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Public Charge

Produced by Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
Reviewed January 2020

‘Public charge’ is a test for immigrants coming to the US and for some immigrants in the US who are applying for a green card for the first time.


Immigration does not use the Public Charge test if you are renewing your green card or applying for citizenship. See Does this apply to me?

In October 2019, courts stopped some changes to the rule that make it harder to pass the test.

But in January 2020, the Supreme Court allowed the rule to go into effect.

What is public charge?

Public charge is a “test” is to see if you will need services from the government in the future.

You need to pass the test to get:

  • a green card (lawful permanent residence) or
  • a visa to enter the U.S.

Immigration officers look at your income, your age, your health, your education and skills you have. Being able to speak, understand and read English, your sponsor’s Affidavit of Support or your contract are important.

Immigration officers also look to see if you have used certain public programs.

The government just made the test harder.

The new public charge test also looks at:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or “Food Stamps”
  • EBT
  • Federal Public Housing and Section 8 help
  • Medicaid - but not Medicaid for emergency services, children under 21 years, pregnant women, and new mothers.
  • Cash assistance programs like SSI, TAFDC, EAEDC 

If you can get these benefits, the new rule probably does not apply to you. 

The new rule also does not apply people who are applying for their green card from inside the US and who also get:

  • Women, Infants, and Children Nutrition (WIC) Program
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP),
  • School lunches,
  • Food banks,
  • Shelters,
  • State and local health programs
    • Health Safety Net,
    • MassHealth Limited,
    • (Emergency Medicaid),
    • MassHealth coverage for pregnant women  - including 60 days after pregnancy,
    • MassHealth coverage for children and young people under age 21,
    • MassHealth coverage paid by state-only funding,
    • Coverage through the Health Connector, including ConnectorCare,
    • Children’s Medical Security Plan (CMSP),
    • Medicare,
    • COBRA, and
    • Veterans Administration Coverage and Tricare.

Public Charge: Does this apply to me?

Are you and your family members U.S. Citizens?

Public charge does not apply to you. Keep applying for and using the programs you qualify for.

Do you and your family members already have green cards?

Public charge and any changes under new rules rule will not affect you when you renew your green card or apply to become a U.S. Citizen. But, if you plan to leave the country for more than 6 months, talk with an immigration attorney.

Do you have one of these immigration statuses? Or are you applying for TPS, U or T Visa, Asylum or Refugee status, or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status?

The public charge test does not apply to all immigrants, including the categories listed here. If you already have or are in the process of applying for one of these immigration statuses, you can continue to use any government programs that you qualify for.

Does your family plan to apply for a green card or visa from inside the United States?

The public charge test may apply to you. For those with adjustment interviews in the U.S., only the use of the public programs listed on first page will be considered in the public charge test. Your income, age, health, education, skills, family situation, and sponsor’s affidavit of support will also be considered.

Does your family plan to apply for a green card or visa from outside the United States?

U.S. consular offices abroad use different rules in making this decision. You should talk with an expert for advice on your case before making any decisions. Look for free or low-cost options in your area.

Family graphic

Make the right choice for you and your family

Public charge does not apply to all immigrants.

Every family is different.

Programs that help your family may not be part of new changes to the policy.

Talk to an immigration lawyer before you make any decisions about the programs that may be helping your family.

Get free legal advice from the Irish International Immigrant Center at one of their clinics

If you are outside the Boston area, see our list of legal service providers

Email Jessica Chicco at MIRA.

Protecting Immigrant Families logo


Adapted from LawHelpMinnesota, Protecting Immigrant Families and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA)

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