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.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

If you are a U.S. citizen who plans to act as a green card sponsor for a family member, don't expect the process to be completed overnight. Various factors can mean your relative will have to wait months or years before receiving lawful U.S. residence, 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.

The lengthy processing times can of course be frustrating, as you wait to reunite with a husband or wife, parents, or children. We'll acquaint you further on what to expect here, including tips on how to deal with the inevitable delays.

Time Spent Preparing the Immigration Paperwork

Both you, as the U.S.-based petitioner/sponsor, and the intending 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). To it, you will need to attach proof of your U.S. citizenship as well as of your relationship to your family member (called the "beneficiary") in this process. That means a copy of your passport, birth certificate, or other proof of citizenship, plus certificates of birth and marriage showing family relationships, along with English-language translations if they are in another language.

USCIS must (with a few exceptions) process and approve the I-130 petition before you can move forward. This can take several months by itself. (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 demonstrating 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 their 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 Immigrant 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. That's because annual limits are placed upon the number of visas given out in some categories, and demand frequently exceeds supply.

If the U.S. Citizen Is Petitioning for a 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 parents of a U.S. citizen.

If the U.S. Citizen Is Petitioning for a Sibling, Child Over 21, or Married Child Under 21

If you are the immigrating person's "preference relative," meaning you are a U.S. citizen and the would-be immigrant is either 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 they 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 typically 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 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 (an "RFE"), 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 (NVC)
  • 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
  • awaiting an interview with the U.S. consulate or USCIS office, and
  • finally, getting a decision at or after that interview.

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.

When to Get Legal Help

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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