As a citizen or permanent resident of the United States, you can help a relative get a green card. The green card, formally known as a permanent resident card, is the tangible proof that a person may permanently live and work in the U.S. as a permanent resident.
The process begins by filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. Specifically, the form establishes an eligible family relationship that exists between you and your relative and initiates the request for a visa.
Your relative’s wait for a green card will vary significantly based on the type of relationship and other factors. Immediate relatives may have virtually no wait while some family preference categories will have to wait several years. Filing the I-130 petition is a critical first step to get your family member get a green card.
Relatives Eligible to Get a Green Card
Form I-130 establishes the family relationship that exists between you and your relative, but not any relative is eligible. Only certain relatives are eligible. And depending on the relationship, it will affect the wait time. Before you help a relative get a green card, it’s important to understand the difference between the Immediate Relative and Family Preference categories for obtaining an immigrant visa (green card).
The term “immediate relative(s)” is used to define certain immigrant relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives include:
- Spouses of U.S. citizens
- Children (unmarried and under 21) of U.S. citizens
- Parents of U.S. citizens
Even widows or widowers of U.S. citizens may be eligible if the U.S. citizen filed a petition before his or her death or the widow(er) files a petition within two years of the citizen’s death. Children include biological, adopted and step children. If you petition your parent, you must be 21 years or older.
For immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, visas are always available. There is no limit. To put it another way, your relative does not need to wait in line for a visa. Since a visa is available right away, immediate relatives who are in the United States may be able to adjust status to permanent resident instead of waiting in their home country for the consular process.
Preference categories apply to family members who are not immediate relatives. The visas allotted for these categories are subject to annual numerical limits. A visa becomes available to a preference category based on the priority date (the date the Form I-130 was filed). Preference categories are grouped as follows:
- First preference: Unmarried, adult sons and daughters (age 21 or over) of U.S. citizens
- Second Preference (2A): Spouses of green card holders, unmarried children (under 21) of permanent residents
- Second Preference (2B): Unmarried adult sons and daughters of permanent residents
- Third Preference: Married sons and daughters (any age) of U.S. citizens
- Fourth Preference: Brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens
Visa availability for the family preference categories can be lengthy in some cases. Some third and fourth preference categories can take several years. For more information on this process, visit How to Read the Visa Bulletin.
Your Relative’s Family
Generally, your relative’s spouse and unmarried children under 21 years of age can be covered on the same Form I-130 petition. When your relative’s visa number becomes current, his or her spouse and children can get a green card at the same time.
Example: You file a Form I-130 petition for your married daughter. You can’t file a petition for her husband and children because there is no eligible relationship for a son-in-law or grandchild. However, when your daughter’s place in line allows her to apply for an immigrant visa, her husband and children can apply for immigrant visas at the same time with your daughter.
However, as a U.S. citizen, you must file a separate petition for each one of your direct relatives, including your own children (or step children). If you are petitioning a spouse, you must petition each of your spouse’s unmarried children under 18 years of age (your step children) with a separate I-130 petition.
Example: You marry someone with a child. The child will generally qualify as your stepchild if he or she was unmarried and under 18 years of age at the time of your marriage. In this example, you are required to file two I-130 petitions: one petition for your spouse and another for the stepchild.
Your Relative’s Wait to Get a Green Card
The immigrant visa category (immediate relative or family preference) will have a significant affect on the time your relative must wait to get a green card. Immigration law gives special consideration to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, which includes a U.S. citizen’s spouse, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and parents.
- There is no waiting list to immigrate these relatives.
- The U.S. Department of State will invite them to apply for an immigrant visa as soon as USCIS approves your I-130 petition.
- If your petition has been approved, and your relatives are currently in the United States after making a legal entry (and they meet other requirements), they may be able to file applications with USCIS to adjust to permanent resident status.
For family preference relatives, the combination of high demand and the limits set by law on how many people can immigrate each year means your relative may have to wait several years in line while petitions that were filed before theirs are processed. When your relative reaches the front of the line, the U.S. Department of State contacts your relative and invites him or her to apply for an immigrant visa.
During the Wait to Get a Green Card
Filing an I-130 petition does not allow your relative to come to the United States while waiting for an approval. The I-130 petition only establishes your relationship with your relative. Typically, your relative must continue to wait outside the United States to immigrate legally.
However, if your relative legally entered the U.S and is currently present with a non-immigrant visa (i.e. student, tourist, employee), he or she may stay in the U.S. only while that visa is valid. Your immigrant should depart the U.S. before the visa expires.
If your family member is an immediate relative (spouse, unmarried child under 21 years, or parent) and is already in the United States after having entered legally, they can apply to adjust their status to permanent resident at the same time you file their I-130 petition.
CitizenPath provides simple, affordable, step-by-step guidance through USCIS immigration applications. Individuals, attorneys and non-profits use the service on desktop or mobile device to prepare immigration forms accurately, avoiding costly delays. CitizenPath allows users to try the service for free and provides a 100% money-back guarantee that USCIS will accept the application or petition. We provide support for the Adjustment of Status Application (Form I-485), Petition to Help a Relative Obtain a Green Card (Form I-130), Affidavit of Support (Form I-864), and several other USCIS forms.
Note to Reader: This post was originally published on October 18, 2016, and has been modified with improvements.