The I-130 "Petition for Alien Relative" is one of the most common forms processed by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Using this petition, a U.S. citizen or permanent resident can demonstrate a familial relationship with a non-U.S. citizen, thus indicating to the U.S. government their intention to help that person immigrate to the United States. In most cases, approval of Form I-130 by USCIS is a "step one" prerequisite to the immigrant then filing an application for a green card (lawful permanent residence). (In other cases, the steps can be combined.)
If you have filed an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative, you already know that you can't just walk it into an immigration office and get an answer; you were required to send it by mail to a faraway USCIS processing facility. At this point, you might be wondering about the time required to process the I-130 petition, and how long the eventual process of getting your relative a U.S. green card will take.
If you have not yet filed the I-130, see this page on information for family sponsors for help preparing the application.
After USCIS receives the I-130 petition, it will review it for completeness. If something is missing, USCIS might either send the entire package back to the U.S. petitioner, or send a letter (Request for Evidence, or RFE) requesting the missing part.
This can be a stumbling block, especially if you already sent USCIS what it is asking for but the processing facility lost it (not uncommon). If the item at issue is merely the copy of a document, just recopy it and send it in as requested. If USCIS misplaced a check you wrote to pay the application fee, however, you might have to cancel the check and write a new one, then hope that USCIS doesn't then rediscover and try to cash the old one! (This type of thing happens, too.)
Observe that the receipt notice contains a case number. That will be useful in checking on the status of your application, using the USCIS Case Status Online page.
If you haven't yet gotten a receipt notice, or just want to check on typical USCIS processing times, the Case Status page of USCIS's website has a link for "USCIS Processing Times Information," where you can check on average speeds for USCIS decisions on I-130s and other applications. Select the USCIS facility to which you sent the I-130 from the drop-down menu.
Once USCIS has determined that your I-130 petition is complete, it will put it in line for further review.
However, if USCIS is particularly backed up, and the immigrant is in a category of people who won't be eligible for a green card for many years anyway (such as brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, whose waiting list is about 20-plus years long), USCIS may put that I-130 toward the back of the line. Don't worry that this will hurt your timing in getting the immigrant a green card.
If the immigrant is a "preference relative", his or her place on the waiting list will ultimately be determined by the date USCIS received the I-130, called the priority date," not the much later date upon which USCIS actually approved the I-130.
The processing times for an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative depend on a number of factors, most notably how busy the USCIS office handling your petition is. Waits of several weeks or months are typical. The review involves scrutinizing documents to make sure that, for example, the U.S. citizen's passport is the real thing, and the immigrant's birth certificate contains all the official government certifications that would be expected from the immigrant's home country. The U.S. government is always on the lookout for fraud in such matters.
If all goes well, USCIS will approve the I-130. At that point, the USCIS Service Center will notify the U.S. petitioner, by sending an official I-130 approval notice, and transfer the file to the appropriate government office.
Exactly where this is depends on where the immigrant is, and whether the immigrant will be applying for the green card through the process known as adjustment of status (which takes place in the United States) or consular processing (which takes place through an overseas consulate or embassy).
If the immigrant will be adjusting status in the U.S., USCIS will wait for you to take the next step and file the appropriate paperwork with USCIS, including a copy of the all-important I-130 approval notice. Several weeks or months after that, it will call the immigrant in for an interview and make a decision on the green card.
If the immigrant will be consular processing, the National Visa Center (NVC) will hold the file until the immigrant's priority date is current (if the person isn't an immediate relative) and then send the immigrant the appropriate paperwork to fill in and sent in. If the immigrant is a preference relative who must wait for an available visa, the file could potentially remain with the NVC for a number of years, before the priority date becomes current. Both the petitioner and the immigrant should advise the NVC of any changes of address during this time.
After that, the immigrant will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in their home country, where a decision will be made on the immigrant visa (which will turn into permanent residence upon U.S. entry, and the immigrant will then be sent a green card).
IMPORTANT NOTE: Having an approved I-130 does not, by itself, give an immigrant any right to come to, or remain in, the United States. Doing so could actually lead to deportation if one is in the U.S. without permission, or lead to being turned back at the port of entry if one arrives on a temporary visa with the "secret" intention of immigrating.
If you're having trouble getting USCIS approval of your I-130, you might wish to consult with a qualified and experienced U.S. immigration attorney. A lawyer is usually worth the cost, and can help you avoid damaging mistakes, prepare for interviews, and make the best case possible to help expedite the whole process.