Key Steps in Applying for Family or Marriage-Based Green Card

From start to finish, here's what to expect in the family-based green card application process

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

The application process for unifying foreign-born persons with their family members in the U.S. involves numerous steps. Some of these are handled primarily by their U.S. citizen or permanent resident "petitioners" (often called "sponsors"); others are handled primarily by the intending immigrants. Keep reading for an overview of the steps involved, which in brief, include:

  1. U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident Files Visa Petition
  2. USCIS Approves or Denies the Visa Petition
  3. Relatives in a "Preference" Category Wait Until a Visa Becomes Available
  4. Intending Immigrant Applies for an Immigrant Visa or Green Card, and
  5. Immigrant Receives the Actual Green Card.

Step One: U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident Files Visa Petition

The U.S. citizen or permanent resident relative must start off the foreign national's immigration process, by basically advising U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) of their wish to sponsor an immigrant and proving that the family relationship really exists.

This is usually done by mailing USCIS what's called a visa petition on USCIS Form I-130, with accompanying documents (such as a birth or marriage certificate and proof of U.S. citizenship or resident status) and the appropriate fee. The widow or abused spouse or child of a U.S. citizen, however, may self-petition, which requires filing Form I-360 instead.

Once USCIS approves the petition, the case can proceed forward. In fact, in cases where the immigrant is an "immediate relative" (spouse, parent, or unmarried child under age 21 of a U.S. citizen), and the immigrant lives lawfully in the U.S., waiting for USCIS approval before taking the next step might not be necessary. The petitioner and immigrant beneficiary can do "one-step" or "concurrent" filing for adjustment, as described in When an I-130 Can Be Filed at the Same Time as a Green Card Application.

Step Two: USCIS Makes a Decision on the Visa Petition

Assuming this is a case where USCIS approval is needed before moving forward (in other words, where concurrent filing isn't possible), be prepared to wait several months (or even years) for that approval. Or, USCIS could deny the petition, in which situation the best bet is typically to figure out what the problem was and, if it's fixable, file a new petition. (This would be a good time to consider hiring a lawyer, if you haven't already.)

Upon approval, USCIS will forward the immigrant's case file to the National Visa Center (NVC) for further processing.

In immediate relative cases, the NVC will immediately send further paperwork to the U.S. petitioner (usually requesting proof of financial capacity to sponsor the immigrant, in the form of USCIS Form I-864). Then it will forward the case file to the appropriate U.S. consulate in the immigrant's home country.

In so-called "preference relative" cases, however, another step gets added to the process, resulting in the case waiting at the NVC for years, as described next.

Step Three for Preference Relatives Only: Wait Until a Visa Becomes Available

"Preference relatives," such as the spouses and children of green card holders and the married children or siblings of U.S. citizens, cannot usually claim a green card right away. The reason is that the law has placed annual limits on the number that can be approved, and the supply rarely meets the high demand.

The waits can be years long. The immigrant's place on the waiting list is secured by what's called a Priority Date; that is, the date when USCIS received the I-130 petition. See How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current? for details.

Step Four: Immigrant Applies for an Immigrant Visa or Green Card

Once the visa petition has been approved by USCIS and (if the immigrant is a "preference relative") a visa actually becomes available, the immigrant must submit an application for permanent residence.

This is usually done by applying for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate outside the United States. The NVC and the consulate will communicate directly with the immigrant, sending various forms and documents to be filled out, as well as instructions on where to get the required medical examination done and an appointment for an in-person interview. (For details on that, see What the Medical Exam for a U.S. Green Card Involves.) This entire process is called "consular processing." It requires separate processing fee payments from the immigrant.

The other, less commonly used application procedure is called adjustment of status, and takes place at a USCIS office inside the United States. Again, only a limited number of immigrant applicants who are already living in the U.S. can apply for adjustment. It's done by submitting Form I-485, together with supporting documents and a fee.

What's important to know about adjustment, however, is that once the visa petition is approved (and assuming the remaining paperwork wasn't filed concurrently), an immigrant planning to adjust status should not wait for any official green light from USCIS. It's up to the immigrant to prepare the adjustment of status application and mail it to USCIS for further processing. USCIS might then call the immigrant in for a personal interview (or might waive the interview requirement and go ahead with a decision).

Step Five: Getting the Actual Green Card

An immigrant who applies at a U.S. consulate will use their immigrant visa to enter the United States and claim permanent residence status. A green card will be sent some weeks later (and requires one final payment, to USCIS for processing the card, called the "immigrant fee").

If the immigrant applies in the U.S., permanent resident status will will be approved at or soon after the interview. Again, a green card will be sent within weeks.

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