Green Cards for Your Family: Sponsorship Categories

Can foreign-born relatives come to the U.S. to join a U.S. citizen or green card holder? It depends on how the would-be petitioning family member and immigrant are related.

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

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, as described below.

Who a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident Can Help Immigrate

You can petition to bring certain close family members to the United States (often called "sponsoring" them) if you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident (green card holder). Even then, however, there are limits on who you can sponsor: you can bring in only those family members listed on the chart below.

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

(Green card holder)

Unmarried children

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

U.S. permanent resident

(Green card holder)


Preference relative
(2nd preference)

Notice who is not on this list: neither U.S. citizens nor lawful permanent residents can directly sponsor their grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, parents-in-law, and other extended family members. What's more, lawful permanent residents cannot sponsor their parents, married children, or siblings.

Nevertheless, if allowed to immigrate to the United States, most people on the above list, with the exception of those classified as "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 (though this is a long, multi-step procedure).

How Long Must Your Foreign-Born Relatives Wait to Immigrate to the U.S.?

"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 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (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 annual limits on how many green cards (immigrant visas) are given out, and the unpredictability of how many people will 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 prospective family-based immigrants had been waiting as of January 2024 was as follows:

Average Waiting Period to Receive U.S. Permanent Residence

Type of Preference Relative

Preference Category

Average Wait

Adult, unmarried children of U.S. citizens

First preference (F1)

9 years for most applicants; but 23 years for citizens of Mexico and 12 years for citizens of the Philippines.

Spouses or children of permanent residents

Second preference (F2A and F2B)

4-plus years in category 2A for spouses or minor children. In category 2B, for unmarried children over 21, the average wait is 8 years from most countries, 20 years for citizens of Mexico, and 12 years for citizens of the Philippines.

Married children of U.S. citizens

Third preference (F3)

14 years for people from most countries; but 25 years for citizens of Mexico and 21 years for citizens of the Philippines.

Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens

Fourth preference (F4)

17 years for people from most countries; but 18 years for citizens of India, 23 years for citizens of Mexico, and 21 years for citizens of the Philippines.

Although these average waiting periods are not set in stone, it's been true for years that the longest waits are endured by siblings of U.S. citizens (4th preference), particularly from the Philippines.

Is There a Limit on How Many Immigrants a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident Can Sponsor?

U.S. law places no outright limits on how many immigrants someone can file petitions for to help immigrate, with the exception of spouses: Polygamy and bigamy are not allowed.

In some cases, petitioning for multiple family members is procedurally simple, because they can all be named on the same Form I-130 in order to start the process. (But that's not the case when petitioning for immediate relatives; each on needs their own visa petition. See for details, Which Family Members Can NOT Accompany the Main Immigrant to U.S. (as Derivatives).)

A major practical limitation to sponsoring multiple immigrants exists, however. In order to successfully sponsor immigrants, U.S. petitioners must prove they have the financial capacity to support them at a level that will keep them from becoming a "public charge," that is, relying on means-based public assistance. And to make that showing, they'll need to prove a certain level of income and assets, with the exact amount based on the number of people in their household. (All of this is done using USCIS Form I-864, the Affidavit of Support.)

In 2023 and early 2024, for example, a U.S. citizen who has no existing dependents and is sponsoring a foreign-born spouse (thus a total household of two people) would need to show an income of $24,650. But if that citizen were to sponsor not only a spouse but five stepchildren in the same year (for a total household of seven people), the required income amount would go up to $56,775.

That creates obvious challenges for would-be petitioners whose income isn't high, though there are some alternatives worth looking into.

How to Start the U.S. Green Card Application Process

It's your job as a U.S. citizen or green card holder to start the U.S. immigration process for your family member(s), ordinarily by filing a Form I-130, along with copies of documents proving the family relationship, such as a birth or marriage certificate, and proof of U.S. petitioner's status as a citizen or lawful permanent resident. After that, a number of follow-up steps are required.

If currently overseas, your foreign-born family member can't enter the United States until both the I-130 petition and a number of subsequent applications have been approved.

For details and help applying, see the book How to Get a Green Card, by Ilona Bray (Nolo) or, for married or engaged couples, Fiance and Marriage Visas: A Couple's Guide to U.S. Immigration (Nolo). If you still have questions, or find the paperwork daunting, it could be time to consult an experienced immigration attorney.

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