This page details how you can get a green card for your family members. If you are a U.S. Citizen or lawful permanent resident, you can sponsor a child, spouse, parent, or sibling to immigrate to the United States. This page provides an overview to family based green card immigration, and will point you to more specific pages for the scenario that fits your circumstances. Please note, reading this page is not a substitute for speaking with an immigration lawyer.
This page details:
- The Two Vehicles for Family Based Immigration
- Immediate Relatives
- Definitions of Immediate Relatives
- Preference System
- Visa attorney
The Two Vehicles for Family Based Immigration
There are two vehicles to get a non-U.S. citizen family member a green card.
- If they qualify as an “immediate relative” they can become a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) fairly easily.
- If they qualify under the “preference system” they can get a green card, but it is more difficult than immediate relatives and is subject to long waiting times.
“Immediate Relative” Family Based Green Cards
If you are a citizen, the easiest way to bring a family member into the US is to sponsor them as an “immediate relative.” In order to do that they must qualify as an immediate relative under the INA. There are no numerical limits to the immediate relative category and the waiting times are much shorter than the preference system.
What is an immediate relative? The person must be a child, spouse, or parent of the sponsoring US citizen.
While that may seem relatively simple, it’s not. The definition of “child,” “parent,” or “spouse” can be quite complicated under the INA. Plus, as you can imagine, thousands of people have attempted to fake their way into the United States by lying on immigration forms. Therefore, there is a rigorous screening process.
Definitions of Immediate Relatives
Definition of Child
A child is defined as an unmarried person under 21 years of age who is a child born in wedlock, step-child, child born out-of-wedlock, legitimated child, children adopted before the age of 16, and certain orphans. There are many exceptions and qualifications to this definition. To learn more about immigrating a child to the USA, visit our child green card page.
Definition of Parent
The term “parent” means a parent, father, or mother of a child born in wedlock, step-child, child born out-of-wedlock, legitimated child, children adopted before the age of 16, and certain orphans. However, if the father of the adopted child or orphan is no longer in the picture he may not qualify as a parent. As above, there are many exceptions and qualifications to this definition. To learn more about how to get your parent a green card, visit our parent green card page.
Definition of Spouse
A “spouse” is a legally wedded husband or wife. What does “legally wedded” mean. “In determining whether a marriage is valid for immigration purposes, USCIS applies the laws of the place where the marriage was celebrated.” Miezgiel v. Holder. So, if you marry your spouse in Japan, you must be legally married in Japan before the marriage can qualify under the INA.
To learn more about how to immigrate your spouse to the United States, visit our spouse green card page for more information.
Now, this is just an overview of the immediate relatives’ vehicle. If you want to get a family based green card or become a lawful permanent resident this way, consult with an immigration lawyer as soon as possible. We do not recommend that you wait very long before contacting an attorney as the processing times for a visa can take a long time.
Preference System – People Who Are Not Immediate Relatives
If you want to sponsor a relative or spouse to get a family based green card, but they don’t meet the definition of an immediate relative, you must apply for a family based green card through the “preference system.” INA 203(a).
The preference system is a method of distributing the limited number of visas available each year. The preference system outlines four ways to get a family based green card:
- First Preference – U.S. citizens can sponsor unmarried adult sons and daughters under this preference. The adult sons and daughters must be at least 21 years of age.
- Second Preference – Green card holders can sponsor spouses, unmarried children, and adult sons and daughters under the following two sub-categories:
- 2A – Spouses and unmarried children of green card holders.
- 2B – Unmarried adult sons and daughters of green card holders (over 21).
- Third Preference – U.S. citizens can sponsor married sons and daughters under this preference.
- Fourth Preference – U.S. citizens can sponsor brothers and sisters under this preference.
To initiate this process, your sponsor should have a lawyer file an immigrant visa petition. This is Form I-130 with the USCIS. Once that petition is approved you will get a priority date. A family based green card will not be issued until the applicant’s priority date is reached.
Generally, the preference system is much slower than immediate relatives. Whenever the number of approved applicants exceeds the available visas in that preference category, there will be an immigration hold or wait. There are numerical caps as to how many people can get each type of visa. If there is a backlog in your situation (most countries have backlogs), the visas will be issued in the order in which the petitions were filed using their priority date. Many people wait several years before they get a green card.
Spouses of U.S. citizens – If you are a United States citizen and you get married to someone who is not a citizen, they can get a green card under the “immediate relative” category. While you must ensure the proper forms are filed, and there is a rigorous screening process to ensure the marriage is legitimate, this process can be completed relatively quickly.
Spouses of Green Card Holders (Lawful Permanent Residents) – If you are a green card holder, but not a citizen, you can sponsor your spouse under the second preference category. This category, like all the preference categories, are subject to annual caps. This means that the U.S. only lets in a certain number of people from each country each year. The waiting list for this category can be very long.
For more information about getting a family based green card for your spouse, visit our spouse green card page.
Generally, as the above information made clear, the definition of a “child” under immigration law is complicated. This is especially true if the child is adopted or born out of wedlock.
U.S. citizens can sponsor children (under the age of 21) as an immediate relative. This is the easiest way. But, if your child is over 21 and unmarried, citizens must sponsor the child under the first preference. If your child is married, you can sponsor him or her under the third preference.
Green card holders can sponsor unmarried children and unmarried adult sons and daughters under the second preference.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg! To learn more about the details on how to immigrate a child to the USA, visit our child green card page.
U.S. citizens can sponsor their parents. The U.S. citizen must be over the age of 21 in order to petition a green card for a parent. To learn more about how to get your parent a green card, visit our parent green card page.
U.S. citizens can petition for their siblings to get a green card under the fourth preference. Brothers and sisters can petition for one another only if they meet the definition of a child from one or both parents. This means half-siblings may petition for one another but adopted siblings. To learn more about how to get a green card for your brother or sister, visit our sibling green card page.
Consulting with a Family Based Green Card Lawyer
Acquiring a family based green card can be relatively straightforward and quick or it can be incredibly difficult and take years. You should certainly hire an experienced immigration attorney to ensure that your petition is filed right and the correct category is chosen. An experienced attorney can save you years of hassle and thousands of dollars.
 INA § 101(b)(2)