Family-Based Green Card: a Complete Guide

Key Points to Know

  • Applicants whose petitions fall under immediate relative (IR) immigrants enjoy faster processing time than those who are family preference immigrants.
  • The average processing time for immediate relatives (spouses, unmarried children under 21 years old, and parents of U.S. citizens) filing from within the U.S. is 10.1 months.

A family-based green card is one of the most popular ways to become a permanent resident in the United States. That’s not to say it’s easy or a fast process, however, and wait times are often quite lengthy. For that reason, it’s always recommended that a professional immigration attorney handle your case from start to end to avoid any delays or denials.

Currently, this particular visa program accounts for about two-thirds of the more than 1 million green cards issued annually. Just like every other immigrant visa, the family-based green card has several subcategories, each determined by the family relationship that exists between the sponsor and the beneficiary of the visa. Family immigration is one of our key services at VisaNation. Over the past decade, we helped thousands of families reunite in the U.S.

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What is a Family-Based Green Card?

The family-based green card category is broadly grouped into two, namely the immediate relative category and the family preference category. Green card applications for each of these two groups are treated differently. The relationship between the visa petitioner and the beneficiary will determine the steps and processing time of the application.

Immediate Relative Immigrant (IR) Visas

This family-based visa type is issued to close relatives of U.S. citizens. The subcategory tops other types of family-based visas because there is no limit to how many can be issued in a year, and it also has the fastest adjudication process. Immediate relatives are categorized as follows:

  • IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. citizen
  • IR-2: A United States citizen’s unmarried child under the age of 21
  • IR-3: An orphan adopted abroad by a U.S. citizen
  • IR-4: An orphan to be adopted in the United States by a U.S. citizen
  • IR-5: A United States citizen’s parent who is at least 21 years of age

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Family Preference Immigrant Visas

This is meant for certain family members of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. Unlike the immediate relative subcategory, family preference green cards have a numerical limitation, and only a specified number can be issued each year.

Once the number has been reached for a particular fiscal year, other applicants will need to wait in visa line. The wait time can be for several months or years, depending on the visa backlogs in their category. Family preference green cards are:

Family First Preference (F1): This is for unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens and their minor children. 23,400 visas are issued annually to applicants in this category.

Family Second Preference (F2): This is for spouses, minor children, and unmarried sons and daughters (21 years and above) of lawful permanent residents. 114,200 visas are issued annually and up to 77% of the family-based green cards for the category usually go to the spouses and children. The remainder in the subcategory will be allocated to unmarried sons and daughters.

Family Third Preference (F3): This category is for married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens as well as their spouses and minor children. The annual limit is 23,400.

Family Fourth Preference (F4): This is for brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens, and their spouses and minor children. The U.S. citizen (petitioner) must be 21 years and above. This category has an annual limit of 65,000 visas.

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Not sure which preference category applies to you or your family members? We can help you with the entire process, from start to finish. Start today!

Annual Family Preference Immigrant Visas Issued (2) 2023

Family-Based Green Card Processing Time

The processing time for a relative depends on what category of family member they fall into as well as which field office is responsible for processing their application.

  • The processing time for immediate relatives (spouses, unmarried children under 21 years old, and parents of U.S. citizens) filing from within the U.S. is 10.1 months.
  • For sponsors that are green card holders, the I-130 average processing time is 25 months.

You can see a more detailed breakdown in the chart below.

Status of U.S. Spouse

Currently Residing In...

Approx. Wait Time as of 2024

U.S. Citizen

United States

8-12 months


1.5-2 years

U.S. Green Card Holder 

United States 

3-4 years


4-5 years

You should also check the latest monthly visa bulletin, which we update frequently as new dates are published by USCIS.

Once the I-130 petition filed by the petitioner (U.S. citizen) is approved by the USCIS, the immediate relative (IR) beneficiary will not have to wait in line for a visa number. For other family members of U.S. citizens there is no automatic availability of visas.

  • The applicants will have to wait until there is a visa number available for them. The wait time for this subcategory can be up to 12 to 36 months. In some cases, it may even take 5 to 10 years. As a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder), you are allowed to petition for your spouse or unmarried children to obtain green cards.
  • Unlike a U.S. citizen, a green card holder is not permitted to petition for siblings, parents, or married children. The annual visa cap for the family members of green card holders is 114,200.
  • Family-based green card applicants under this category may also experience quite a long processing time of up to 12 months and above. And in some cases, it may be as long as 5 to 10 years. Processing times can be a lot longer if your application is incomplete or contains errors.

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Family-Based Green Card Requirements

There is more to just being a green card holder or U.S. citizen when determining eligibility for family-based green card sponsorship. Apart from the citizenship or LPR basic prerequisite, the following criteria must also be met:

  • You must be able to establish that you have a close family relationship with the visa beneficiary. The relationship must be in one of the categories listed above under immediate relatives or family preference.
  • You must maintain your principal residence in the United States.
  • As a green card sponsor, you must prove your readiness and capability to support your sponsored family member financially after arriving in the United States. You will need to sign an affidavit of support, which must show that your annual income can take care of you, the sponsored beneficiary, and every other dependent member of your household.

The minimum income requirement for family-based green card sponsorship is 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

Family-Based Green Card Application Process

Applicants whose petitions fall under immediate relative (IR) immigrants enjoy faster processing time than those who are family preference immigrants. However, the procedures and documentation for both types are the same, and are as follows:

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I-130 Petition for Alien Relative

The first step in a family-based green card application is the I-130 petition, which must be filed with the USCIS by a U.S. citizen or a lawful permanent resident. The I-130 is filed to establish the familial relationship that exists between the petitioner and the beneficiary.

After receiving the petition, the USCIS will process it and determine if all the family-based green card eligibility criteria are met by both the petitioner and the beneficiary. Once the I-130 petition is approved and there is an available immigrant visa for the category, then the visa beneficiary will need to take the next step by either applying for status adjustment or going through consular processing. This will depend on whether the sponsored family member is in the United States or abroad.

Green Card Processing for Family Members in the U.S.

This process is known as adjustment of status, in which you will need to file the I-485 with the USCIS. This is your main green card application after establishing a qualifying familial relationship with I-130 petition. It must be filled along with all the required documents attached.

The I-485 and I-130 forms can be submitted simultaneously by applicants who are immediate relatives, meaning that their category does not have numerical limitations. Are you only thinking about applying for a family green card?

Learn more about the Family-Based Green Card application process.

Green Card Processing for Family Members Outside the U.S.

This is known as consular processing. In this case, the approved I-130 will be forwarded to the appropriate embassy or consulate in the country where you (the beneficiary) reside. Both the petitioner and beneficiary will be notified when the petition reaches the embassy or consulate.

The notification will also contain when and how to proceed with your green card process through consular processing. These next steps involve a one-on-one interview with a consular officer to verify your eligibility. The required form for this is the DS-260, Application for Immigrant Visa and Alien Registration.

Other steps involved:

  • Medical examination and receiving the required vaccinations
  • Attending the green card interview. The consulate will notify you of the date and location of your visa interview after filling the above forms.
  • Receiving the immigrant visa packet, which you will be given if your application is approved after your interview. This will allow you to travel to the U.S.
  • Traveling to the U.S. The visa packet issued to you at the embassy is only permission to travel. You must prove to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at a U.S. port of entry (POE), that you are admissible into the United States. Upon your arrival at the POE, the CBP officer will inspect your visa packet and grant you entry as a permanent resident.
  • Receiving your green card. After a few weeks in the U.S. (usually within 45 days), the USCIS will mail your family-based green card to you.

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How VisaNation Law Group Can Help

Over the past few years, immigration wait times have doubled. Currently, millions of applicants are waiting for green cards and there are strong indications that the number will keep rising. However, with the help of a family-based green card attorney lawyer, you can expedite the process and avoid delays.

VisaNation Law Group will help you prepare your petitions and documentation the best way and avoid RFEs that can prolong the process. Their experienced family-based immigration attorneys will also guide you through the interview process. Start your immigration journey today!