How to Get a Foreign Family Member Into the U.S.

If you're a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (green card holder), you can petition to get your family into the United States. Here's how it works.

U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have family members living outside the United States can file petitions to help them immigrate (get a U.S. immigrant visa, which leads to a green card, or lawful permanent residence). This serves the U.S. policy goal of family reunification.

The application process to obtain an immigrant visa for your eligible family members  will follow the same basic steps whether you are a U.S. citizen (USC) or a lawful permanent resident (LPR).  We’re assuming your family member lives overseas; if he or she is already in the U.S., you’ll need to look into a different process, called "Adjustment of Status".

The procedure of helping someone get a green card is tedious and requires great attention to detail, which is why many would be petitioners choose to hire an immigration attorney. The actual processing time, however, will vary depending on a number of factors: your status (USC or LPR) as the “petitioner”; the whereabouts of your family member (called the "beneficiary") including the beneficiary’s country of origin; your family relationship; and the personal circumstances or situation of the beneficiary.  It is important to learn about this application process in advance, so that you’ll be able to plan for the various requirements, and strategize around the likely timeline.

Which Family Members Are Eligible to Immigrate to the U.S.

Potential beneficiaries of family-based petitions are classified into two categories: so- called “immediate relatives of U.S. citizens” and “family preference” relatives.  The “immediate relatives of U.S. citizens” are not subject to limitations on the number of immigrant visas (green cards) given out each year. This category includes the spouses (same-sex or opposite-sex) of U.S. citizens and their unmarried children younger than 21 years, their parents (after the U.S. citizen child has turned 21), and orphans adopted abroad or in the States.

Unlike immediate relatives, beneficiaries who fall into the “family preference” category are subject to annual quotas in visas, according to the country where the alien was born.  Because more people apply every year than there are visas available, this leads to long waits.  In some instances, the waiting period may be relatively short; in others, the wait spans decades. 

The “family preference” categories are the following:

  • First Preference (F1) - unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens of any age, regardless of the son’s and daughter’s are. To be eligible under this classification, the beneficiary must be “unmarried” when the petition is filed, and remain so until receiving the green card.
  • Second Preference (F2) - spouses (same-sex or opposite-sex), minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and above) of permanent residents. Children who are either divorced or widowed are considered “unmarried”, hence, eligible under this classification.  Those children who are 21 or over fall into a subcategory called 2B; they wait slightly longer than other second preference relatives, who are in a subcategory called 2A.
  • Third Preference (F3) - married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children.  If a beneficiary obtains a good-faith divorce during the long years of waiting for the visa, he or she will become eligible for an immigrant visa as an F1.
  • Fourth Preference (F4) - brothers and sisters of a U.S. citizen, and their spouse and minor children. Half-brothers and half-sisters as well as adoptive siblings are eligible under this category. 

Starting the Application Process

The process starts with the U.S. citizen or permanent resident petitioner preparing and filing Form I-130, the Petition for Alien Relative.  This form is issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and available on its website at www.uscis.gov.

One of the important questions on Form I-130 asks you to name the office where the beneficiary will either adjust status (only available if the person is legally in the U.S.) or go for a visa interview (at a U.S. consulate or embassy in the beneficiary’s home country). Assuming your relative is overseas, he or she should choose the closest embassy or consulate that processes immigrant visas. Such information is usually available on the consulate's website.

The I-130 petition must be filed with documents to establish that the petitioner is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (such as a copy of U.S. passport or green card), and that a family relationship exists between the petitioner and the beneficiary (such as a copy of birth certificate or marriage certificate).  Some attorneys recommend that the petitioner also execute and submit the Affidavit of Support, Form I-864 and supporting documents with the I-130, rather than waiting until it is later requested.

File the I-130 visa petition with the USCIS Service Center having jurisdiction over your U.S. residence.  Be sure to keep a copy of everything you submit, including forms, supporting documents, and checks or money orders.

USCIS will, after receiving the I-130 petition and verifying that its complete, issue a receipt notice to the petitioner and the attorney, if any. If USCIS determines that the submitted documents are insufficient, the petitioner will instead send the petitioner a Request for Evidence (RFE). Once the petitioner has satisfactorily met the requirements, the USCIS Approval Notice will follow. The letter also provides information on where the case has been forwarded to.

Transfer to the National Visa Center

For beneficiaries outside the U.S., or who fall into a preference relative category, the case will next be forwarded to the National Visa Center (NVC). This office will hold onto the preference relatives’ file until their waiting period is over and a visa has become available -- in technical terms, their “priority dates” are current.

The filing date of the petition is the "priority date".  The U.S. Department of State publishes the monthly Visa Bulletin, which shows the priority date being processed.

Consular Processing

If a visa is immediately available, or has become available because the beneficiary’s priority date is current, the NVC will start processing the case. It will issue a series of forms and instructions. An updated Affidavit of Support (Form I-864 with supporting documents) for each intending immigrant is required at this stage, as well as payment of applicable fees. The NVC will also direct the applicant to its website for guidance, and you can send your inquiries to verify submission of required documents to NVCinquiry@state.gov.

When the applicant is instructed to fill-out the form “Immigrant Visa Application and Alien Registration,” it is important to provide all information required, but to not sign the form. This form must be signed only at the U.S. embassy during the visa interview.

Once all documents, security checks, and fees have been completed, the NVC will forward the case to the consular office abroad that was indicated on the Form I-130.  The beneficiary will need to undergo medical examination, police clearance, fingerprinting and biometrics.  A notice for interview will follow.

The Visa Interview

One of the last steps in the process is to attend an interview with a consular official. The applicant must be fully prepared for this important event.  He or she should bring copies of all documents earlier submitted, plus all other proofs (original, not copies) of the family relationship with the petitioner. For a spousal petition, extensive questions about the personal relationship may be asked to determine the bona fides of the union. Other questions will concern whether the alien is “admissible” (meaning has prior health, criminal, or other issues). 

Assuming that all is in order, the case will be approved. Upon successful conclusion of a consular interview, the Consul will issue a sealed envelope, which must be opened only by the officer at the U.S. port of entry.  The consular officer will annotate the passport of the beneficiary showing the immigrant status and date of the approval.  Normally, the U.S. embassy will issue the passport stamp within a few weeks following the visa interview.

Arrival at the United States Port of Entry

For overseas beneficiaries, the last stage of the process is not the visa interview, but arrival at the U.S. port of entry. Although the U.S. embassy has already granted the immigrant visa, the last interview will be with the officer at the border (a Customs and Boarder Protection, or CBP agent), who is tasked with determining whether the alien is indeed eligible to enter the country. The officer may ask the alien questions about prior convictions, serious illness, or any immigration violations. With this in mind, it’s best to be careful.

Receiving the Actual Green Card

The Permanent Resident Card (Form I-551) is mailed to the beneficiary within a couple of weeks following either the immigrant’s arrival in the United States.

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