Two groups of family based immigrant visa categories, including immediate relatives and family preference categories, are provided under the provisions of United States immigration law, specifically the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas (Unlimited): These visa types are based on a close family relationship with a United States (U.S.) citizen described as an Immediate Relative (IR). The number of immigrants in these categories is not limited each fiscal year. Immediate relative visa types include:
Family Preference Immigrant Visas (Limited): These visa types are for specific, more distant, family relationships with a U.S. citizen and some specified relationships with a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR). There are fiscal year numerical limitations on family preference immigrants, shown at the end of each category. The family preference categories are:
Note: Grandparents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, and cousins cannot sponsor a relative for immigration.
Numerical Limitations for Limited Family-based Preference Categories
Whenever the number of qualified applicants for a category exceeds the available immigrant visas, there will be an immigration wait. In this situation, the available immigrant visas will be issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed using their priority date. The filing date of a petition becomes what is called the applicant's priority date. Immigrant visas cannot be issued until an applicant's priority date is reached. In certain categories with many approved petitions compared to available visas, there may be a waiting period of several years, or more, before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin for the latest priority dates.
Returning Resident Immigrant Visas (SB) - A lawful permanent resident (LPR) who has remained outside the U.S. for longer than twelve months, or beyond the validity period of a re-entry permit, will require a new immigrant visa to enter the U.S. and resume permanent residence. A provision exists under U.S. visa law for the issuance of a returning resident special immigrant visa to an LPR who remained outside the U.S. due to circumstances beyond his/her control. For more information about international travel as a LPR, and returning resident immigrant visas, visit our Returning Resident webpage.
As the first step, a sponsoring relative must file a Petition for Alien Relative, Form I-130 with the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
In certain circumstances, a U.S. citizen living abroad can file an immigrant visa petition outside the United States. Review Filing Immigrant Petitions Outside the United States to learn more.
U.S. citizens must be age 21 or older to file petitions for siblings or parents. There is no minimum age for a sponsor to file petitions for all other categories of family based immigrant visas. However, a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR) must be at least 18 years of age and have a residence (domicile) in the U.S. before he or she can sign an Affidavit of Support, Form I-864 or I-864-EZ. This form is required for an immigrant visa for a spouse and other relatives of U.S. sponsors.
Yes. As a U.S. sponsor/petitioner, you must maintain your principal residence (also called domicile) in the U.S., which is where you plan to live for the foreseeable future. Living in the U.S. is required for a U.S. sponsor to file the Affidavit of Support, with few exceptions. To learn more, review the Affidavit of Support (I-864 or I-864EZ) Instructions.
If you filed a petition for your spouse and/or minor children when you were a lawful permanent resident (LPR), and you are now a U.S. citizen, you must upgrade the petition from family second preference (F2) to immediate relative (IR). You can do this by sending proof of your U.S. citizenship to the National Visa Center (NVC). You should send:
Important Notice: If you upgrade a family second preference (F2) petition for your spouse and you did not file separate petitions for your minor children when you were a LPR, you must do so now. A child is not included in an immediate relative (IR) petition. (This is different from the family second preference (F2) petition, which includes minor children in their parent's F2 petition.)
Children born abroad after you became a U.S. citizen may qualify for U.S. citizenship. They should apply for U.S. passports. The consular officer will determine whether your child is a U.S. citizen and can have a passport. If the consular officer determines your child is not a U.S. citizen, the child must apply for an immigrant visa if he/she wants to live in the U.S.
After USCIS approves the petition, it is sent to the National Visa Center (NVC). Once received, the NVC will assign a case number for the petition. For family preference immigrant visa cases, when an applicant’s priority date meets the most recent qualifying date, the NVC will send the Choice of Address and Agent form to the applicant, if an attorney or agent will be used. (NOTE: If you already have an attorney, the NVC will not send you this form.) NVC will begin pre-processing the applicant’s case by providing the applicant and petitioner with instructions to submit the appropriate fees. After the appropriate fees are paid, the NVC will request that the applicant submit the necessary immigrant visa documents, including the Affidavit of Support, application forms, civil documents, and more. Learn more about National Visa Center visa case processing.
Based on your approved petition, your spouse and minor unmarried children, younger than 21, may apply for immigrant visas with you. Like you, they must also fill out required application forms, obtain required civil documents, pay the required fees, and undergo medical examinations.
All categories of family preference immigrant visas are issued in the chronological order in which the petitions were filed until the numerical limit for the category is reached. The filing date of a petition becomes the applicant's priority date. Immigrant visas cannot be issued until an applicant's priority date is reached. In certain heavily oversubscribed categories, there may be a waiting period of several years before a priority date is reached. Check the Visa Bulletin for the latest priority dates.
Fees are charged for the following services:
Note: Fees must be paid for each intending immigrant, regardless of age, and are not refundable.
Fees should not be paid to the NVC or paid at the U.S. embassy or consulate where you have your visa interview unless specifically requested. Applicants will be provided with instructions by the NVC on where and when to pay the appropriate fees. These instructions are also available on NVC's Immigrant Visa Processing webpage. Do not send payments to the NVC's address in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
In general, the following documents are required:
Once the NVC determines the file is complete with all the required documents, they schedule the applicant’s interview appointment. NVC then sends the file, containing the applicant’s petition and the documents listed above, to the U.S. embassy or consulate where the applicant will be interviewed for a visa. The applicant, petitioner, attorney and third-party agent, if applicable, will receive appointment emails, or letters (if no email address is available), containing the date and time of the applicant's visa interview along with instructions, including guidance for obtaining a medical examination.
Applicants should bring their valid passports, as well as any other documentation above not already provided to NVC, to their visa interviews. During the interview process, ink-free, digital fingerprint scans will be taken. Generally, applicants will receive their original civil documents and original translations back at the time of interview.
You should read the Rights and Protections pamphlet before your visa interview to learn about your rights in the United States relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse and protection available to you. The consular officer will verbally summarize the pamphlet to you during your interview.
Important Notice: In preparing for your interview, you will need to schedule and complete your medical examination and any required vaccinations before your visa interview. Before an immigrant visa can be issued, every applicant, regardless of age, must undergo a medical examination which must be performed by an authorized panel physician. Applicants are provided instructions by NVC regarding medical examinations including information on authorized panel physicians. See Medical Examination for more information, including a list of panel physicians by country, and frequently asked questions.
U.S. immigration law requires immigrant visa applicants to obtain certain vaccinations prior to the issuance of immigrant visas. See Vaccination Requirements for IV Applicants for the list of required vaccinations and additional information.
Family preference immigrant visa cases take additional time because they are in numerically limited visa categories. The length of time varies from case to case and cannot be predicted for individual cases with any accuracy. Some cases are delayed because applicants do not follow instructions carefully. Some visa applications require further administrative processing, which takes additional time after the visa applicant’s interview by a consular officer.
Certain conditions and activities may make an applicant ineligible for a visa. Examples of these ineligibilities include: drug trafficking; overstaying a previous visa; and submitting fraudulent documents. If you are ineligible for a visa, you will be informed by the consular officer and advised whether there is a waiver of the ineligibility available to you and what the waiver process is. Classes of Aliens Ineligible to Receive Visas contains the complete list of ineligibilities.
Attempting to obtain a visa by the willful misrepresentation of a material fact or fraud may result in you becoming permanently ineligible to receive a U.S. visa or enter the United States.
If you are issued an immigrant visa, the consular officer will give you your passport containing the immigrant visa and a sealed packet containing the documents which you provided. It is important that you do not open the sealed packet. Only the U.S. immigration official should open this packet when you enter the United States. You are required to enter the United States before the expiration date printed on your visa. When traveling, the primary (or principal) applicant must enter the United States before or at the same time as family members holding visas.
If you receive your immigrant visa on or after February 1, 2013, you must pay the USCIS Immigrant Fee to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) after you receive your immigrant visa and before you travel to the United States. (IR-3, IH-3, IR-4, and IH-4 visa holders are exempt from this fee.) Select USCIS Immigrant Fee on the USCIS website for more information.
Important Notice: USCIS will not issue a Permanent Resident Card (Form I-551 or Green Card) until you have paid the fee.
A visa allows a foreign citizen to travel to the U.S. port of entry and request permission to enter the U.S. Applicants should be aware that a visa does not guarantee entry into the U.S. The DHS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials have authority to permit or deny admission to the U.S. Travelers should review important information about admissions and entry requirements on the CBP website under Travel. Once you have been admitted to the U.S. as a permanent resident, your Permanent Resident Card, Form I-551 (formerly called Alien Registration Card, also known as green card) will be mailed to you.
If you elected on your immigrant visa application form to receive your Social Security Number Card upon admission to the United States as an immigrant, your card will be sent via mail to the U.S. address you designated on your application form, and should arrive approximately six weeks following your admission. If you did not elect to receive your Social Security Number Card automatically, you will have to apply to be issued a card following your arrival in the United States. To learn about applying for a Social Security Number Card, visit the Social Security Administration website.
Immigrant visa applicants should not make any final travel arrangements, dispose of property, or give up jobs until and unless visas are issued. Some visa applications require further administrative processing, which takes additional time after the visa applicant's interview by a consular officer. An immigrant visa is generally valid for six months from the issuance date.