If you are about to finish your studies in the United States, you may be wondering what happens next. Many international students come here hoping to extend their American dream beyond college, but can be stymied by the complicated procedures involved in immigrating to the United States for a work visa or a green card.

While it takes a lot of time and effort to obtain legal permanent resident status in the United States, the rewards of successful application are worth it. As a U.S. Green card holder, you have the right to legally live, work, and travel in the country without worrying about your visa status. You may also enjoy other privileges, such as Social Security benefits and legal protections under U.S. law.

So how does someone actually transition from an F-1 student visa holder to a permanent U.S. resident? Here’s one way:

A step-by-step guide to getting a Green card
Step 1: Complete your degree
This may seem obvious, but as an international student, your chances of immigrating to the United States and getting a green card depend on you graduating and earning your degree. This is the first critical step needed to find a job after graduation, especially in a field related to your study plan.

It is important to maintain your student status as an F-1 visa holder to preserve your future prospects. As an international student, you may not leave the United States for more than five months at a time.

If you are away longer than this, you will need to obtain a new I-20, student visa and a new SEVIS record, which makes you ineligible for optional Practical Training (OPT) or Curricular Practical Training (CPT) for another year.

Step 2: Work under the OPT plan
How to obtain a GREEN Card
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates at US universities can extend their optional internship (OPT) for up to 24 months after completing their studies. Credit: Loic Venance/ AFP

Under the F-1 visa, you are eligible to apply for OPT, a temporary work program that authorizes you to work in a field related to your degree study for up to 12 months before and after graduation. To qualify for OPT, you must complete a full year of academic study in the United States.

If you are a science, technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduate, you can apply for an extension of up to 24 months in order to continue your post-graduate OPT employment under certain conditions. If you fall into this category, there’s more good news: In January 2022, the Biden administration included 22 new hot STEM research fields in OPT in an effort to attract more international talent to the United States.

Step 3: Change the visa type
The F-1 visa may allow you to work under the OPT terms, but it is still non-renewable once it ends. You must obtain another visa to retain your right to work and live in the United States.

For this, you’ll need an H-1B visa, which is a work visa for specialized occupations that require highly specialized knowledge learned through a bachelor’s degree or higher. The only problem? The application must be submitted by your employer from a U.S. company willing to sponsor your visa.

Your visa is attached to the company, and once you get an H-1B, you can’t work elsewhere or start your own business. The visa is valid for three years, after which it can be extended for another three years.

How to obtain a GREEN Card
If you hold an H-1B visa and wish to obtain a green card, your employer must submit an application on your behalf and begin the application by filing documents with the Department of Labor (DOL). Credit: Brian Smith/AFP

For many would-be immigrants who graduate from American universities, this step is often make-or-break. You need to rely on strong professional contacts and must prove yourself indispensable to your industry, as there is a strict quota for H-1B visas among a pool of talented applicants and when do kids start writing.

Step 4: Start your GREEN card application
Once the maximum h-1B period of six years expires, your employer will need to apply for a green card on your behalf through an H-1B visa application. You can also find new employers who are willing to apply for a green card for you.

The jump from H-1B to green card status is not easy. The process involved in obtaining permanent residency in the United States can take months and involve multiple phases with no guarantee of a successful outcome, so you need to plan carefully and begin the process while your H-1B visa is still valid.

At this stage, the application is out of your control. Your employer will need to submit program Electronic Review Management (PERM) certification to the Department of Labor (DOL), which will require a number of reviews and processes, including proving that no LOCAL U.S. workers are available to fill your position. Only if your employer certifies that the job has no local employees can they continue to use the I-140 form to prove that you are eligible for a U.S. green card.

Is there any other way to get a GREEN card?
Unfortunately, there are extremely limited ways for foreigners with no business or family ties to immigrate to the United States. In addition to the H-1B, those who intend to work and stay in the U.S. can apply for an L-1 visa, or the extremely niche EB-1 visa that grants green cards to people of extraordinary ability, usually reserved for famous entertainers or award-winning researchers.

If you want to live and work in the US after graduation, it’s best to choose your degree programs wisely to cater to the US job market. Otherwise, you face years of bureaucratic frustration and premature strangulation of your American dream.

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