The Petition for Alien Relative, on USCIS Form I-130, must be filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as the first step for an alien who wishes to immigrate to the United States as the relative of a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident (green card holder). The form is filed not by the prospective immigrant, but by the U.S.-based family member.
For example, if a U.S. citizen wished to have his parents immigrate from another country, he would start the process by filing an I-130 on their behalf, and thus become what's called their "petitioner".
The petition is mainly meant to prove the family relationship that makes the foreign-born person eligible for immigration. So in the example above, the U.S. citizen son would include a copy of his birth certificate with the I-130 petition (showing his and his parents' names) and a copy of his passport showing that he's a U.S. citizen.
Because the visa petition is only the start of the process, its approval by USCIS does not give the intending immigrant any right to enter the United States, or any guarantee that a green card will ultimately be approved.
For some immigrants, namely immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, the process will be relatively quick after the I-130 is approved. (In fact, a few lucky immediate relative immigrants already in the U.S. don't have to wait for I-130 approval to file their adjustment of status (AOS) application, but can file the I-130 and their AOS application concurrently.)
But for others, namely prospective immigrants in "preference" categories, the process will be slowed down by annual limits on the number of visas available in their category. They might wait years between approval of their I-130 and being allowed to go forward with their application for lawful permanent residence. Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens typically wait the longest, upwards of 20 years.
Like all immigration forms, this one is available for free download at the USCIS website at www.uscis.gov. Click the Forms tab, and then scroll down to the correct form number.
(Before you delve into the form, you may want to see this checklist of legal issues).
Here are some important things to know about preparing and submitting Form I-130:
For the most current address and filing fee, please see the USCIS website or call the National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283.
If you're filing an I-130 for an immediate relative (the spouse, parent, or unmarried child under age 21 of a U.S. citizen), then just as soon as that petition is approved, your relative can apply for an immigrant visa and green card. If the relative lives overseas, then that will be done through a U.S. consulate or embassy. If the person lives in the United States after a legal entry, then he or she may be able to "adjust status" through USCIS. But check with an immigration attorney to be sure. If your relative is eligible to adjust status as an immediate relative, then you don't actually have to wait until I-130 approval to submit the full green card application -- you can do it all at once.
Once the I-130 petition has been filed and approved, relatives in preference categories (any qualifying relative other than the parents, spouses, or unmarried children under 21 of a U.S. citizen) must wait for an immigrant visa number. How long they wait depends entirely on how many other people in their category had an I-130 approved on their behalf ahead of them, and on which country the alien is from. Because of per-country limits, people from certain parts of the world wait extra long -- usually those from Mexico, China, India, and the Philippines.
Progress on the waiting list is measured by the immigrant's Priority Date, which comes from the date that USCIS received the I-130 visa petition. You can call the U.S. Department of State at 202-663-1541 to find out the current Priority Dates for immigrant visa numbers based on country and category or check the latest Visa Bulletin on the State Department website. See Keep Track of Your Priority Date for a Green Card or Visa for guidance on interpreting these numbers.
Once an immigrant number is available, the eligible relative can apply for an immigrant visa, most likely through an overseas U.S. consulate. In a few rare cases, such as immigrants who've been living legally in the United States, the immigrants may instead be allowed to apply for adjustment of status, a process which is done without leaving the United States. Talk to an immigration attorney before trying this.
If you are unsure about whether your family relationship qualifies or how you will offer documented proof of the relationship, or simply want some help with the paperwork, contact an immigration attorney. In many situations, professional legal guidance can make the whole process go much more smoothly, and is well worth the cost. It's even more important to contact an attorney if the immigrant is already living in the United States, especially if here illegally, because this can make ultimately getting a green card very difficult.