Family-Based Green Cards Explained

Obtaining a permanent resident card affords you many opportunities. A permanent resident cardholder has the legal authorization to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. This is a big step in building a life in the U.S.A.

While there are several ways to obtain a permanent resident card, sponsorship through a family member who is already a Permanent Resident or Citizen of the U.S. may be the best option. Unfortunately, the process can be confusing, making even straightforward cases a little complicated. Let’s look at what you need to know about family-based green cards.


Related: Citizenship and Naturalization


What Is a Family-Based Green Card?

The U.S., through its immigration laws, affords U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents the opportunity to petition for, and unite with, certain family members.   Basically,  a family-based green card is the process by which a foreign national becomes a permanent resident of the United States through their family member.

With this green card, the family member is able to legally live and work in the United States and is afforded rights and responsibilities under U.S. laws.

What Are the Different Types of Family-Based Green Cards?

For a family member to be able to obtain a permanent resident card (green card), they must have a petition submitted on their behalf. Only U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents, of at least 21 years of age, can petition for their family members.  Who can be petitioned, and how long the process will take, will depend on the petitioner’s status.


The process to become a permanent resident is normally divided into two parts: the first part is the petition and the second part is applying for an immigrant visa (requesting to become a permanent resident). Applying for an immigrant visa can take place in the United States (also called adjustment of status), or in an Embassy or Consulate abroad (also called consular processing).  Where, when, and how quickly the second part of the process takes place (applying to become a permanent resident), will depend on whether the petitioner is a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident.


Family Members are divided into two different categories: immediate relatives and preference categories. Immediate Relatives are family members who have a visa readily available once their petition is approved, while members in the preference category must wait for a visa to become available after their petition has been approved (although in some cases and categories, the visa will be currently available even if a family member falls into the preference category) to be able to apply for permanent residence. For preference categories, they are assigned a priority date when their petitions are filed, and they have to wait until those priority dates are current, to apply to become a permanent resident. Depending on the category, the visa could take years before it becomes available. Please see below which family members can be petitioned for by U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents, and under which categories.

-U.S. Citizen as Petitioner:

If the petitioner is a U.S. citizen, their spouses, parents, and children under 21 years of age are considered “immediate relatives.” These family members are not subject to family-based preference categories.  As such, they have a visa immediately available to start their application to become a permanent resident. This is generally the easiest path to becoming a permanent resident, based on a family petition…

U.S. citizens may also sponsor their siblings, married sons and daughters, and unmarried sons and daughters over the age of 21. However, these are not considered immediate relatives but are placed in different preference categories. This means these family members will not have a visa immediately available to them and their process will take longer. How many years it will take, will depend on the visa category and, sometimes, the country of citizenship/nationality.


-Green Card Holder as Petitioner:

Permanent residents can petition for their spouses, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and unmarried sons and daughters over 21 years of age. All family members of permanent residents are subject to preference-based categories. Nonetheless, spouses and unmarried children under 21 years of age have a shorter wait period than unmarried children over 21 years of age.


How Long Does a Family-Based Green Card Take?

If a U.S. citizen is sponsoring their immediate relatives, the process to receive a permanent resident card is shorter than for other family-based cases Their spouse, parents, and minor children can generally become a permanent resident within a year. It is important to note that, how quickly the process takes place, will also depend on whether the immediate family member is adjusting status to a permanent resident in the U.S. or consular processing. In most cases, when the person is adjusting status in the U.S. both the petition and the application to become a permanent resident can be filed simultaneously. If the person is not able to file simultaneously or if they will be consular processing in an Embassy or Consulate, then they must wait until the petition is approved, the approval is sent to the national visa center, and the documents and fees are paid for and prepared so the Embassy can provide them with an interview, Consular processing extends the timeframe for obtaining a family-based green card as well.


However, aside from those previously mentioned, most other family members will be subject to preference categories and will have to wait for their priority date to be current. The amount of time their visa will take to be available will depend on which category the family member falls within. The categories are divided as follows:

  1. F1 – unmarried children of 21 years of age or more of U.S. citizens.
  2. F2A –  spouses and minor, unmarried children of permanent residents
  3. F2B – Unmarried sons and daughters  21 years of age or older of permanent residents
  4. F3 – married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
  5. F4 –  siblings of U.S. citizens.

Unfortunately, as discussed above, family members under these preference categories may have to wait multiple years before they can move forward in the process.

To see current wait times based on categories, please see the Department of State’s visa bulletin.


Related: VAWA Eligibility Requirements: How To Qualify In 2022


How Many Family-Based Green Cards Are Issued Each Year?

Open passport with stamps

An unlimited number of family-based green cards are issued to immediate relatives of citizens each year.  The Immigration and Nationality Act sets an annual visa minimum of 226,000 family-sponsored preference visas issued each year.

However, if the previous year’s allotment was not used, additional visas may be issued in the current year. It is important to note that there may be restrictions to the issuance of visas. For example, there are limits to the percentage of green cards allotted to immigrants from each country.

Added to this, the amount of family-based visas allowed per year is divided and distributed by categories. Each category receives a different allotment of visas.

  • F1: 23,400, plus any numbers not required for the F4 category
  • F2A & F2B: not to exceed 114,200, plus the number (if any) by which worldwide family preference levels exceed 226,000, plus any unused numbers from F1
  • F3: not to exceed 23,400, plus any numbers not needed by F1 and F2 categories
  • F4: not to exceed 65,000, plus any numbers not needed by the first 3 preference categories


How Much Does It Cost to Sponsor a Family Member?


The cost of the process for obtaining a permanent residence will depend on whether the family member will adjust their status in the US or the consular process if legal services will be used, and if any additional work, such waivers will be needed.


Below we detail basic costs related to USCIS and NVC for applying for an immigrant visa. It is important to note that these do not include related costs like medical exams, vaccinations, legal costs, translations, and others.


Basic USCIS costs for adjusting status in the U.S.:

  1. Petition – $535
  2. Application to Adjust status – $1140 ($750 in certain cases)
  3. Biometrics – $85


Basic USCIS & NVC costs for applying for residence abroad

  1. Petition – $535
  2. Immigrant Visa Application – $325
  3. Affidavit of Support – $120
  4. Immigrant Visa Fee – $220


For more concrete details on the costs for your case, you can contact our law firm and schedule a consultation to review your immigration options and the costs associated with these.

Want to learn more about other immigration routes? Learn about our employment-based visa services!


Can My Family Sponsor Me Even If I Have Been Here Illegally?

Even if you have stayed in the U.S. illegally, you may still be able to apply for a family-sponsored green card. However, this will depend on a multiplicity of factors that should be carefully reviewed by a legal professional. Discussing your situation with an attorney is highly recommended.


In many cases, it could require having to leave the U.S. to a consular process, in order to complete your family-based green card process. Nonetheless, if you leave the U.S. without having taken the proper legal steps, you may not be able to re-enter the U.S.. It could be years before you are allowed to even request to enter the U.S. again. Wading through these circumstances can be confusing and overwhelming.  Weeking and having the proper legal advice can help you make the best decision for your case, and ultimately your life.


How Does the Family-Based Green Card Work?


The beneficiary should be present in the United States when filing the application. If the person being sponsored is in the U.S., the official term for applying for permanent resident status is known as “adjustment of status.” If they are not, they will need to use Consular Processing instead.  Requirements to qualify for a green card under Adjustment of Status or Consular Processing are the same.  However, the process and timing can vary.


The family-based green card process starts by filing Form I-130, which will then be reviewed. You may be able to file your form I-485 (adjustment of status application) at the same time if a visa is available for you and if the beneficiary is in the U.S.  If you are not eligible to file an adjustment of status application, you will need to wait for your priority date to become current or consular process the application.


To qualify for adjustment of status, the beneficiary needs to be inspected and admitted or paroled by an immigration officer. The beneficiary will also need to submit documentation, including a birth certificate, a copy of your passport page, and an identification document, among other documents. Part of the filing process includes paying the appropriate fee. In addition, there are additional eligibility requirements to be satisfied.


Minor children and spouses of a family-based applicant can also apply for a permanent residency card as a derivative applicant, in some instances. It is important to note that immediate relatives cannot include derivative applicants in the green card process.


How Long Is a Family-Based Green Card Valid?


Normally, family-based green cards have a 10-year validity period, except for green cards that are approved for spouses of U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents who have been married for less than two years. In those particular cases, they will receive a conditional permanent resident card valid for two years and will have to apply before USCIS to remove conditions and obtain a ten-year green card. That being said, a person who has obtained their green card will continue to be a permanent resident, until and unless an immigration court takes away their resident status. It is the resident’s responsibility to renew their card when nearing its expiration date (or remove conditions, whichever the case) before it expires. Nonetheless, an expired card does NOT equal a loss of permanent residence status.  Note: this will not apply to the expiration of a 2-year green card.  If you have a 10-year green card, your permanent resident status does not expire because your green card expired.


Related: To Sponsor or Not to Sponsor… an H-1B


Apply for Permanent Residency with a Family-Based Green Card

People waving American flags

If you have a close family member who is a Permanent Resident or Citizen of the United States, and you fall into one of the categories of family members mentioned in this article, you may be eligible for a family-based green card. While the process may seem a little confusing or overwhelming, with some legal help to guide you, you could be on your way to having the right to permanently live and work in the U.S.


Ready to start your family-based immigration application? Schedule your consultation with Agarwal Law Group today!




10.0Pratibha Kanive Agarwal
top attorney 2022

Agarwal Law Group

1100 H Street NW,

Suite 1220

Washington DC 20005