The I-130 visa petition, or "Petition for Alien Relative," is one of the most common forms processed by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Using this form, a U.S. citizen or permanent resident can file to establish a familial relationship with a non-U.S. citizen, and indicate an intention to help that person immigrate to the United States. In most (but not all) cases, approval of Form I-130 by USCIS is a prerequisite to the immigrant then filing an application for a green card (lawful permanent residence).
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 may be wondering about the time required to process the petition, and how long the eventual process of getting your relative a 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 visa petition, it will review it for completeness. If something is missing, USCIS may either send the entire package back to the petitioner, or send a letter 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.
If the item at issue is merely the copy of a document, just recopy it and send it in as requested. If USCIS misplaced your check, however, you may have to cancel the check and write a new one -- and then hope that USCIS doesn't then rediscover and try to cash the old one! (This type of thing happens all too regularly.)
Notice that the receipt notice contains a case number. That will be very useful in checking on the status of your application. You can go to the USCIS website and enter the number in a box on the home page, then click "Case Status" to get an indication of where your I-130 is in the approval process.
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 allows you to see average processing times for 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 review.
However, realize that 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+ 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 the I-130 was approved.
The processing times for an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative depend on a number of factors, most notably how busy the office handling your petition is. Waits of several weeks or months are typical. The review involves scrutinizing your 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.
Upon approval of the I-130, USCIS will notify the petitioner, by sending an official I-130 approval notice, and transfer the file to the appropriate place. 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).
If the immigrant will be adjusting status, 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 send the immigrant the appropriate paperwork, after which the immigrant will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in his or her home country, where a decision will be made on the immigrant visa (green card).
If the immigrant is a preference relative who must wait for an available visa, the file will remain with the NVC for a number of years, waiting until the Priority Date becomes current. Both the petitioner and the immigrant should advise the NVC of any changes of address during this time.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Having an approved I-130 does not, by itself, give the immigrant any right to come to, or remain in, the United States.
If you're having trouble getting USCIS approval of your I-130, you may 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.