The Difference Between a US Citizen and a Lawful Permanent Resident

The terms US citizen and lawful permanent resident may be confused with one another because they both confer the right to live legally in the United States, but they are two very different concepts and statuses.


We’ll discuss the differences between being a US citizen and a lawful permanent resident and answer your questions throughout this guide.


Related: Citizenship & Naturalization

What Does It Mean to Be a US Citizen?

US citizenship is the highest level of immigration status one can have in the country, and it offers many benefits to those who achieve it. A person can become a US citizen through the following:


  • Birth in the US
  • Acquiring or deriving US citizenship through their US citizen parents (and in some cases grandparents)
  • Naturalization process


Once US citizenship has been achieved, those who obtain it are afforded certain benefits, privileges, and responsibilities. In this article, we will discuss some of the benefits of becoming a citizen.

What Does It Mean to Be a Lawful Permanent Resident?

Lawful permanent residents are non-citizens (or nationals of another country) who are authorized to live and work permanently in the US, subject to compliance with immigration laws and other laws of the United States. Lawful permanent residents are also known as green card holders, because of the green colored card that is provided to them as evidence of their status.


Related: VAWA Eligibility Requirements [2022 Qualifications]

Rights Both US Citizens and Lawful Permanent Residents Have

Before entering into the differences between both statuses, it is important to highlight that despite their differences, both US citizens and lawful permanent residents have the following rights:

  1. Live permanently in the US
  2. Work in the US legally (some jobs will be limited to US citizens for security reasons)
  3. Be protected by all laws of the US, state of residence, and local jurisdictions


What Are the Key Differences Between a US Citizen and a Lawful Permanent Resident?

A crowd of people waving US flags

Having defined what it means to be a US citizen and what it means to be a lawful permanent resident, we will discuss next some of the main differences between both statuses. The key differences to discuss are:


  1. Passport eligibility
  2. Right to vote, work, and serve as jurors
  3. Residency and travel restrictions/requirements
  4. Immigration rights and benefits


Key Differences for US Citizens

US citizens have passports issued by the US Department of State. This is beneficial in many ways. For example, US citizens can freely travel abroad and stay outside the country for an indefinite period of time. They do not have to worry about losing their status, having to request a reentry permit, or requesting a returning resident visa. Unlike permanent residents, US citizens do not run the risk of staying outside in excess of a permitted amount of time and having an immigration officer determine they have abandoned their status. There are no restrictions regarding how much time a US citizen can spend abroad. Second, many countries allow US citizens to travel abroad without a visa, making travel easier for them. Third, being able to obtain a US passport is extremely beneficial for people who come from countries where it is difficult for them to obtain a passport; countries that are currently unstable or from where people are fleeing due to persecution. Obtaining US citizenship gives a person the benefit of obtaining a US passport and making travel easier.


US citizens can vote in local and federal elections, serve on juries, and hold government jobs. Voting is a privilege and responsibility all US citizens are afforded. Being able to partake in deciding who will serve as government officials has an impact not only on the person as a US citizen, but in the immigration community, and their fellow citizens as well.


As mentioned, US citizens can serve on juries, helping bring justice to our courts, and they can also hold government jobs. Being a US citizen opens up a number of additional employment opportunities.  US citizens also receive additional educational opportunities through scholarships, government grants, and internships made available only to US citizens.


US citizens have certain immigration benefits that lawful permanent residents do not. US citizens and permanent residents can both petition for their spouses, minor unmarried children, and adult unmarried children. Nonetheless, the spouses and minor children of US citizens are considered immediate relatives and always have a visa available, making their immigration process faster than that of the spouses and minor children of permanent residents. Also included in the immediate relative category are the parents of US citizens, who have visas readily available as well. Lawful permanent residents cannot petition for their parents. US citizens can also petition for their siblings and their adult married children. These are not considered immediate relatives but rather are included in different preference categories, but these are still family members that US citizens have the privilege of petitioning for, unlike lawful permanent residents.


US citizenship can be lost in very limited circumstances. In general, once a person becomes a US citizen, they have obtained the most secure immigration status possible in the country. Nonetheless, they can be deported or stripped of their citizenship if, for example, they obtained their US citizenship through fraud. US citizenship can also be renounced voluntarily.


Key Differences for Lawful Permanent Residents

Lawful permanent residents remain citizens of their country and maintain the passport of said country. Permanent residents remain citizens and nationals of other countries. While this may be beneficial and/or important to some, because it allows them to be permanent residents of the US while still being citizens of their home country, it limits some of the rights they have in the US.  For example, they are not allowed to obtain US passports and can remain outside of the US for a very limited amount of time, without being presumed to have abandoned their status as a permanent resident. Lawful permanent residents must carry their passport and green card with them when traveling and should remain outside of the US for less than 180 days. If they must remain abroad for an extended period of time, they have to obtain a reentry permit that will allow them to come back into the US. If for reasons beyond their control, they are outside of the US for more time than allowed, they may have to request a returning resident visa, to be allowed to reenter the US as a permanent resident.


Lawful permanent residents have limited privileges and rights in comparison to US citizens. Like many Americans, permanent residents can work in the US, have their own businesses, assets, and properties, receive financial assistance at public universities and colleges, raise their families, and more. They can settle down and establish their homes in the US, and make this their permanent domicile. Nonetheless, there are certain privileges and rights that are not afforded to them, due to lack of US citizenship. For example, they cannot vote in elections, serve as jurors, or work for the US government, since these are all limited to US citizens.


Lawful permanent residents have limited immigration benefits. As previously mentioned, permanent residents can only petition for their spouses, minor children, and adult unmarried children.  The immigration process for these family members is longer since they belong to preference categories that do not always have visas readily available for them. Thus their family members cannot immigrate as quickly as wanted.


It is important to mention that, unlike US citizens, lawful permanent residents are subject to removal proceedings, and if the person incurs certain conduct, they could be stripped of their status.


Lawful permanent residents can become US citizens. In general, after 3 or 5 years of being a permanent resident, and if in compliance with the requirements established by the Immigration and Nationality Act, a person can apply to become a US citizen. If granted, they can enjoy all the rights and privileges that come with said immigration status.

Citizens vs. Permanent Residents: Other Frequently Asked Questions

Finally, we’d like to answer some questions about US citizenship vs. permanent residency that we often get asked in our office.

Can I Lose my Permanent Resident Status?

Yes. By committing certain crimes or violations, the US government can place you in removal proceedings, making you subject to deportation. In addition, if you remain outside the country for extended periods of time, immigration authorities may look into your situation to determine whether or not you have abandoned your residence and intend to make the US your permanent home. Absences of a year or more lead to the presumption that you abandoned your US residence, which is extremely difficult to contest.


Permanent residents who plan to leave the country for an extended period of time should apply to obtain a reentry permit before leaving. It serves to establish that you did not intend to abandon your status and allows you to apply for admission to the US.

What Happens if A Green Card Expires?

You must apply for your green card renewal before it expires. A lawful permanent resident’s status is not terminated due to an expired green card. This is a permanent resident’s evidence of status and it is important and required by law to have at all times with you. You can start the process up to six months before its expiration date — you can get more information from USCIS here.


However, if you are a conditional permanent resident, you will have to file Form I-751 with USCIS to remove the conditions on your residence.

Can Permanent Residents Travel Outside the US?

Yes. Permanent residents can travel outside of the US, but they will have to present a valid green card upon returning to the country and should possess a valid passport.


Generally, when a permanent resident returns to the US from travel abroad, they are not subject to the grounds of inadmissibility. However, there are several exceptions to this rule.  A permanent resident is subject to grounds of inadmissibility if they:


  1. have abandoned or relinquished permanent resident status;
  2. have been absent from the United States for a continuous period of more than 180 days;
  3. have engaged in illegal activity after departing the United States;
  4. have left the United States while under removal or extradition proceedings;
  5. have committed an offense identified in INA § 212(a)(2) (grounds of inadmissibility relating to crimes), unless the person was granted § 212(h) relief or § 240A(a) cancellation of removal to forgive the offense; or
  6. are attempting to enter or have entered without inspection


If any of the previous exceptions apply to a lawful permanent resident when attempting to enter the US, they will be considered seeking admission, just like any other noncitizen who has not been admitted to the US. In other words, they will need to prove that they are not inadmissible in order to be allowed in the US.

What Are the Responsibilities of a Permanent Resident?

Lawful permanent residents have responsibilities they must comply with as well. They are required to:


  • File their US income tax return
  • Obey all laws of the United States and localities
  • Register for Selective Service (if you are a male between the ages of 18 to 25)
  • Support the US democratic form of government (support does NOT include voting)
  • Immediately notify USCIS of any address change (within 10 days of said change)

What Are the Benefits of Having US Citizenship?

There are various benefits to obtaining US citizenship, including:


  • Applying for and obtaining a US passport
  • Travel to other countries without a visa
  • Leaving and reentering the country at any time without restrictions
  • Vote in elections, serve on juries and hold government jobs
  • Obtain special security clearances required for government and non-government positions
  • Have visas immediately available for their parents, spouses, and unmarried children
  • Status security, unless obtained through fraud or misrepresentation


Related: More Immigration Resources

We Can Help You Navigate the Path to Citizenship or Lawful Permanent Residency

A woman waving a US flag toward the sky

Navigating immigration law on your path to residency or citizenship isn’t always easy or straightforward. Depending on the particular case, it can become quite daunting and complex.


At Agarwal Law Group, we focus on US immigration law exclusively to help our clients get their green cards or obtain citizenship. We help identify any potential issues and guide you through the process every step of the way.


If you or a family member is preparing to go through their immigration process, we can help.


Are you ready to start your journey to US citizenship or lawful permanent residency? Reach out to us at Agarwal Law Group to get started.

10.0Pratibha Kanive Agarwal
top attorney 2022

Agarwal Law Group

1100 H Street NW,

Suite 1220

Washington DC 20005