What You Should Know about US Family-Based Immigration program

Family-based immigration to the United States occurs when an individual immigrates to the US through his or her family members who are already US citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPRs). There are five types of family-based immigration: immediate relatives of US citizens, family preference immigrants, special immigrants, battered spouses and children of U.S. citizens, and diversity immigrants.

What You Should Know about US Family-Based Immigration program

This article focuses on the two main types of family-based immigration to the US – immediate relatives and family preference immigrants – and outlines some facts about how each type can be sponsored as well as what requirements must be met by each petitioner to ensure successful immigration.

Family-based immigration refers to the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (section 201 et seq.) categories that allow U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to petition for immediate relatives (spouses, children, and parents) and certain other family members to obtain immigration benefits to come to live permanently in the United States. If you are outside of the United States and qualify, you may apply to be sponsored by your relative who is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, who will file Form I-130 on your behalf with the U.S.

The history of U.S. immigration policy

The United States has a long history of immigration, dating back to the founding of the country. The first immigrants were from England and other parts of Europe. Over time, the immigrant population has diversified, with people coming from all over the world. Today, the United States welcomes people from all over the world who want to build a better life for themselves and their families.

Being separated from your family is not an easy thing, especially when complex immigration laws are standing in the way of your family reunification. There is a maximum of 480,000 family preference visas given each fiscal year in addition to a 7% per country limit. Due to these stringent rules set by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA)( https://www.uscis.gov/laws-and-policy/legislation/immigration-and-nationality-act), the immigration process often requires immense patience, perseverance, and commitment.

Though the process can be discouraging at times, it is important to keep the big picture in mind. Receiving an immigration visa is not impossible, and our team at SAC Attorneys LLP is here to help. When seeking an immigrant visa through family members, it is important to be well informed on the process so that you know what to expect.

What Exactly is Family-Based Immigration?

Family-based immigration allows United States citizens and lawful permanent residents (LPR) to bring their family members into the country. The most common form of legal immigration, family-based immigration makes up two-thirds of immigration into the United States.

The process works by allowing citizens and LPRs to sponsor certain family members for a green card. To be eligible for a visa, you must be an immediate family member or within the family preference category of a sponsor. The entire process includes a minimum of two family members, a petitioner, and a beneficiary.

Family-Based Immigrant Visa Categories

There are two groups of family-based immigrant visa categories: Immediate Relative and Family Preference.

1). Immediate Relative

These visa types are based on a close family relationship with a United States citizen.

  • IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. Citizen
  • IR-2: Unmarried Child Under 21 Years of Age of a U.S. Citizen
  • IR-3: Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. Citizen
  • IR-4: Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen
  • IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen who is at least 21 years old

2). Family Preference

These visa types are for specific, more distant, family relationships with a U.S. citizen and some specified relationships with an LPR.

  • Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their minor children, if any.
  • Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of LPRs.
  • Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.
  • Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.

There are unlimited visas available in the Immediate Relative group, whereas there are a specific amount of Family Preference visas available annually.

Petitioners and Beneficiaries

Family-based immigration requires the participation of at least two family members, a petitioner, and a beneficiary. The petitioner must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident that wants to sponsor a foreign family member for a green card. The beneficiary is a foreign family member that wants to obtain a green card. In some categories, the beneficiary may have a spouse and children that qualify as derivative beneficiaries.

Immediate Relative and Family Preference Categories

All family-based immigrants fall into one of two major categories, immediate relative or family preference. Spouses, parents, and unmarried children (under age 21) of U.S. citizens are classified as immediate relatives. There are an unlimited number of immigrant visas available each year for immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. All other qualified relationships are considered family preference categories.

The number of family preference immigrant visas is limited. That's because immigration law puts a numerical cap on the number of green cards that can be issued to family preference categories each year. As a result, there's a backlog and long wait for many of the family preference categories.

What is the Application Process Like?

Usually, the process starts when a petitioner files an immigration request with the U.S. government. The form they must file is called a Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. Once this form is approved and a visa number becomes available for the relative, then the family member is eligible to apply for a green card. Afterward, the residence is given through either consular processing or adjustment of status.

Residency Status and Traveling Abroad

When you receive your immigrant visa, you will be a permanent resident of the United States. You will be allowed to live and work permanently in the United States. However, if you want to travel outside the United States, you must have a passport from your country of citizenship.

You should also get a Reentry Permit if you plan to be outside the United States for more than one year. If you are a permanent resident but do not have a passport from your country of citizenship, you may be able to get a Limited Validity Passport. If you want to move to another country, you will need to apply for a new immigrant visa.

How Long Does the Entire Process Take?

Immigration is not a quick or easy process, and it can take decades to receive a visa. Especially for immigration involving family preference, the wait time can be significant because of high demand and limited visas available. Immediate family members, on the other hand, can receive their visas in a shorter amount of time once they finish the extensive visa application process.

Green Card Application Process

The family-based immigration process generally begins with the petitioner (U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident) making a request to the U.S. government to allow a family member to immigrate. The petitioner files Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, with USCIS. The I-130 petition establishes the existence of a qualifying family relationship (within the immediate relative or family preference categories). For more details on what happens after filing the I-130 petition, view the Form I-130 processing time.

Once USCIS approves the I-130 petition and a visa number is available, the foreign family member may apply for a green card. There are two basic paths to apply for a green card: consular processing or adjustment of status. Consular processing is a means for applying for an immigrant visa (green card) through the U.S. embassy or consular office in a foreign country. Consular processing is the most common path to obtaining a green card.

In some cases, an immigrant that is already inside the United States as a temporary visitor (e.g. student, tourist, etc.) may be able to adjust their status to permanent resident. Adjustment of status is the process of changing immigration status to permanent residence (green card holder). Adjustment of status is only available to a small group of applicants.

Important Things to Bear in Mind

While seeking family-based immigration, there are a few key factors that are important to keep in mind:

  • The sponsor must be at least 18 years old, residing in the United States, financially stable, and a U.S. citizen or LPR. If a single sponsor is unable to meet these criteria, a joint sponsor may sometimes be used.
  • There is no limit on visas given to spouses, children, and parents of a sponsor. However, other family members who are under the family-preference category face limitations on visas that are given each year.
  • All applicants for immigrant visas are required to go through a compulsory medical examination.
  • In Need of an Immigration Lawyer?

Our team at Mouthytech Attorneys LLP understands that the immigration process is a long and daunting hurdle to overcome. Dealing with all the legal responsibility alone can take an emotional toll on a person.

Priority Dates And The Visa Bulletin

When the demand for family preference immigrant visas exceeds the number of visas available (which is virtually always), a backlog forms. There is a waiting list because too many people want to get a green card. In this situation, a person’s place in line is determined with a priority date. The priority date is the date that the I-130 petition is properly filed and accepted. The priority date is only relevant to family preference visa petitions. Remember, there is an unlimited number of visas available to immediate relatives.

The U.S. Department of State publishes a monthly visa bulletin that family preference immigrants review to see when they’ve reached the front of the line. Some categories may take a few months while other categories can take several years. When your priority date reaches the front of the line, your priority date as "become current." An immigrant visa is available to you.

Family preference beneficiaries may assume that an I-130 approval means a visa is available. However, the priority date must also be current. Once USCIS approves the I-130 petition and the priority date is current, the foreign family member may apply for a green card. For more detail, read what to expect after the I-130 petition is approved.

The 4 Steps to Applying for a US Family Visa

There are specific steps to follow in order for a U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident to successfully sponsor a family member. These are:

  1. U.S. citizen or permanent resident files visa petition
  2. USCIS makes a decision on the visa petition
  3. Family Preference relatives wait until a visa becomes available
  4. Immigrant applies for an immigrant visa or Green Card

Step 1: Filing the Petition

To begin the sponsorship process, the U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident family member will need to mail a visa petition on USCIS Form I-130, along with accompanying documents, to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The LRP must prove the family relationship is real.

Step 2: USCIS Makes a Decision

Once USCIS receives the petition, the officers will consider whether to approve or deny the request. If approved, the case file will be forwarded to the National Visa Center for further processing. If denied, it is possible for the petitioner to file a new petition after determining what changes need to be made to encourage approval. Upon approval, USCIS will forward the immigrant’s case file to the National Visa Center (NVC) for further processing.

Step 3: Preference Relatives Wait for Visa Availability

This step only takes place if the petitioner was in the Family Preference group. Relatives that are not considered “immediate” are not eligible for permanent residence right away, as there are annual limits on the number of Green Cards that can be approved. Thus, the immigrant joins a waiting list, and will usually wait at least a year before learning if a visa is available.

Step 4: Immigrant Applies for Visa or Green Card

If the petition has been approved, and a visa has become available, the immigrant would then submit an application for permanent residence. This is usually done by applying for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate outside the United States, and then once in the states, the immigrant would apply for a Green Card. During the ensuing process, called “consular processing”, the immigrant will be required to fill out various forms, provide documents and take part in a medical examination.

Frequently Asked Questions About US Family Immigration

However, here we are going to list the best frequently asked questions about US family immigration. Therefore, we are going to answer all the questions for you here:

What Are Family-Based Petitions?

Family Based Petitions allow for individuals in the United States to sponsor their families to immigrate to the United States. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows for the immigration of foreigners to the United States based on a relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.

Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor a Family Member?

If you are a U.S. Citizen, you may petition for the following relatives, as long as you can prove the relationships:

  • Husband or wife;
  • Unmarried children under 21 years old;
  • Unmarried son or daughter over 21 years old;
  • Married son or daughter of any age;
  • Brother (s) or Sisters(s), if you are at least 21 years old.
  • Mother or father, if you are at least 21 years old

Can a Green Card Holder Sponsor a Family Member?

If you are a lawful permanent resident (green card holder), you may petition for the following relatives, as long as you can prove the relationships:

  • Husband or wife;
  • Unmarried child under 21 years of age;
  • Unmarried son or daughter over 21 years of age.

What Happens After You Petition for a Relative?

If your relative is already in the United States, they may apply to adjust status to become a Green Card holder (lawful permanent resident) after a visa number becomes available using Form I-485. If your relative is outside the United States, your petition will be sent to the National Visa Center (NVC).

The NVC will forward your petition to the appropriate U.S. consulate when a visa becomes available and your relative will be notified about how to proceed. This process is referred to as "consular processing."

Family Sponsorship Processing Time

On average, the I-130 (family sponsorship visa) filed by your sponsor takes between 6 to 12 months to be processed. The USCIS processes the petition on a first-come, first-served basis. Your sponsor can expedite the process by submitting the form as early as possible.

Who can a US Citizen Sponsor?

US Citizens can sponsor family members and employees! Family Based Petitions allow US Citizens to sponsor immediate or family preference members which include children, spouses, parents, grandparents, and siblings.

What Relatives Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor?

US Citizens can sponsor family members that fall under two categories: Immediate Relative or Family Preference.

Immediate Relatives include:

  • spouse
  • unmarried children under 21
  • orphans
  • parents

Family Preference includes:

  • married and unmarried children over 21 and their children
  • spouses and children of Green Card holders
  • siblings, their spouses & children


The US family-based immigration program is a great way for families to reunite and start new lives in the United States. However, there are a few things you should know before applying. First, the process can be long and complex, so it's important to be prepared.

Second, you'll need to meet certain requirements, including having a sponsor and proving that you have a genuine relationship with your family members.

Finally, remember that the US family-based immigration program is subject to change, so it's important to stay up-to-date on the latest news and developments.

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