U.S. immigration law treats the foreign-born children of U.S. citizens differently—in most cases, better—than the children of U.S. permanent residents. Varying numbers of immigrant visas are available each year, depending on whether you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and whether your child is a minor (under 21), an unmarried adult (21 or over), or a married adult. (For purposes of this discussion, an immigrant visa is the equivalent of a green card.)
If you are a U.S. permanent resident (green card holder) who wants to bring your foreign-born child to the U.S. to live, this article can help you to navigate this confusing territory. Then you can determine whether and how you can speed up the process of sponsoring your child for a visa if you become a U.S. citizen.
When researching options to bring your foreign-born children to the U.S., you should first determine whether your child already has "automatic" U.S. citizenship. Because U.S. nationality law has changed frequently over the years, many foreign-born children with U.S. citizen parents or grandparents may be eligible to apply for a U.S. passport and not even know it. To learn more, see U.S. Citizenship Through Birth or Through Parents.
If your child is not already an "automatic" U.S. citizen, you will need to determine whether you can sponsor your child for an immigrant visa (a green card, or U.S. lawful permanent residence) and how long you can expect to wait. Here is a chart detailing the possibilities:
Is a Visa Available for Your Child?
You are a…
Your foreign-born child is under 21
Your foreign-born child is 21 or over and unmarried
Your foreign-born child is married
A visa is available immediately
A visa is available after a wait of several years
A visa is available, with a wait of several years
U.S. permanent resident
A visa is available after a relatively short wait or no wait at all
A visa is available after a wait of several years
No visa is available
As you can see, visa availability and length of wait times differ greatly depending on whether you, as the child's petitioner or sponsor, are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. Keep reading on for more information about your options.
If you and your minor children in your custody are all green card holders already, and you are eligible to "naturalize," you can all become U.S. citizens at the same time. By naturalizing while your children are still under age 18, your children "derive" U.S. citizenship through your application.
If they don't meet the criteria for derivation, your green-card holding children will need to wait until they become adults and are eligible to submit their own applications for U.S. citizenship.
For more on submitting form N-400 Application for Naturalization with USCIS, visit Application Process for U.S. Citizenship Through Naturalization.
Regardless of what visa category your child will be in, the process starts the same way: You will need to file Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). What happens after that, however, can vary. Because the law treats the minor children (under 21) of U.S. citizens as "immediate relatives," an immigrant visa or green card will be available to them with no waiting other than for application processing.
But if you are a U.S. permanent resident and your foreign-born minor children do not already have green cards, they might have to wait in line for their green cards to become available. (If you are applying for U.S. permanent residence from abroad or adjusting status, your spouse and children under age 21 are "derivative beneficiaries," who can submit their applications to accompany you at the same time.)
The minor children of permanent residents are not considered immediate relatives, but are in category "2A" of the visa preference system. Only a limited number of visas are available in category 2A, and in the past, many more people applied each year than there were visas available; though the situation has changed recently.
To see which visas USCIS is currently processing, view the U.S. State Department's Visa Bulletin online.
Go to the "family-sponsored" section of the bulletin and locate row "F2A." Next, find your child's country column. The date listed there is the priority date for the visa applications that USCIS is working on that month. It's based on the date that USCIS first received your Form I-130. Although this date does change frequently (and is updated once a month), the wait in category F2A was, in the past, often two years or more. Nevertheless, you might see a "C" for current (as was the case in early 2023), meaning there's no wait at all.
Both U.S. citizens and permanent residents can sponsor their unmarried adult children (21 years and older) for visas, which will eventually lead to green cards.
However, adult children do not qualify as "immediate relatives," but face an annual limit on numbers of visas. This means the wait can be extremely long, even if you, as their petitioner or sponsor, naturalize and become a U.S. citizen.
You would think the visa waitlist for the adult children of U.S. citizens (category F1) would always be shorter than for adult children of permanent residents (category F2B), but that's not actually the case. It depends in part on the child's native country and how many people apply for the available visas in the category.
If you are a permanent resident and your adult child marries while you are waiting for your petition to be processed, your child will no longer be eligible for a U.S. visa based on that petition.
The third "family-sponsored" visa preference is for the married children of U.S. citizens (even if they are under age 21). There is no identical sponsorship preference for married children of permanent residents. There are extremely limited available married-children visas for U.S. citizen sponsors and none available for the married children of permanent residents. On the Visa Bulletin, the row marked "F3" is for married children of U.S. citizens.
If you are a permanent resident seeking a U.S. green card for your married child, you will either need to naturalize to U.S. citizenship first or your married child will need to find another route to permanent residence (such as an employer-sponsored visa or "winning" one in the diversity visa lottery).
If you are a U.S. permanent resident who is eligible to naturalize, doing so might be a good option in order to shorten your child's wait for a green card (or to bring a married child to the United States). But check how waits in the child's new category will compare to waits in the old one before making this decision, and talk to an immigration attorney if you're uncertain. If you've had your green card for five years (or qualify for an exception allowing you to apply early), you might be eligible to naturalize.
You do not need to wait to become a U.S. citizen to file your I-130 petition. If you become a U.S. citizen before your child's priority date becomes current, you can then advise USCIS and obtain a new preference category and priority date.
Ninety days before the fifth anniversary of your permanent residence, you may file your N-400 requesting U.S. citizenship. (For guidance on this, visit Filling Out USCIS Form N-400; and see the USCIS Early Filing Calculator for help figuring out the exact date.)
If, after you've successfully become a U.S. citizen, you are still waiting for your child's visa to be processed, contact the National Visa Center to advise them that you have naturalized. If petitioning for your minor child, state that the child is no longer subject to the yearly cap.
If you are petitioning for your unmarried adult child, you can request a change in the child's preference category, from F2B to F1. Be ready to provide a copy of your I-130 receipt notice (Form I-797C, Notice of Action) and a copy of your naturalization certificate.
Before you do this, however, check the dates in the Visa Bulletin to make sure the "upgrade" to a higher preference category will actually be beneficial. Depending upon the movement in the monthly cutoff dates, sometimes it's better to keep the same preference category. If it's better to stay in the F2B category, contact USCIS requesting an "opt out," so that the preference category remains F2B.
An experienced attorney can assist with the task of figuring out the fastest way for your child to immigrate to the United States with you as the petitioner and help prepare the paperwork and keep the case on track.