Family-Sponsored Immigration - A Step-by-Step Immigration Guide

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What is Family-Sponsored Immigration?

Reuniting families through family-sponsored immigration
Photo: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Ivan Hunter / Getty Images

If you want to come to the U.S. to live and work permanently and you have a relative who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, you may be able to obtain permanent residence through family-sponsored immigration.

This is a multi-step process that both the foreign relative (known as the beneficiary) and the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (known as the petitioner or sponsor) must go through to obtain an immigrant visa.

The following steps will guide you through the process of immigrating to the U.S. through family sponsorship.

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Are You Eligible for Family-Sponsored Immigration?

People who want to become immigrants are classified by category based on a preference system. Your category is determined by the type of relationship you have with your U.S. sponsor.

Immediate relatives do not have to wait for an immigrant visa number to become available once the visa petition filed for them is approved by USCIS. This category is unlimited, meaning there is no restriction placed on the number of people that may immigrate under this category. Other relatives may obtain an immigrant visa number according to a preference system determined by USCIS. This is a limited category, and only a certain number of visa numbers will be assigned each year in this category.

Unlimited Family-Sponsored

  • Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens (IR): The spouse, widow(er) and unmarried children under 21 of a U.S. citizen, and the parent of a U.S. citizen who is 21 or older.

  • Returning Residents (SB): Immigrants who lived in the United States previously as lawful permanent residents and are returning to live in the U.S. after a temporary visit of more than one year abroad.

Limited Family-Sponsored

  • Family First Preference (F1): Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their children, if any.

  • Family Second Preference (F2): Spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (over age 20) of lawful permanent residents. At least seventy-seven percent of all visas available for this category will go to the spouses and children; the remainder will be allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.

  • Family Third Preference (F3): Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and children.

  • Family Fourth Preference (F4): Brothers and sisters of United States citizens, and their spouses and children, provided the U.S. citizens are at least 21 years of age.

Source: USCIS

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Does Your U.S. Relative Meet the Criteria?

Your U.S. relative must meet the following criteria in order to sponsor you to immigrate to the United States:

  • They must be a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the U.S. and be able to provide documentation providing that status.
  • They must prove that they can support you at 125% above the mandated poverty line, by filling out an Affidavit of Support

While both U.S. citizens and lawful permanent relatives may petition for a foreign relative to immigrate to the U.S., there are differences between the type of relative each may sponsor.

If the sponsor is a U.S. citizen, they may petition for the following foreign national relatives to immigrate to the U.S:

  • Husband or wife
  • Unmarried child under 21 years of age
  • Unmarried son or daughter over 21
  • Married son or daughter of any age
  • Brother or sister, if the sponsor is at least 21 years old
  • Parent, if the sponsor is at least 21 years old.
If your sponsor is a lawful permanent resident, he or she may petition for the following foreign national relatives:
  • Husband or wife
  • Unmarried son or daughter of any age.
In any case, the sponsor must be able to provide proof of the relationship.

Source: USCIS

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An Overview of the Family-Sponsored Immigration Process

Family-sponsored immigration is a multi-step process that involves both the U.S. relative and the foreign national:

  • The U.S. relative submits the Petition for Alien Relative to the USCIS
  • USCIS approves the petition and forwards it to the National Visa Center (NVC)
  • NVC notifies the foreign relative when an immigrant visa number becomes available
  • The foreign relative secures the visa number by adjusting status (if residing in the U.S., or completing the process with the local U.S. Consulate if outside the U.S.)
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Putting Together the Petition

The U.S. relative (the petitioner) will get the ball rolling by submitting a petition to USCIS. The petitioner sends a completed Petition for Alien Relative packet to the USCIS office designated for the U.S. relative's geographic location. The petition will include required forms and a variety of documents and supporting materials. These include:

  • Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
  • Form G-325A Biographic Information (husband and wife)
  • Proof that the petitioner is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident
  • Proof of a family relationship between petitioner and beneficiary Filing fee

USCIS will confirm receipt of the petition by sending Form I-797, Notice of Action. Once approved, USCIS will send a second Notice of Action to the petitioner. USCIS then sends the approved petition to the Department of State's National Visa Center (NVC).

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Immigrant Visa Number

After the USCIS has approved the initial petition, it will be forwarded to the NVC until an immigrant visa number becomes available. This applies to beneficiaries both within and outside the United States. You can find out when an immigrant visa number may become available for your category by checking the status in the Department of State's Visa Bulletin.

If you are already in the U.S. when a visa number becomes available, you will apply to adjust your status to that of a lawful permanent resident by submitting Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status.

If you are outside the U.S. when an immigrant visa number becomes available, you will complete the processing and secure a visa number at your U.S. consulate. NVC will provide you with the information you need to complete the processing. You will be asked to finalize a packet of information, which will include Form I-864 Affidavit of Support, supporting documents and additional fees. You must also attend a medical exam and interview.

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General Tips

The following suggestions will help make the immigration process smoother:

  • Include a cover letter with the I-130 Petition detailing what you have included in the packet.
  • Make two copies of everything in the packet. This should be a complete copy, including all forms, supporting materials and the check or money order for the filing fee. If the worst happens and the package gets lost in transit, you'll have a complete packet ready to resend. Be sure the foreign relative has complete copies as well, to take to the interview.
  • When the foreign national is approved and secures an immigrant visa number, the visa will be valid for 6 months. You must arrive at a U.S. port of entry prior to the expiration date on the visa, otherwise the visa will expire and you will have to start the petition process from scratch.