Uniting U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (green card holders) with their overseas family members is an important goal of U.S. immigration law. But that doesn't mean that every relation of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident will qualify for a U.S. green card. The law sets strict guidelines for which family relations are green-card eligible—and in some cases, how many people will be allowed into the U.S. per year based on that category.
As a general rule, U.S. immigration law offers no direct way to obtain U.S. green cards for one's grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and more extended relations—unless you can create a chain of relationships so that a more immediate family member can petition for them.
For example, instead of petitioning for a grandparent, a U.S. citizen could petition for his or her parents; and they could, after receiving a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship, petition for their parents (your grandparents). But this strategy almost always requires long-term planning, because obtaining both a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship tends to take several years, depending on a variety of factors.
One important variable is that, in the visa categories subject to annual limits (in what is called the "preference" categories), the number of people applying invariably exceeds the supply of available visa numbers (green cards). The result is that applicants must wait a long time until a visa number is available. The average wait is from five to 25 years, depending on the visa category and the country from which the immigrant is applying (due to per-country limits).
An unlimited number of green cards can be issued to immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which means they need not deal with waiting lists based on high demand.
Immediate relatives are defined as:
Fiancé(e)s of U.S. citizens are also just a few steps away from a green card. But if the fiancé is overseas and they wish to hold the marriage in the U.S. before applying for a green card, the first step is to apply for a temporary (90-day) U.S. visa called a K-1 fiancé visa. After the marriage, the immigrant can apply directly to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) for "Adjustment of Status" (on Form I-485) and receive what's called "conditional permanent residence," which should eventually lead to permanent residence.
Certain other family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for U.S. green cards. However, only a limited number of green cards are available to these applicants. They typically have to wait many years to get them, based on their place in the following preference categories:
The U.S. family member must show interest in petitioning for and financially sponsoring the immigrant before he or she will be allowed to apply for a U.S. green card.
Keep in mind that the immigrant must, in most cases, fit the eligibility criteria all the way up through their approval for adjustment of status or entry to the U.S. on an immigrant visa. If, for example, someone immigrating as an unmarried child gets married in between receiving their U.S. visa and entering the United States, they will be denied entry.