When Immigration Matters

Permanent Resident vs. U.S. Citizen: What's the Difference?

Posted by Karen-Lee Pollak on Jul 27, 2017 11:00:00 AM

American flag with a sky as a background-380698-edited.jpegPermanent Resident vs. U.S. CitizenOne of the most important questions that we receive here at Pollak PLLC is, “What is the difference between a permanent resident and a U.S. citizen?” First of all, while these terms are often used interchangeably on the web, and even by some people in the media, they are categorically different. Here is an overview of each designation.

Permanent Residents

A permanent resident is an individual who is lawfully permitted to live in the United States. Contrary to what many people believe, permanent resident status is indefinite — though it can be revoked if certain transgressions are committed, including but not limited to:

  • Leaving the U.S. at any time for more than a year. Note that technically, permanent residents may be deemed to have abandoned their status by leaving the U.S. for a single day. However, USCIS typically begins scrutinizing an individual’s intentions if they are out of the country for six months or longer.  
  • Committing certain serious crimes or security violations.
  • Failing to advise USCIS of a change of address. Historically, breaching this requirement has not typically resulted in deportation. However, it is not something that permanent residents should treat lightly (i.e. it is not on the same level as updating USPS or phone companies, etc.). And in today’s rather volatile and uncertain political climate, avoiding any and all transgressions — however seemingly minor — is certainly prudent.

Permanent residents may also legally work in the U.S. and petition USCIS to have their spouse and any unmarried children under age 21 join them in the U.S. However, be advised that there is a limited pool of immigration visas available to family members (referred to as “preference relatives”), and the waiting list is several years long.

In addition, permanent residents do not have to abandon their native citizenship, but if they leave the U.S., they must travel with their valid passport and permanent resident card (a.k.a. green card). Without these documents, they will not be allowed to re-enter the U.S.

Permanent residents cannot vote in U.S. elections at any level. After living in the U.S. for a few years — usually around five or six — they can apply for U.S. citizenship, provided that they demonstrate good conduct, can read, speak, and write English to an acceptable standard, and successfully pass a test on U.S. history and government.

U.S. Citizens

Naturalized U.S. citizens are eligible to receive a U.S. passport and can leave and re-enter the U.S. as often as they wish, for as long as they wish. While they are obviously subject to the same laws and rules as all travelers (e.g. no violating customs laws, etc.), U.S. citizens cannot be denied re-entry to the U.S. or deported to their native country for committing any crime or security violation — unless it is established that they committed fraud to obtain their citizenship status.

U.S. citizens can also vote in U.S. elections at all levels, obtain government jobs that are (legally) designated for U.S. citizens only, and they may also serve on juries. In addition, some government benefits, scholarships and grants are only offered to U.S. citizens. 

The category of “preference relatives” for U.S. citizens is larger than that for permanent residents. In addition to spouses and unmarried children under 21, it also includes married children, children over 21 years of age, and siblings. However, the immigration process for relatives is very time consuming and often takes several years (especially for siblings).

Learn More 

The process of applying for either permanent resident status (a.k.a. a green card) or naturalized U.S. citizenship is complex and detailed. Errors and omissions will cause petitions to be delayed or denied. To learn more and have your questions clearly and fully answered, contact the Pollak PLLC team today. We are here to help!  


Karen-Lee Pollak is the Managing Attorney at Pollak PLLC located in Dallas, Texas. She is a frequent speaker, author and blogger on immigration issues. She can be reached at karenlp@pollakimmigration or under her twitter handle law_immigration.

Tags: Permanent Residency, US Citizenship

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