The steps to obtain a family based green card — officially known as a permanent resident card — vary based on the qualifying family relationship and where you live (inside the United States or outside).
If you would like to petition (sponsor) a family member for a green card or you are a foreign national that wants to permanently move to the United States, this article provides a basic overview of the eligibility categories and family based green card process.
Family Based Green Card Categories
It’s helpful to understand that not all family based green card applications are treated the same way. Most categories must wait for a long period – this is because most categories have a limited number of available green cards each year. So typically, “family preference” categories must wait in line for a green card. On the other hand, “immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens have an unlimited supply of green cards – there is no wait.
Here’s how each category is divided. The immediate relative category for family based green cards includes:
- IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. citizen
- IR-2: Unmarried child under 21 years of age of a U.S. citizen
- IR-3: Orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. citizen
- IR-4: Orphan to be adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. citizen
- IR-5: Parent of a U.S. citizen (petitioner must be at least 21 years old)
The family preference category for family based green cards includes:
- F-1 (Family First Preference): Unmarried sons and daughters of a U.S. citizen, and their minor children, if any
- F-2 (Family Second Preference): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (age 21 and over) of a lawful permanent residents
- F-3 (Family Third Preference): Married sons and daughters of a U.S. citizen, and their spouses and minor children
- F-4 (Family Fourth Preference): Brothers and sisters of a U.S. citizen, and their spouses and minor children (petitioner must be at least 21 years old)
Green Card for Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens
Immediate relatives is a family based green card category used for certain qualified relatives of U.S. citizens to come and live permanently in the United States. Eligible immediate relatives include the U.S. citizen’s:
- Unmarried child under the age of 21
- Parent (if the U.S. citizen is over the age of 21)
Because there are an unlimited number of visas for this category, immediate relatives have special immigration priority and do not have to wait in line for a visa number to become available.
Before a U.S. citizen petitions an unmarried child for a family based green card, it’s important to understand how marriage affects the immigration process. If an immediate relative child under age 21 gets married, he or she can no longer be classified as an “immediate relative” and will become a “third preference” (F-3) category married son or daughter of a U.S. citizen and a visa would no longer be immediately available.
Green Card for Other Family Members of U.S. Citizens
Family members of U.S. citizens that do not qualify as immediate relatives may fall into another category called the family preference category. Family preference relatives that may be eligible include the U.S. citizen’s:
- Unmarried sons or daughters over the age of 21
- Married child(ren) of any age
- Brothers and sisters (if the U.S. citizen petitioner is over the age of 21)
There is a strict cap on the number of family preference green cards that are issued each year. Thus, family preference green cards generally involve a wait period. Additionally, there are annual per-country limits that cap the percentage of family based green cards which can be given to individuals from each country. As a result, individuals from countries with high rates of U.S. immigration, such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, often experience longer wait times for green cards than individuals from countries with lower rates of U.S. immigration.
Green Card for Family Members of a Permanent Resident
All eligible family members of a permanent resident are put into the family preference category. A permanent resident is not able to petition immediate relatives for a family based green card. A permanent resident may only petition:
- Unmarried child (any age)
Again, there is a strict cap on the number of family preference green cards that are issued each year. Thus, family preference green cards generally involve a wait period. Additionally, there are annual per-country limits that cap the percentage of family based green cards which can be given to individuals from each country. As a result, individuals from countries with high rates of U.S. immigration, such as India, China, Mexico and the Philippines, often experience longer wait times for green cards than individuals from countries with lower rates of U.S. immigration.
Get Priority — Become a Citizen
A permanent resident can sometimes expedite the petition process by becoming a U.S. citizen. Once the petitioner becomes a U.S. citizen, the priority will improve. For example, a spouse’s category will improve from F-2 to IR-1 when the permanent resident becomes a U.S. citizen. A green card is immediately available for an IR-1 spouse.
Unmarried Sons and Daughters
Unmarried sons and daughters of permanent residents need to be aware of how marriage affects their ability to immigrate to the United States. If an unmarried son or daughter of a permanent resident gets married prior to becoming a permanent resident, he or she no longer qualifies for permanent residence through the permanent resident family member. There is no visa category for a married child of a permanent resident.
How to Apply for a Family Based Green Card
There are two basic ways to apply for a family based green card: adjustment of status or consular process.
Adjustment of Status
The adjustment of status path can only be used by immigrants that are already in the United States. Generally, this is limited to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens that are in the United States on a non-immigrant visa. For example, a foreign student from Colombia and U.S. citizen get married. The Colombian spouse can immediately adjust status (provided that he/she is still in valid status with the student visa). Or, the Chinese parent(s) of a U.S. citizen with a tourist visa is visiting a son in the United States and make the decision to relocate to the U.S. permanently. The parent can adjust status to a permanent resident (green card holder).
Adjustment of Status Forms
Adjustment of status involves two major forms and several other related forms that must be filed with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS):
Although the alien petition can be filed first, most people choose to concurrently file the forms (file both at the same time) to expedite the process. The U.S. citizen must file (prepare and mail) Form I-130, and the green card applicant must file Form I-485. Form I-130 establishes that the petitioner has a valid, eligible relationship with the new immigrant. It also requests that a green card be reserved for the immigrant. Form I-485 is a request for USCIS to change the applicant’s temporary non-immigrant visa to a permanent immigrant visa (green card).
The consular processing path can be used by immigrants that are inside or outside the United States. Consular processing is the process used when an immigrant applies for a family based green card through the U.S. embassy or consular offices in a foreign country.
In most cases, a family preference applicant will use consular processing because of the wait. For example, a foreign student from Colombia and U.S. permanent resident get married. Once the foreign student’s visa expires, he or she must leave the United States if the green card is not yet available. The foreign spouse must wait outside the U.S. until the green card is available and then apply through the U.S. consular offices in Colombia. Or, the Chinese brother of a U.S. citizen with a tourist visa is visiting in the United States and makes the decision to relocate to the U.S. permanently. The brother will most likely have to return to China when the tourist visa expires. Staying beyond the expiration date will most likely result in the denial of a green card and create significant immigration problems in the future.
Consular Processing Forms
Consular processing also requires two major forms and several other related forms that must be filed with USCIS:
- Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
- Form DS-260, Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration
First, the U.S. citizen or permanent resident must prepare and file the Form I-130. It establishes that the petitioner has a valid, eligible relationship with the new immigrant. Once the petition is approved and the green card is available, the immigrant can file the DS-260 (visa application) at the local U.S. consular offices.
This is a simplified overview of the processes to obtain a family based green card. In actuality, additional steps and several other forms will be required. These steps and forms can vary based on the qualifying family relationship mentioned above the path taken to obtain the green card. For more information about green card wait times and trade offs of the two paths, go to Consular Processing vs Adjustment of Status.
Family Based Green Card Processing Times
Under the current U.S. immigration law, Congress limits the number of family preference green cards that may be granted each year. Thus, the annual quota (numerical limit) on each category combined with limits for each country, can create very significant waits for some categories.
|Category||Eligibility||Annual Quota||Wait Time|
|IR||Immediate Relative: Spouse, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens||No numerical limit||None*|
|F-1||Family Preference: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 years of age or older) of U.S. citizens||23,400||8–21 years|
|F-2||Family Preference: Spouse, minor children (under 21 year old), and unmarried sons and daughters of lawful permanent residents||114,200||1–2 years|
|F-3||Family Preference: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens||23,400||10–22 years|
|F-4||Family Preference: Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens||65,000||13–24 years|
*There is no quota for the immediate relative visa category, but the Form I-130 may take several months (6-12 months) before approval.
The Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, is processed on a first-come, first-served basis. So it is important to get onto this wait list early. It is extremely important that the petitioner file a well-prepared Form I-130 package that is free of errors and inconsistencies.
Costs of a Family Based Green Card
Government fees can vary significantly for a family based green card. For example, the adjustment of status path should be expected to cost at least $1500. The consular processing is generally a little less expensive but should be expected to cost over $750.
However, the above fees do not include other costs which you may incur in the process. Medical examinations and required vaccinations may cost additional. Other costs may include: translations; photocopying charges; fees for obtaining the documents you need for the immigrant visa application (such as passport, police certificates, birth certificates, etc.); and expenses for travel to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate for your visa interview.
What’s more, legal fees may be significant. If the petitioner or beneficiary of the green card have ever had previous immigration violations or an arrest record, it’s generally worth the cost to utilize the expertise of an immigration lawyer. Lawyers are not required to obtain a family based green card but can facilitate the process.
CitizenPath is the online service that makes immigration forms simple. The website provides simple, step-by-step guidance through USCIS applications and petitions. The low-cost service helps to simplify the process by explaining each question and providing alerts if your answer to a question could be a problem. Most people do not need a lawyer to prepare USCIS forms, but many need a little assistance. That’s where CitizenPath can help. CitizenPath provides support for the Petition for Alien Relative (Form I-130), Citizenship Application (Form N-400), Green Card Renewal (Form I-90), and several other popular forms.