Employment-Based Green Cards: The Complete Guide

About 140,000 Green Cards are up for grabs yearly for foreign nationals who wish to immigrate permanently to the US based on their skills, education, and work experience. 

To be eligible for one of these Green Cards, you must fall under one of the four prescribed categories, namely EB1, EB2, EB3, EB4, and EB5.

The letters E and B stand for Employment Based, and the numbers (1 – 5) indicate the preference (first to fifth).

The EB4 and EB5 are for special immigrants and business investors, respectively, and won’t be discussed at length in this article.

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EB1 – First Preference Employment Green Card

This is for foreign nationals with extraordinary ability, outstanding professors or researchers, or certain multinational executives or managers. 

Put simply, extraordinary ability in one’s field means that you MUST have attained a level of expertise that puts you at the very top of your field. This is usually shown by receiving national or international awards in one’s field.

Outstanding professors and researchers can demonstrate their exceptional achievements through international recognition. They must pursue a tenure-track teaching or research position at a university or private employer.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to be a Nobel prize winner or an Olympic medalist to be eligible for the EB1 – first preference green card as there are several other ways of demonstrating your eligibility for the EB1.

EB2- Second Preference Employment Green Card

This is for foreign nationals who are members of professions with an advanced degree (Masters, Ph.D.) or at least five years of progressive work experience post-baccalaureate and foreign nationals with exceptional ability. 

Under the EB2, the second preference is a special category called the EB2-National Interest Waiver EB2-NIW. This subcategory is for foreign nationals who do not want to undergo a Labor Certification process required by the regular EB2 Green Card category.

As expected, you must meet specific criteria to apply for your Green Card under the EB2-NIW category. 

EB3 – Third Preference Employment Green Card

The EB3 green card category is divided into three sub-categories according to the training or education required to perform their jobs. These are Unskilled Workers, Skilled workers, and Professionals. 

The Unskilled Workers category is for people who perform jobs that require less than two years of training or experience, while the Skilled Workers category is for persons whose jobs require at least two years of training or experience.

The Professionals EB3 Green Card category is for persons whose jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree to perform. 

Who Can File A US Employment-Based Green Card?

Except for the EB1 through extraordinary ability and EB2-NIW paths that allow you to self-petition, all other employment-based Green Card categories require a US employer to file a petition with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

Furthermore, except the EB1 category and the EB2-NIW subcategory, all other employment-based categories require an employer to file a Labor Certification with the United States Department of Labor before the Petition for an Alien Worker (called the Form I-140) can be filed with USCIS. 

Steps to Applying for an Employment-Based Green Card

Generally, three steps are required to get an employment-based green card status.

The first step is to obtain an approved labor certification from the US Department of Labor.

The second step is to file a Form I-140 petition with USCIS, and the third is to file a Form I-485 petition with USCIS.

Except for the EB1 and the EB2 National Interest Waiver categories, all other employment-based categories have to go through step 1 – the Labor Certification step.

Also, as discussed earlier, all other employment-based categories require a US employer to file a petition on behalf of the foreign national. The only exceptions are the EB1 through extraordinary ability and the EB2 National Interest Waiver.

What Is the Labor Certification?

Obtaining an approved labor certification is a step that a US employer must undertake. An approved labor certification provided by the US Department of labor certifiers to USCIS that:

  1. There are no sufficient US workers able, willing, qualified, and available to take up the job opportunity at the intended area of employment and
  2. The employment of the foreign national would NOT adversely affect the wages and the working conditions of other similar US workers for employment-based categories

The Labor Certification must be approved before moving on to the next step, which is filing an I-140 petition with USCIS.

An approved Labor Certification from the US Department of Labor comes with a valid period of six months, which means that an employer must follow your I-140 petition within six months of receiving approval of the Labor Certification.

What Is the Form I-140?

The I-140, also known as an Immigrant Petition for an Alien Worker, is typically filed by a US employer on behalf of a foreign national.

Whoever files this petition with USCIS is called the petitioner, and whoever benefits from this petition is called the beneficiary.

Except for the EB2NIW and the EB1, through extraordinary ability, a foreign national cannot be both the petitioner and the beneficiary of an I-140 petition filed to USCIS.

What Is the Form I-485? 

The Form I-485, also called the Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, is adjudicated by USCIS only after the approval of the I-140.

In other words, if the Form I-140 is not approved, the Form I-485 can’t be processed entirely by USCIS.

What is a Priority Date for Employment-Based Green Cards?

The Priority Date is the day US government agencies – such as the Department of Labor or the Department of Homeland Security – record a date a foreign national expresses an interest in becoming a US Permanent Resident through an appropriate immigration petition.

For foreign nationals in some EB2 categories and all EB3 categories that have to go through the labor certification process, your priority date will be when the US Department of Labor receives an application for a Labor Certification from your employee.

For the other employment-based categories – all EB1 categories and the EB2-NIW category that don’t have to go through labor certification – the Priority Date will be the date USCIS receives your I-140 petition.

What is Concurrent Filing for Employment-Based Green Cards?

Now, there’s also a possibility of filing both an I-140 petition and an I-485 petition to USCIS simultaneously. This is known as concurrent filing.

To determine if you are eligible for a concurrent filing, you must check out the current US Visa Bulletin.

What is the timeline for a US Employment-Based Green Card?

Timeline for the Labor Certification Process

Now, let’s talk about the general timelines for each step.

Starting with the labor certification step, the US Department of Labor requires a US employer to test the labor market before applying for the Labor Certification.

During this “test of the labor market“, the US employer must demonstrate to the US Department of Labor that they were not able to find any US worker who is able, willing, qualified, and available to take up the job in question under the prevailing wage set by the US Department of Labor. 

The processing time for a labor certification could take as long as three months and the time required of a US employer to test the labor market could take as long as six months.

So, when combined, the timeline to obtain and approve the Labor Certification from the US Department of Labor could take as long as 12 months.

Timeline for the Form I-140 Step 

As for the Form I-140 USCIS has an option of expediting the processing time down to 15 calendar days for certain categories, without the expedited processing, the timeline for USCIS to adjudicate an I-140 petition could take as long as 24 months.

Timeline for the Form I-485 Step 

And finally, we have the I-485 petition. Now, in the case of the I-485 petition, USCIS does not provide any expedited processing.

In some cases, USCIS could take 36 months to adjudicate your I-485 petition, depending on how backlogged the USCIS service centers are.

Also, remember that foreign nationals whose Priority Dates are not current in the US visa bulletin charts would have to wait until their dates occur to file the I-485 petition.

For certain foreign nationals, waiting for priority dates to be current in the visibility in charts could take upwards of 10 years.

Foreign nationals with an approved Form I-485 petition who reside outside of the US would go to a US consulate or embassy to apply for an immigrant visa to the US.

Foreign nationals currently residing in the US can change their status from non-immigrant to green card status without leaving the United States. 

So, as you can see, depending on your country of birth and your employment base category, the timeline to get a green card could take upwards of three years.

Foreign nationals with a pending I-485 petition with USCIS may apply for a temporary work authorization, also called an Employment Authorization Document (EAD).

They may also apply for an Advanced Parole document that allows them to leave and enter the US while an I-485 petition is pending.

Disclaimer: The content in this blog post should not be considered as legal advice, given the complexities of the US immigration system, we highly recommend you seek a licensed attorney for personalized immigration advice.