Last updated on May 14th, 2019
For many, the biggest advantage of becoming a U.S. citizen is that you can sponsor future immigration visas for members of your family. This is due to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service’s (USCIS’s) family-based immigrant visa program.
Through this program, immigrants can obtain visas, green cards, and eventually citizenship through the sponsorship of family members already living in the U.S.
In this article, we’ll discuss the two different types of family-based immigration: immediate relative (IR) and family-preference (F) visas.
What is a Family-Based Immigrant Visa?
A family-based immigrant visa is a document that allows you to enter in the U.S. through the sponsorship of a family member. Both immediate relative visas and distant relative visas follow the rules of immigrant visas.
This means that they do not expire, and you don’t have to return to your country of origin unless you choose to do so. Effectively, applying for an IR or F visa indicates that you plan on remaining in the U.S. for several years or more.
Immediate Relative (IR) Visa
The IR visa is for the immediate relatives of a U.S. citizen. Note that the families of permanent residents may not apply for IR visas—you need to become a citizen first. As the naturalization process is both long and expensive, the immediate families of permanent residents often apply for F visas instead.
There are several different types of immediate relative visas, each corresponding to a particular relationship status:
- Spouses of U.S. citizens qualify for IR1 visas.
- Unmarried children under the age of 21 qualify for IR2 visas.
- Orphans adopted abroad by U.S. citizens qualify for IR3 visas.
- Orphans adopted in the U.S. by U.S. citizens qualify for IR4 visas.
- Parents of U.S. citizens above the age of 21 qualify for IR5 visas.
Unlike some other types of visas, there are no limits on the number of IR visas that the government may issue per year.
Family-Preference (F) Visa
The F visa is for the immediate relatives of U.S. permanent residents, and the distant relatives of U.S. citizens. USCIS places petitioners for F visas in several different preference categories, depending on their specific family relationships.
Every year, USCIS issues a limited number of visas in each category. Up-to-date quota numbers are always available online at the State Department’s U.S. visa bulletin. Similar to immediate relative visas, family-preference visas are also subdivided based on the petitioner’s relationship to the sponsor:
- Family First Preference (F1) – This category is for the unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, and any minor children they might have.
- Family Second Preference (F2) – This includes the spouses, minor children, and any unmarried adult (over 21) children of legal permanent residents. In most cases, USCIS prefers to allocate visas to spouses and minor children over adult children.
- Family Third Preference (F3) – This category includes the married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens, as well as their spouses and minor children.
- Family Fourth Preference (F4) – This category is for the siblings of U.S. citizens, as well as their spouses and minor children.
Is an Immigrant Visa the Same Thing as a Green Card?
No. The terms immigrant visa (also called permanent visa) and green card are often used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction between the two.
Essentially, an immigrant visa is a document that allows you to enter the U.S. so that you can remain there permanently. A green card, on the other hand, is a legal I.D. which demonstrates that you are a lawful permanent resident of the United States.
Put more simply, one allows you to enter, while the other allows you to stay.
Normally, USCIS will mail you your green card after you pay your immigration fee and legally enter the country. If you don’t receive your green card within 120 days of entering the U.S., contact USCIS or your lawyer for help.
Receiving a physical copy of your green card as soon as possible is very important. The reason for this urgency is because the stamp on your passport, which demonstrates that you’re a lawful permanent resident, only remains valid for one year.
Once that year is up, you’ll need a green card to prove that you’re a lawful permanent resident.
Additionally, you must have a green card to apply for a Social Security Card, a driver’s license, and many other benefits reserved for citizens and permanent residents.
Additionally, while green cards give you “permanent” residency status, you still need to renew them every ten years. You can do so by filing an I-90 application, either online or in paper. As one final note, this is also the same application you should use to replace a lost or stolen green card.
How do I Apply for an Immigrant Visa?
The process for applying for a family-based visa while outside the U.S. is referred to as consular processing. The basic steps to it are described below.
As a clerical note, the forms described below refer to you, as the individual wishing to immigrate, as the “beneficiary.” The relative sponsoring you is the “petitioner.”
Step 1: The I-130 Petition
Regardless of where you currently live, the petitioner (your relative) will need to file an I-130 petition for you. This is a document affirming that the petitioner is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and that they are related to you.
Additionally, the petitioner must demonstrate that they permanently reside in the U.S., although they may file the petition while abroad.
Step 2: Receive Your Information and Complete Form DS-261
After USCIS receives your I-130 petition, the National Visa Center (NVC) will assign you a case number and a priority date. This is the date that the NVC first filed your application. You can cross-reference it with the U.S. visa bulletin to determine when you can take the next step.
If all goes well, you should receive instructions on completing Form DS-261. This will allow you to choose your address and agent, assuming you don’t have one. If you already have a lawyer, you can then proceed to paying your fees. These will vary depending on the circumstances of your application.
Step 3: Complete the DS-260
Next, you’ll need to complete form DS-260 online. This is a form affirming that you are the beneficiary of an I-130 petition, and that you wish to receive an immigrant visa. You may also need to complete extra DS-260 forms for other qualified family members, including any minor children you have.
Step 4: Complete an Affidavit of Support
After you file your DS-260, its time to gather financial documents and complete your affidavit of support. This is a form showing that you have a source of financial support once you arrive in the United States.
If you intend to pool your income with that of other family members to achieve the minimum income requirement, each of those family members will need to fill out I-864A forms.
As one other alternative, if you qualify for an exemption from the monetary requirement, you can instead fill out an I-864W form.
In order to complete these forms, you will need to submit financial evidence. In most cases, this will include tax records, payment stubs, and other proof that you have a steady source of income.
If you intend to pool your income, as described above, you will need to submit proof of a family relationship with those individuals (through birth certificates, for example).
As always, you must accompany these documents with certified English translations.
Step 5: Gather and Submit Supporting Documents
Following the submission of your Affidavit of Support, you will need to gather supporting documents to submit to the NVC. The exact documents that you need will vary depending on which embassy or consulate will be processing your application.
If you are unsure of which documents you need, you can check by using the USCIS’s document finder tool.
After you have gathered the required documents, submit photocopies of each one to the NVC. Make sure you do not submit the original copy, as you will need it for your visa interview. Each of the documents you send in must be accompanied by a certified English translation.
Step 6: Schedule and Prepare for your Visa Interview
Next, you will want to contact your local U.S. embassy or consulate to schedule a visa interview. This is an interview at the local consulate, during which a consul will double-check your reasons for immigrating to the United States. Do not treat this lightly—many applicants are denied visas due to the results of their visa interviews.
Each consulate does visa interviews differently. However, all require basic legal documentation, as well as a recent medical examination by an approved doctor. During your visa interview, the consul may ask questions over a variety of topics, including but not limited to:
- Your relationship with your sponsor.
- Your relationship with those you are immigrating with.
- How you will be supporting yourself financially.
- What your future plans are in the United States.
- Whether you plan to return to your country of origin.
Step 7: Entering the United States
If there are no problems with your interview, you will receive a visa allowing you to enter the United States. Make sure you carefully review U.S. Custom and Border Patrol’s travel guidelines before doing so.
Additionally, you will want to pay your immigration fee as soon as possible, so that you can receive your green card without delay.
Once you have entered the United States, you may apply for an employment authorization. These are usually quick to process, taking around three months in most cases. Alternatively, you may wait until you receive your green card to begin working.
Adjusting Your Status
The process of applying for an immigrant visa and green card will vary slightly depending on whether or not you are already in the U.S. when you apply. Applying for a green card from within the U.S. is called an adjustment of status, rather than consular processing.
Overall, the process of adjusting your status is similar to that of going through consular processing. You will still need to have a relative file an I-130 petition for you, and you will still need to demonstrate financial solvency. Once your I-130 petition has been filed, you may check your case status online.
The main difference is that, instead of working with the National Visa Center, you will submit an I-485 form to USCIS.
You may also need to submit additional documentation at USCIS’s request, including a current medical examination.
How Much Does it All Cost?
Pretty much every form in the immigration process requires a pretty hefty filing fee. For this reason, you should expect to pay at least several thousand dollars in fees in order to have your application processed.
As you can see, the process of obtaining a family visa is both long and complicated. For this reason, it’s highly recommended that you hire an experienced immigration attorney to help you with your petition.
A good immigration lawyer can help you work your way through the process correctly, potentially saving you thousands of dollars and years of paperwork.