If you are an immigrant or a foreign national who seeks to get a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), there are many costs involved. These include application fees paid directly to the immigration authorities (the U.S. State Department or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, known as USCIS), and related fees, for example to get photos done, to pay for the required medical exam, and other incidentals such as photocopying and mailing.
The exact fees depend on what type of green card you're applying for (family-based, employment-based, or some other type), and on whether you're applying within the United States, using a process called Adjustment of Status, or applying from overseas, using a process called Consular Processing.
Important caution: The application fees we're referring to are paid to the immigration authorities at the time you file the application. You should never pay a fee to simply obtain copies of immigration forms -- they're free online at the USCIS website, www.uscis.gov. Don't be taken in by websites that attempt to sell you immigration forms.
The First Application: Initial Visa Petition
One fee obligation faced by immigrants in most every green card category is for the first first form that needs to be filed, called a visa petition. It's purpose is to establish your basic eligibility, for example a family relationship or an offer of employment. The petition is done on Form I-130 in family-based cases, Form I-129F in fiance cases, Form I-140 in employment-based cases, and other forms in various less common types of cases.
In 2011, for example, the application fee for an I-130 was $420, the fee for an I-129F was $340, and the fee for an I-140 was $580. Investor visa applicants were required to pay a record $1,500 to file their I-526 visa petition. At the other end of the spectrum, asylum applicants pay no fee to file an I-589.
By the way, these fees change regularly (almost always in an upwards direction), so to find the latest fees for the various immigration forms, go to www.uscis.gov, click the Forms tab, and scroll down to the proper form.
If it's any comfort, the visa petition is in most cases submitted not by the immigrant, but by his or her U.S. petitioner -- so, technically speaking, that person or employer will pay the fee, not the immigrant him- or herself.
But the visa petition is just the beginning of the process. (Learn more about the timeline to get a green card.)
As mentioned, the fee amounts after the initial visa petition is approved depend on various factors, most notably whether you're adjusting status or going through consular processing.
The primary form for adjusting status is USCIS Form I-485, the fee for which was $1,070 in 2011 (minus $85 for people who don't need biometrics, that is, fingerprinting). In general, adjusting status tends to be more expensive than consular processing.
If you're consular processing, the best way to figure out the fees is on the State Department website "Fees for Visa Services" page. Family visa processing, for example, is $230 starting in June 2012, while the fee for employment-based visas is $405. (This represents a price drop; in 2011 and early 2012 employment visas cost $720 and family visas $330.)
You may wish to have a lawyer assist you with completing all of the paperwork and helping you make decisions, for example between adjusting status and consular processing (if you have a choice, that is -- many people have no option other than consular processing). Although the lawyer, too, will charge a fee, it's often money well spent, given that the stakes are high and you could waste a lot of your own time dealing with a difficult government bureaucracy.