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 requires great attention to detail, which is why many would-be petitioners choose to hire an immigration attorney. The actual processing time, however, will depend on a number of factors: your immigration 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.
Warning: The coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long delays in every part of the immigration process. As of April 2020, there is no way to complete the green card process, owing to government office closures to in-person visits as well as a presidential proclamation barring issuance of overseas immigrant visas, including to family members of permanent residents. Expect ongoing delays even after offices reopen.
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 on visas, both an overall limit and a per-country allotment. Because more people apply every year than there are visas available, this often leads to long waits, particularly from countries with high populations and levels of interest in immigrating to the United States. In some instances, the waiting period may be relatively short; in others, the wait spans decades.
The “family preference” categories are the following:
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 for free download on its website. Also see The I-130 Petition: Information for Family Sponsors.
One of the important questions on Form I-130 asks you to name the office where the beneficiary will either adjust status (available only if the person is lawfully in the U.S., with rare exceptions) 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 copies of documents to establish that the petitioner is a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (such as a 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). Petitioners for a spouse must also include documents showing that the marriage is bona fide (real), not a sham to get a green card.
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 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 (unless you pay by credit card).
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.
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 in the current month.
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 to the immigrant.
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.
In addition, but also to satisfy the need to prove that the immigrant will not become a public charge (dependent on government assistance), he or she will need to fill out a Form DS-5540, the Public Charge questionnaire. It asks about things like education, skills, household size, and source of health insurance.
The applicant will be instructed to fill out the Form DS-260, “Online Immigrant Visa Application and Alien Registration Application.”
Once all documents, security checks, and fees have been completed or paid, 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, and fingerprinting (biometrics). A notice for a personal interview will follow.
One of the last steps in the process is for the immigrant to attend an interview with a consular official. The applicant should bring copies of all documents earlier submitted, plus all other proof (original, not copies) of the family relationship with the petitioner.
For a spousal petition, expect the consular officer to ask many questions about the personal relationship with the U.S. petitioner, 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 visa will be approved. The consular officer will issue a sealed envelope containing all visa materials, which must be opened only by the officer at the U.S. port of entry. The consular officer will annotate the passport of the immigrating beneficiary showing the person's 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.
For overseas beneficiaries, the last stage of the process is arrival at the U.S. port of entry. Although the U.S. embassy has already granted the immigrant visa, the last interview will actually be with an officer at the border (a Customs and Boarder Protection, or CBP agent).
That agent is tasked with determining whether the alien is indeed eligible to enter the country. The CBP officer may ask questions about prior convictions, serious illness, or any immigration violations. With this in mind, it’s best to be careful about answering, and consult an attorney with any last-minute questions.
The Permanent Resident Card (Form I-551) is mailed to the beneficiary within a couple of weeks following the immigrant’s arrival in the United States.