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Family-Based Immigration

Citizens and permanent residents of the U.S. may petition the federal government for an immigrant visa for certain family members. American citizens can petition for more categories of family members than permanent residents can. The amount of time between the date the petition is filed and the date when the family member actually obtains the immigrant visa can vary anywhere from six months to 20 years. The wait time is determined by the immigration status of the petitioner, the category of family member being petitioned and in what country the family member lives.

Relationship Priority

The government assigns each of the types of family petitions a priority. Some family relationships have a higher priority than others, meaning those family members will generally get permanent residency faster.

The family-relationship category with the highest priority is immediate relatives. The spouses, unmarried children under 21 years old and parents of U.S. citizens over 20 years old are immediate relatives. Immediate relatives have immigrant visas instantly available — there is no quota. Once the initial petition by the U.S. citizen is approved by Citizenship and Immigration Services, the immediate relative may file an application for the immigrant visa.

Family relationships that are not immediate relatives fall into preference categories. The people in preference categories must wait until an immigrant visa is available before they can apply. Every petition filed by a citizen or permanent resident that is approved is given a priority date, which is the date on or near when the petition was received by CIS. The State Department publishes a visa bulletin every month that lists each of the preference categories with a date. Immigrant visas are available to anyone in a specific preference category with a priority date earlier than the date reported on the visa bulletin. Waiting for a priority date to become current can take many years.

Once an immigrant visa is available to the intending immigrant family member, other factors such as the person’s U.S. immigration history, criminal history and current location will determine whether he or she qualifies for permanent residency and where the application should be filed, either inside or outside of the U.S.

U.S. Citizen Petitioners

  • Immediate relatives
    • Spouse
    • Unmarried child under 21 years old
    • Parent (the petitioner must be at least 21 years old)
  • First preference
    • Unmarried child over 21 years old (and his or her children)
  • Second preference
    • Married child of any age (and his or her spouse and children)
  • Third preference
    • Siblings (and his or her spouse and children)

Permanent-Resident Petitioners

  • 2A preference
    • Spouse
    • Unmarried child under 21 years old (and his or her children)
  • 2B preference
    • Unmarried child over 21 years old (and his or her children)

Every year, the U.S. government authorizes a set number of immigrant visas for the family-based categories, and every year, more citizens and permanent residents file petitions for their family members than there are immigrant visas authorized.

Country Priority

The government also prioritizes petitions based on the country from which the family member is immigrating. Mexico, China, India and the Philippines have individual waiting times because family members from these countries account for many of the requested immigrant visas.

It is important that you consult with an attorney who is experienced in U.S. immigration law before filing a petition or application.

Last update: Sept. 25, 2008

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