidence of achievements or awards, job offer letters (if applicable), and forms related to the specific Green Card category.

8. Can I Work While My Green Card Application is Pending?

You may be eligible to apply for work authorization while your application is pending. This process involves filing Form I-765 for an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

9. What Happens If My Student Visa Expires Before I Get My Green Card

You should plan to maintain legal status while your Green Card application is pending. If your student visa is about to expire, consult an immigration attorney to explore options like visa extensions or adjustments.

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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.

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