How Long Does It Take to Sponsor a U.S. Citizen's Family Member for a Green Card?

Sponsoring a foreign family member for U.S. lawful permanent residence can take longer than you'd expect; many years, in some cases.

If you are a U.S. citizen who is planning on acting as a green card sponsor for a family member, don't expect the process to be completed overnight. Various factors can stretch the process into months or years, depending on:

  • how long it takes you to gather documents and prepare the appropriate paperwork
  • whom you plan to sponsor, and whether there is a limit on visa numbers (green cards) given out in that category, therefore a long wait to receive one, and
  • how backlogged the various U.S. government offices that you'll deal with are at the time you and your family member are making your way through the process.

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 either in the U.S. or while living abroad, owing to U.S. government office closures to in-person visits. Even after offices reopen, expect long delays as the backlog clears. The below describes how the process normally happens.

Time Spent Preparing the Paperwork

Both you, as the petitioner/sponsor, and the immigrant, will have to assemble a number of documents and fill out a number of forms.

For starters, you will need to fill out Form I-130, issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and attach to it proof of your U.S. citizenship as well as proof of your relationship to your family member (called the "beneficiary") in this process. USCIS must first process and approve this petition, which can take several months.

(There is an exception for immediate relatives who will be adjusting status in the U.S., as described below; they can submit the I-130 and adjustment packet, including Form I-485, concurrently to USCIS.)

In addition (usually later), you will need to prepare an Affidavit of Support on Form I-864, together with documents proving that you are able and willing to support the immigrant at an amount that is at least 125% of the U.S. Poverty Guidelines or 100% for military families.

Your family member will next need to prepare various documents as part of his or her own application for a green card. The exact forms and process depend on whether your relative will be adjusting status in the U.S. or going through consular processing from another country.

Your relative will also need to undergo a medical exam, and get the doctor's report to submit with the green card application.

All of this takes time. You will need to coordinate with your family member to get information for some of the forms that you will be filling out. You will possibly also need to contact government agencies for official versions of birth and marriage certificates, contact the IRS for a certified copy of your tax returns, and so on.

Time Spent Awaiting an Available Visa

When you are a U.S. citizen acting as a green card sponsor, the nature of your relationship with the person you are sponsoring is key in determining the length of the wait.

U.S. Citizen's Spouse, Parent, or Unmarried Child Under 21

If you are the immigrating person's “immediate relative,” then visas are immediately available, with no annual limit. Immediate relatives include the spouse (same-sex or opposite-sex), unmarried child under 21, or parent of a U.S. citizen.

U.S. Citizen's Sibling, Child Over 21, or Married Child Under 21

If you are the immigrating person's “preference relative,” meaning that you are a U.S. citizen and he or she is your child over 21, married child, or sibling, then visas are limited by year, and long waits often exist in each category.

When you file the I-130, the date USCIS receives it becomes your family member's "priority date." That establishes a place on the waiting list.

Only after your relative's priority date is "current" will he or she be able to submit the green card application. For more on this, see How to Determine Your Priority Date. That can take, on average, anywhere from no time at all to 24 years, depending on category. (Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens wait the longest.)

Time Spent Waiting for U.S. Governmental Agency Action

At every step of the way, you will be dealing with a government agency that is backlogged with other applicants. Each step of the process can take weeks or months. It's even worse if you submit an incomplete application and the agency has to come back to you with a request for follow-up, or if you ask for a rescheduled interview.

The typical processing steps you'll encounter include:

  • awaiting a receipt notice from USCIS after submitting Form I-130
  • if your relative will be coming from abroad and consular processing, awaiting transfer of the case to a U.S. consulate and correspondence from the National Visa Center
  • if your relative is in the U.S. and will be adjusting status, awaiting a receipt notice and then a fingerprinting appointment
  • waiting for the FBI and other security agencies to process your relative's fingerprints and do a name check, and
  • awaiting an interview with the U.S. consulate or USCIS office.

These waits are inevitably frustrating for the sponsor and the family member. You will probably wonder at some point along the way whether something has gone wrong.

The trouble is, something might go wrong. U.S. immigration authorities are notorious for losing track of applications. Keep a close eye on their predictions for how long processing is currently taking, or hire an immigration attorney if you would rather turn this task over to a professional.


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