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Citizen vs Permanent Resident: What’s the Difference? Thumbnail

Citizen vs Permanent Resident: What’s the Difference?

8 MIN READ

Becoming an American citizen can be a unique and exciting opportunity. If you want to identify as an American, be prepared that sometimes it's not a simple process.

Even coming to the United States to, at the very least, work for an employer will require identification to show you reside in the United States. You won’t have to go through all of the loops that a person seeking citizenship would have to go through, but you’ll get fewer benefits than citizens.

Both options have their uses. Below, we’ll go over the differences between becoming an American citizen vs a lawful permanent resident.

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What is a Permanent Resident?

A lawful Permanent resident is a foreign national who has the correct legal identification allowing them to reside in the U.S. These residents legally can work in the country and retain their citizenship status from their homeland. For people who want to still identify as a citizen of their own country, this is an important distinction that may matter.

The legal document that these foreigners obtain is called a Green Card. In addition to doubling as a social security card and employment eligibility document, it’s the alien’s lifeline to proving their status as a permanent resident of the United States.

Related Article | An Immigrant's Guide To Building A US Credit Score

Rights and Benefits of Lawful Residents

While lawful permanent residence will not have as many benefits and rights as citizens of the country, there are many benefits nonetheless to obtaining a Green Card. 

The federal government will include these residents in federal assistance programs as well as social security benefits. Some that they can be eligible for are the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) programs. They are also eligible for Medicare benefits as well as numerous other allowances.

They can be the sponsors for family members to reside in the United States. Typically anyone wanting to come into the country will need either a personal or professional sponsor. Thankfully, they can be the sponsor for their spouse and unmarried children.

There are many more rights such as being able to serve in specific military branches or travel outside the country.

4 Ways to Become a Permanent Resident

As briefly mentioned, becoming a resident of the USA requires sponsorship of some type. Here are a few ways to obtain a Green Card.

  1. Family Sponsorship - If the foreign national has a relative that is a citizen or Green Card holder in the United States, they may be able to provide you sponsorship representation and become your bridge to the country. This is extremely common. A guideline of becoming a sponsor is to have your family member prove your relation as well as earn an income of 125% at minimum above the federal poverty level. For the relative sponsor, they must fill out the Petition for Alien Relative Form I-130 and an Affidavit of Support. If this is all approved, the alien may apply to be a lawful permanent resident.

  1. Employer Sponsorship - If you have no relatives in the United States, then perhaps you are a skilled professional seeking employment there. If an employer believes you to be someone with abilities that can benefit the U.S., then he can apply with Form I-140, the Immigrant Petition form, to plead his case to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). While this category typically is for exceptional talents, jobs with a lack of American applicants and other positions can be filled via this method.

  1. U.S. Green Card Lottery - The world is full of lotteries to make money, and the U.S. Green Card Lottery is similar in its randomness. Fifty-thousand people are selected randomly to receive Green Cards in more underrepresented countries. It’s not nearly as common as the aforementioned methods to obtaining Green Cards, but it’s an option for people looking to move to the United States and work.

  1. Asylum - In rare circumstances, you can apply for a Green Card if you feel like your life is threatened by war, persecution, or other reasons by remaining in your home country. If accepted via asylum, those aliens can apply for a Green Card after residing in the U.S. for one year.

Related Article | Green Card vs. Visa: What's the Difference?

Does Permanent Resident Status Expire?

Most Green Cards are valid for a period of 10 years. If your card is only conditionally permanent, it’s valid for two years. Some don’t even have an expiration date.

No matter what, it’s important to know when yours is invalid so you can guarantee no issues upon reapplying.

Who is Considered a U.S. Citizen?

There is no higher status of permanent residency in the United States than becoming a citizen. Citizens of the United States are mostly natural-born citizens, meaning they were born in the country. Those people automatically get the status applied. However, you can get citizenship even if you weren’t born in the country through parents or naturalization, both of which we will get to.

Rights and Benefits of U.S. Citizens

The federal government provides citizens with many rights, all of which are the top of the line is permanent residency. They can vote in U.S. elections, apply for driver’s licenses, attend public schools and universities as a citizen, open bank accounts, get true social security cards, potential approval for all federal programs, work with U.S. employers, run for office, and obtain a passport.

Another unique aspect of becoming a citizen is the ability to petition for family members to live in the U.S. and get citizenship for children born outside of the United States.

3 Ways to Become a U.S. Citizen

Becoming a citizen can be a more difficult undertaking than just getting permanent residency. Here’s how to get citizenship.

1. Naturalization - Naturalization is the second part to a two-part solution. After obtaining a Green Card, you can become a naturalized citizen with the following requirements met.

  • Be at least 18 years old at the filing of Form N-400, which is the Application for Naturalization

  • Was Green Card holder for five years

  • Lived in the state or district you where filed Form N-400 for at least three months

  • Show continuous, uninterrupted permanent residence in the United States for at least five years before filing Form N-400

  • Show your physical presence in the United States for at least 30 months out of the five years (60 months) before filing Form N-400

  • Read, write and speak basic English

  • Have a good understanding of United States history of governmental politics

  • Show good moral character

  • Demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution 


2. Marriage - This is a noticeably famous method to obtain citizenship due to mass media creating shows and more about marrying someone to provide them with citizenship. The alien’s spouse must file Form I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative and show marriage documentation. You must prove to the government that you have legitimately fallen in love and are not marrying just to obtain citizenship, too. 

3. Military Service - If you are a Green Card holder and serve in the military, you can apply for citizenship. After filing Form N-400 or N-426, you can apply to become a citizen of the United States.

Related Article | 5 Essential Things Non-Citizens Need To Know About Social Security

Does Resident Mean Citizen?

Not exactly. Citizens are people who legally belong to the country and truly are people who live in and identify as Americans. Residents are people who legally live and work in the country but do not have the same rights as citizens.

Citizen vs Lawful Permanent Resident: What’s the Difference?

People who hold Green Cards or are U.S. citizens own many freedoms and rights. It means a great deal of fortune to hold these titles if you were born outside of the country, and the differences between both mainly boil down to expanded rights that citizens hold over Green Card holders.

For example, citizens of the United States can vote, whereas ones with permanent residence cannot. Citizens cannot be deported, but a lawful permanent resident can for certain reasons. Citizens are not bound to visa quotas to bring in their family members, but permanent residents are. 

As you can tell, becoming a permanent resident is not as illustrious to being a citizen, but they’ll typically need to become a Green Card holder to become a citizen, so it’s good to know what they stand to gain!

Related Article | Top 10 Tax Mistakes Immigrants Make

Permanent Resident vs Citizen: Which Is Right For You?

Both options are intriguing to foreign nationals. While becoming a citizen usually succeeds in becoming a permanent resident, deciding to stay as a holder of a Green Card visa is a choice that they might feel like is the best option. 

Both processes are lengthy, but both will provide access to the largest economy in the world. There’s no bad choice!

Have you ever sponsored anyone for a Green Card? What was your experience like?


MYRA provides personal finances for international and multicultural families in the United States. Our services include financial planning, investment management, and tax preparation. 

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