Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories

Can relatives come to the U.S.? It depends on how the family member is related.

Many people in the United States have family members living in other countries, and wonder whether they can bring them here. It's a myth that if one immigrant settles in the United States, that one can get green cards (permanent residence) for the whole extended family, and so on. The truth is both more limited and more complex.

Who You Can Help Immigrate

You can petition to bring family members to the United States (often called "sponsoring" them) only if you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (green card holder). Even then, you can bring in only those family members listed on the chart below. Before reading the chart, click the links explaining the meanings of "immediate relative" and "preference relative."

Who Can Sponsor Who

Who You Are

Immigrants You Can Petition

The Immigrant's Category

U.S. citizen age 21 or older


Immediate relative

U.S. citizen (at least age 18, for financial sponsorship purposes)


Immediate relative

U.S. citizen (at least age 18, for financial sponsorship purposes)

Minor, unmarried children

Immediate relative

U.S. citizen

Married children or adult children

Preference relative
(1st or 3rd preference)

U.S. citizen age 21 or older

Brothers and sisters

Preference relative (4th preference)

U.S. permanent resident

Unmarried children

Preference relative
(2nd preference -- 2A or 2B)

U.S. permanent resident


Preference relative
(2nd preference)

Notice who is not on this list: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents-in-law, and other extended family members.

However, if allowed to immigrate to the United States, the people on the above list, except for the immediate relatives, will be permitted to bring their own spouses and children with them. And it is true that once someone has a green card, they can sponsor other people on the list.

How Long Must Relatives Wait?

Immediate relatives can get green cards without worrying about visa-availability waiting periods or numerical limits. (There will be a wait of many months, however, while USCIS and then the State Department actually process the applications.)  Preference relatives typically have to wait between for some number of years before being allowed to apply for their visa or green card.

Only a certain percentage of the green cards in the preference categories go to any one country each year. That means that if a particularly high number of people submit petitions for family from certain countries -- as is often the case with India, Mexico, China, and the Philippines -- their family members end up waiting even longer than others.

Because of the annual limits on how many green cards (immigrant visas) are given out, and the unpredictability of how many people submit petitions each year, no one can say exactly how long each preference-category applicant will wait.  All we know for sure is how long the people at the front of the line right now have been waiting.

As a general rule, applicants in higher preference categories wait less time. The average time that people from most countries (excluding India, Mexico, China, the Dominican Republic and the Philippines) have been waiting as of September 2015 is as follows:

Current Average Waiting Period

Type of Preference Relative

Preference Category

Average Wait

Adult, unmarried children of U.S. citizens

First preference

Eight years

Spouses or children of permanent residents

Second preference

Two years for spouses and for minor children (2A); seven years for adult children age 21 or over (2B)

Married children of U.S. citizens

Third preference

Twelve years

Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens

Fourth preference

Thirteen years

The longest waits have been endured by siblings of U.S. citizens (4th preference) from the Philippines -- currently a staggering 24 years.

How to Start the Application Process

The family member who you will sponsor will have to go through a multi-step application process. It's your job as a U.S. citizen or green card holder to start the process, by submitting a visa petition. (For more information, see Nolo's article The Visa Petition: The First Step for Family and Employment Green Cards.) Your family member can't enter the U.S. until both the petition and subsequent applications have been approved.

For more information on obtaining a family-based green card, see Nolo's article How to File a Green Card Application; for details and help applying, see the book How to Get a Green Card, by Ilona Bray (Nolo) or, for married or engaged couples, see Fiance and Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration, also by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

Sponsor vs. Petitioner

Although the term commonly used to describe a U.S. citizen or resident who helps someone immigrate is "sponsor," this isn't the technical term. You "petition" for your family member, so you're a "petitioner." Your incoming family member is called a "beneficiary."

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