What we know as a "green card" has been many different colors over the years. We still refer to them as "green cards" for the same reason dismissal notices are called "pink slips," sensationalized news is called "yellow journalism," and intended distractions are called "red herrings." In each case, an idea was originally associated with an actual item of the respective color. A Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) alien living in the United States carries this card because the card bestows benefits, and those benefits came into being at a time when the card was actually green.

Historical Background

The green card is formally known as the Alien Registration Receipt Card, Form I-151 or I-551. The first cards were Form AR-3 (printed on white paper), and were the product of the Alien Registration Act of 1940.

Designed as a national defense measure, the Act required all aliens (non-U.S. citizens) within the United States to register with the U.S. Government. They registered at Post Offices, and their registration forms were forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for processing. After processing, a receipt card (Form AR-3) was mailed to each registrant as proof of their compliance with the law. The Alien Registration Act, however, did not discriminate between legal and illegal alien residents. All were registered, and all received AR-3's in return.

As World War II ended and large-scale immigration to the United States resumed, alien registration ceased to take place at Post Offices and became part of regular immigration procedure. Aliens registered upon entry at the port, and the INS issued different documents to different aliens to serve as their Alien Registration Receipt Cards. Which document an alien received depended on his or her admission status. For example, visitors received an I-94c, temporary foreign laborers received an I-100a, and permanent residents received the I-151. This method not only reduced the number of forms handled by the INS, but helped to identify the immigration status of each alien. Thus the small, green, I-151 had immediate value in identifying its holder as a LPR, entitled to live and work indefinitely in the United States . As early as 1947, LPR's protested delays in processing their I-151's, complaining that employers would not hire them until they could prove their permanent resident status.

Following passage of the Internal Security Act of 1950, new regulations issued by the INS rendered Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-151 even more valuable. As noted above, the AR-3 Alien Registration Receipt Card (issued primarily in the early 1940's) bore no relation to an alien's legal or illegal status. Effective April 17, 1951, regulations allowed those holding AR-3 cards to have them replaced with a new Form I-151 (the green card). Just as I-151's were only issued to Lawful Permanent Residents entering through ports, only aliens with legal status could have their AR-3 replaced with an I-151. Aliens who applied for replacement cards but could not prove their legal admission into the United States , and for whom the INS had no record of legal admission, did not qualify for LPR status and might even be subject to prosecution for violation of U.S. immigration laws.

Valuable Documents

By 1951, then, the green Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-151 represented security to its holder. It indicated the right to permanently live and work in the United States and instantly communicated that right to law enforcement officials. As a result of the card's cumbersome official title, aliens, immigration attorneys, and enforcement officers came to refer to it by its color. The term "green card" designated not only the document itself, but also the official status desired by so many legal non-immigrants (students, tourists, temporary workers) and undocumented (illegal) aliens. The status became so desirable that counterfeit Form I-151's became a serious problem. To combat document fraud, the INS issued 19 different designs of the I-151 between its introduction in the 1940's and its complete revision in 1977. One alteration to the design in 1964 was to change the color of the card to blue. The 1964 edition was a pale blue. After 1965, it was a dark blue. Regardless of color, the I-151 still carried with it the benefits indicated by the term "green card," and those who wanted, obtained, issued, or inspected I-151's continued to refer to it by that name.

During the mid-1970's the INS studied methods to produce a counterfeit-proof Alien Registration Receipt Card for Lawful Permanent Residents. The result, introduced in January 1977, was the machine-readable Alien Registration Receipt Card Form I-551. In use today, the I-551 green card has been issued in various colors as well, including pink ("rose") and pink-and-blue. Despite these changes in form number, design, and color, the INS document which represents an alien's right to live and work in the United States will probably always be known as a "Green Card."

April 21, 1998

INS Issues First High-Tech 'Green Cards'

Counterfeit-Resistant Card Includes Sophisticated Security Features

WASHINGTON - To protect against fraud and help employers to comply with U.S. immigration law, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Deputy Commissioner Mary Ann Wyrsch today announced the issuance of a new "Green Card." The Green Card, which is issued to lawful permanent residents as evidence of their authorization to live and work in the United States , is now one of the most sophisticated, counterfeit-resistant documents produced by the federal government.

The new card incorporates a myriad of security features, including digital images, holograms, micro-printing, and an optical memory stripe. Its production requires a unique combination of state-of-the-art technologies that has never before been used. Previously named the Alien Registration Receipt Card, the new card is now officially called the Permanent Resident Card. The card's form number, Form I-551, remains the same.

Distribution of the first new cards had been delayed for three months due to unforeseen quality control problems associated with the start-up of this new technology. These manufacturing problems have been fixed and the cards are now being produced at two INS facilities. Mailing of the first 50,000 new Green Cards to permanent residents begins today, as does a broad outreach effort to introduce the card and its features to employers and the general public.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner has called the new Green Card "a major milestone in INS' efforts to combat document fraud and assist employers in identifying valid cards more easily." She added, "It is part of a new generation of INS documents that will not only raise the ante significantly for counterfeiters, but will also aid employers in complying with U.S. immigration law to ensure that jobs are filled only by authorized workers."

Security Features

The card's visible security features will make it easier for employers to verify the card's authenticity and that it relates to the person presenting it. The card also has many features not readily observable but which can be identified by INS officers, increasing the card's resistance to counterfeiting and tampering.

Unlike the previous laminated paper cards, the new Permanent Resident Card is a plastic document similar to a credit card. It has digital photograph and fingerprint images which are an integral part of the card and, therefore, more tamper-resistant. It features a hologram depicting the Statue of Liberty, the letters " USA " in large print, an outline of the United States, and the INS seal.

On the reverse side of the card, there is an optical memory stripe--similar to CD-ROM disk technology--with an engraved version of the information contained on the front of the card, including the cardholder's photograph, name, signature, date of birth and alien registration number. This laser-etched information cannot be erased or altered. In addition, this same information, along with the cardholder's fingerprint, are digitally encoded in the stripe and can only be read by INS personnel using a specially designed scanner.


The new Permanent Resident Card is being produced by INS' new Integrated Card Production System (ICPS ) machines, which enable INS to continuously expand security features to stay ahead of counterfeiters. These one-of-a-kind machines perform a number of complex tasks in a single automated process. These tasks range from digital printing, laser etching and encoding the optical stripe, to applying other visible and invisible security features and generating the card's mailing package. By automatically producing a complete package ready for mailing, the ICPS will reduce manufacturing time and greatly increase the accuracy of information in the new cards.

Production of the new cards is underway in St. Albans , Vermont and Laguna Niguel , California . By the end of this calendar year, three more ICPS machines will be on-line, one in Lincoln , Nebraska and two more in Kentucky .

Card Replacement

Holders of previous versions of the Green Card do not need to immediately replace their cards. Cards issued since 1989 are valid for 10 years and will remain valid until the expiration date indicated on the face of the card--allowing gradual card replacement for the approximately 10 million current cardholders. Form I-551 Green Cards issued from 1977 to 1989 which do not have an expiration date will remain valid until INS implements an official replacement program in the future.

Other New Documents

The new "Green Card" is part of a multi-year effort to combat document fraud. It is the second in a series of INS cards to be produced by the new card production system--following the January 1997 redesign of the Employment Authorization Document. INS will also use the ICPS to begin producing a new high-tech "Laser Visa" for the Department of State to issue in lieu of the old Border Crossing Card. INS will provide the first Laser Visa cards to the Department of State in May. Future uses of the ICPS include producing more fraud-resistant versions of other specialized cards, such as the Foreign Student Card.