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What is the Difference Between U.S. Permanent Resident Status and U.S. Citizenship?

This information is provided solely for informational purposes and is not legal advice. Transmission of these materials is not intended to create, and receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not act upon the information contained in these FAQs without first seeking advice from a qualified attorney.

What is a lawful permanent resident?

A lawful permanent resident is someone who has been granted the right to live in the United States indefinitely. Permanent residence includes the right to work in the U.S. for most employers or for yourself. Permanent residents continue to hold citizenship of another country. 

Permanent residents are issued an “alien registration card,” known informally as a green card (because at one time the card was green in color).  You may use your green card to prove employment eligibility and apply for a social security card.

Can I travel outside the U.S. as a permanent resident? 

A permanent resident may travel outside the U.S. and must present the valid alien registration card when re-entering the U.S.  In addition, a permanent resident should travel with an unexpired passport of another country.

Each time you return to the U.S., you are subject to the same grounds of inadmissibility as when you were approved for permanent resident status (e.g., health-related concerns, certain criminal activity, terrorism, national security, public charge, willful misrepresentation and false claims to U.S. citizenship). 

Am I allowed to vote in U.S. elections?

No.  Only citizens of the United States are permitted to vote in elections.

Can I lose my permanent residence?

Yes. If you commit certain crimes or other violations, you may be placed in removal proceedings and become subject to deportation. 

Also, if you remain outside the U.S. for extended periods of time (typically more than 6 months at a time), the immigration authorities may scrutinize your situation to determine if you have abandoned your intention to make the U.S. your permanent home.  Any absences of one year leads to the presumption that you have abandoned your permanent residence.  It is extremely difficult to overcome that presumption.

If you know you will be outside the U.S. for an extended period of time, you may wish to apply for a reentry permit prior to your departure.  A reentry permit is typically issued with a 2 year validity, and does not guarantee that you will be granted entry to the U.S., but it can assist in establishing your intention to reside permanently in the U.S.

What are my responsibilities as a permanent resident?

Permanent residents are required to:

  • File U.S. income tax returns as a resident
  • Obey all laws of the U.S., states and localities
  • Register for the Selective Service (if you are male and between age 18 through 25)
  • Support the democratic form of government
  • Notify the USCIS of any changes of address using Form AR-11

Please visit the USCIS website for more information.

What happens if my green card expires?

Up to 6 months prior to the expiration date of your alien registration card, you may apply for a renewal of the card by filing Form I-90 (application to replace permanent resident card).  Visit the USCIS website for more information.

If you are a conditional permanent resident, you must use Form I-751 (petition to remove the conditions on residence). 

Can permanent residents sponsor family members to come to the U.S.?

Yes.  Permanent residents are eligible to petition for close family members (spouse and unmarried children) to receive permanent residence and join you. However, your family members will be considered “preference relatives,” meaning that only a limited number of immigrant visas are available to people in this category per year, and so they are likely to spend many years on a waiting list before being allowed to enter the United States or get a green card.  More information is found on the USCIS website.

When do permanent residents become eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship?

After a certain length of time – five years in most cases, three years for spouses of U.S. citizens  –  permanent residents may apply to become a U.S. citizen through a process called naturalization. 

Additional requirements for naturalization include:

  • Good moral character
  • Ability to read, write and speak English
  • Understanding of U.S. history and government
  • Continuous residence in the U.S. as a permanent resident for at least 5 years preceding the application for naturalization and physical presence in the U.S. for at least half that time
  • Residence in the state or USCIS district where the application is made for at least 3 months prior to the application


The application is filed using Form N-400 (application for naturalization).  For detailed information and guides, please review the USCIS website.

What are some of the benefits of U.S. citizenship?

A U.S. citizen may apply for a U.S. passport, issued by the U.S. State department. Many countries allow visa-free travel for U.S. citizens.

A U.S. citizen can leave and reenter the U.S. at any time without being subject to the grounds of inadmissibility. There are no restrictions on the amount of time you can remain outside the United States.

U.S. citizens can vote in U.S. federal and local elections, hold certain government jobs, and serve on juries. Many federal and state government grants, scholarships and benefits are available only to U.S. citizens.

U.S. citizens are eligible for special security clearance required for some jobs, both with the U.S. government and other employers.

As a U.S. citizen, you can petition for certain relatives to immigrate to the U.S. Your spouse, unmarried children under age 21, and parents will be considered immediate relatives, and will not have to wait to receive permanent resident status (beyond the processing time of the petition and interview process). Your married children and children over age 21, as well as your brothers and sisters, are considered preference relatives, and can be put on a waiting list to immigrate. The waiting period for siblings can be several years.

U.S. citizens cannot be deported from the United States, unless they committed fraud or made a misrepresentation to obtain their green card or citizenship.

Is there any way to expedite processing of my application for naturalization?

Applications for naturalization generally cannot be expedited. There is an application for expedited naturalization specifically for permanent resident spouses of a U.S. citizen when that U.S. citizen spouse will be taking an overseas assignment on behalf of a U.S. employer.  Processing times of the N-400 at various USCIS offices can be found here.

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