There are two main statuses held by lawful residents of the United States: Permanent Resident and US Citizen. While both of these statuses grant certain rights to the individuals who hold them, there are some fundamental distinctions that are important to understand if you, or someone you know, is seeking one of these two statuses.
Lawful Permanent Residence
Once an individual has obtained a United States lawful permanent residency card (also known as a green card), they are considered to be a permanent resident of the United States. This status allows the individual to live and work within the United States on a permanent basis and, with some exceptions discussed below, travel outside the US. Additionally, a green card holder can petition for certain family members (e.g., spouse green card application, Petition for an Alien Relative for unmarried children) to join them in the US as permanent residents.
There are, however, some limitations of rights associated with this status that differentiate it from citizenship. Because permanent residents are considered aliens or citizens of another country, they are not permitted to vote in US elections and are barred from seeking some government jobs. When they travel, they are required to carry both the passport of their native country and their US Permanent Resident Card to be allowed reentry back into the United States. If they plan to travel outside the US for a period exceeding 12 months, they should first contact the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for a reentry permit.
US permanent residents can lose their status under certain circumstances. If a permanent resident leaves the US to pursue residency in another country, or if they spend 12 months living outside the US without requesting a reentry first, they are considered to have abandoned their residence in the US. This will subject them to inadmissibility if they attempt to reenter the United States. Permanent residents are also subject to deportation to their native country if they commit certain offenses or fail to comply with USCIS green card requirements.
If you were born in the US or born to US citizen parents living abroad, you are automatically a US citizen. A US citizen cannot be deported, they are not subject to restrictions on travel, and they have the right to live outside the US indefinitely. US citizens have the right to vote in federal, state, and local elections, to hold certain government jobs and offices, and to seek certain benefits and scholarships reserved for citizens only. When a US citizen petitions for others to receive permanent residence, they can do so for a longer a list of family members (including parents and siblings) and, depending on whom they petition, in a more expedited manner.
Acquiring US Citizenship
In an overwhelming majority of cases, the first step to acquiring US citizenship is to become a US Permanent Resident. Permanent residents can apply for US citizenship after a minimum required waiting period and become citizens through naturalization. The application process can account for many factors including age, behavior while a permanent resident, continuity of physical presence in the US, and ability to read, write and speak English. If you have questions regarding your eligibility or the general process of naturalization, you should seek assistance from an experienced US immigration attorney.