Citizenship vs residency: what is the difference?

People often interchange the words ‘citizen’ and ‘resident’, believing they are the same thing. While both allow people to live legally and indefinitely in the United States, there are some important differences between the two.

What is a permanent resident?

As a permanent resident you have the right to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely. You will receive a photo ID card, referred to as a green card, which is very similar to the ID card in South Africa. You can petition for your immediate family members (such as your spouse and unmarried children up to age 21) to be given permanent residency too.

While you can travel freely to and from the U.S., you have to be more cautious when leaving for long periods of time. If you decide to leave and live somewhere else, for example, the authorities could view it as you abandoning your right to your green card. So if you want to leave America for an extended period, it’s best to inform the authorities that you intend to return and obtain a re-entry permit before you leave.

Permanent residency is not easily revoked. However, in the event that you commit a crime or run afoul of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) residency requirements, you could be deported.

As a permanent resident, one downside is that you don’t have the right to vote in the U.S. elections, so if you are unhappy with the way the country is run, there won’t be much you can do about it via the ballot box.

What is a U.S. citizen?

If you are born in America you are automatically deemed a U.S. citizen. You can also become a citizen through naturalisation. Naturalisation is an option for those who have become permanent residents through the EB-5 program. LCR Capital provides advisory services on how to navigate this process, and citizenship can generally be applied for after five years of obtaining your green card, provided you haven’t broken the law, and can speak and read English.

As a citizen, you can obtain a U.S. passport. Travelling for long periods will not affect your citizenship and you don’t need a re-entry permit. As a citizen, you don’t need to reside in America and can keep your U.S. passport as a ‘Plan B’ while living in South Africa.

South Africans should be aware, however, that if they intend to hold dual citizenship between the U.S. and South Africa, they need to apply to the South African authorities to retain their SA citizenship before beginning the naturalisation process in America.

While U.S. citizens cannot be deported, if it is found that you committed fraud in order to obtain your green card or citizenship, it could be revoked.

Investing through the EB-5 visa program is a perfectly legitimate way to obtain a green card, and then, if desired, U.S. citizenship.

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