Green Card Through a U.S. Family Member: Who Qualifies?

Relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents may, in some cases, qualify for U.S. lawful permanent residence.

By , J.D.

If you have close family members in the United States, they may be able to help you immigrate (receive U.S. lawful permanent resident, also known as a "green card"). Whether you will succeed at this depends first on what relation the U.S. family member is to you. The closer your relationship, the more rights you have under U.S. immigration law.

Your success at getting a U.S. green card through family also depends on whether your relative is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). U.S. citizens can bring more distant relatives than green card holders can—their parents and brothers and sisters, for example. Also, the U.S. citizens' status means that their relatives are allowed, in many cases, to immigrate faster than lawful permanent residents' relatives are.

Nobody, no matter how close the family relationship to someone in the U.S., goes straight from having no status to being an actual U.S. citizen. This status is reserved for people who have held a green card first—with the exception, in some cases, of people who have U.S. citizen parents. See How to Become a U.S. Citizen for more information on this.

Key Features of Family-Based Green Cards

Here are some advantages and disadvantages to green cards obtained based on U.S. family relationships:

  • Unlike with many other types of green cards, the applicant's educational background or work experience do not make a difference to your eligibility.
  • The primary applicant's spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 may also be eligible for green cards, as derivative, accompanying relatives.
  • As with all green cards, yours can be taken away if you misuse it. For example, if you make your primary home outside the U.S., commit a crime, or neglect to tell the immigration authorities of your change of address, you may be placed into removal proceedings. However, if you successfully keep your green card for five years (or three years if you are married to and still living with a U.S. citizen all that time), you can apply for U.S. citizenship.

Eligibility Categories of Green Cards Through U.S. Relatives

You may qualify for a green card through relatives if you fall into one of the following categories:

  • immediate relative of a U.S. citizen
  • preference relative of a U.S. citizen or green card holder, or
  • accompanying relative of someone in a preference category.

Who Qualifies as an Immediate Relative

Immediate relative status is the best one can hope for, because immediate relatives may immigrate to the U.S. in unlimited numbers. They are not controlled by the annual limits or quotas that affect the preference relative categories, which can create years-long waits for a green card.

The following types of foreign-born people qualify as immediate relatives:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens. This includes couples who are legally married (regardless of where the marriage took place), as well widows and widowers of U.S. citizens if they were married to the U.S. citizen for at least two years and are applying for a green card within two years of the U.S. citizen's death. For details on this category, see Marriage-Based Green Cards.
  • Unmarried children of a U.S. citizen, under the age of 21, (see the definition of "child" for U.S. immigration law purposes), and
  • Parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is age 21 or older. (Parents of permanent residents have no immigration option through their children unless and until those children become U.S. citizens, as described in How Soon Can We Immigrate to U.S. Through Child With Green Card (Lawful Permanent Residence)?)

Stepparents and stepchildren qualify as immediate relatives if the marriage creating the parent/child relationship took place before the child's 18th birthday. Parents and children related through adoption may also, in some cases, qualify as immediate relatives.

Who Qualifies as a Preference Relative

Preference relative status is also a useful way to obtain a U.S. green card, but not necessarily a fast one. Depending on demand, you will have to wait in line, possibly for many years or even decades, before claiming your green card.

You qualify as a preference relative if you fit one of the categories below:

  • Family first preference. Unmarried children, any age (but presumably age 21 or older), of a U.S. citizen.
  • Family second preference. This category is further divided into two subcategories. Subcategory 2A is for spouses and unmarried children (under 21 years old) of green card holders; and 2B is for unmarried sons and daughters of green card holders, who are already 21 years old or older.
  • Family third preference. Married children of a U.S. citizen, any age.
  • Family fourth preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, where the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old.

For details on what what to expect in these categories, see How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date to Become Current?

Who Qualifies as an Accompanying Relative

In the preference categories, once a U.S. citizen or resident submits an I-130 petition for a foreign-born relative, that person's spouse and children (unmarried, under the age of 21) will automatically be included in the immigration process (if they wish) as a so-called "derivative" beneficiary.

The U.S. petitioner needs only name them on the I-130 to start the process for them. (Eventually, however, they will have to submit their own, independent applications for an immigrant visa or green card.)

This derivative benefit applies to:

  • Family first preference cases, where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for an unmarried child age 21 or older.
  • Family second preference cases, where a permanent resident petitions for a husband, wife, or unmarried child.
  • Family third preference cases, where a U.S. citizen is petitioning for a married child.
  • Family fourth preference cases, where a U.S. citizen at least 21 years old petitions for a sibling. Also, this category does not include biological siblings of someone who immigrated through adoption by a U.S. family.

Also see Your Relative Had Children After I-130 Approved - Can They Immigrate Too?

This derivative benefit does not, however, apply to immediate relatives. So, for example, if a U.S. citizen petitions for a foreign-born husband or wife who has children, the citizen will need to separately petition for any children—which is possible only if they qualify as his or her stepchildren.

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