Family immigration to the USA

If you are a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, you can petition for some of your family members to come to the United States to join you. This process of family immigration is called family reunification. Learn more about family reunification, the categories of family petitions, which family members you can petition, availability of immigrant visas, the family petition process, the steps to begin the process, special considerations for family of U.S. military members, where to get legal help, and how to avoid scams.


mom with son and daughter

What is family reunification?

Your family members may be able to come to the USA as part of the family reunification process. 

Family reunification is the idea that families should be able to be united so they can stay together. 

Under U.S immigration laws, there are four categories through which someone can immigrate to the U.S., they are:

  1. Family reunification
  2. Employment-based immigration
  3. Humanitarian relief (i.e. refugee and asylum)
  4. Diversity-based immigration, also known as the visa lottery

The largest category is family reunification. This allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to petition for certain family members to join them in the U.S.

Family reunification also means bringing and keeping families together who are separated by immigration laws. For example:

  • Children who enter the United States as unaccompanied minors, on their own, unite with their family members in a timely manner. 
  • Families already living in the U.S. stay together, regardless of their immigration status.

Five important things to know about family-based immigration (family reunification)

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 allows people to immigrate to the U.S. based on a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (LPR). 

1. Learn about the categories of family petitions

The U.S. government provides immigrant visas for family-based immigration. An immigrant visa needs to be available in order for your family to come to the U.S. or adjust their status in the U.S. if they are already living in the U.S.

The U.S. government provides immigrant visas for two categories of people. The type of visa depends on the relationship of the petitioner to the family member they are petitioning. These are the two categories:

  • Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. There is no limit on the number of immigrant visas available for this group. If you are a U.S. citizen, you can petition for an immediate relative, which includes your spouse, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and parents. The only wait time is how long it takes to process the application. You will need to meet certain requirements to be in this category.
  • Family preference. The family preference category is for specific family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. 
    • Under this category, U.S. citizens can petition for unmarried children 21 years and older, married children under 21 years of age, and brothers and sisters. 
    • Legal permanent residents can petition for spouses and unmarried and married children. If you are a legal permanent resident and want to petition for your parents or siblings, you first need to become a U.S.
    • For the family preference category, there is a cap of how many immigrant visas are available each year.

2. Find out which family members you can petition

Only U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can petition for family members. This chart can help you determine which family members you can petition for:

Family MemberLegal Permanent ResidentU.S. Citizen
Spouse
Includes same-sex spouses whose marriage is legally recognized in the U.S. or other countries.
Yes
Category 2A
Yes
Immediate relative
Unmarried children under 21Yes
Preference category 2A
Yes
Immediate relative
Married children under 21NoYes
Preference category 3
Unmarried children 21 and olderYes
Preference category 2B
Yes
Preference category 1
Married children 21 and olderNoYes
Preference category 3
ParentsNoYes
Immediate relative
Brothers and sistersNoYes
Preference category 4

3. Know about the availability of immigrant visas

Only a certain number of visas are available each year for those petitioning for a relative who is not an immediate family member. That is why it takes a long time to have your family member immigrate to the U.S.

Here are the caps for each family preference per year. You can check the visa bulletin to see what year is currently being processed. 

Relative PreferenceNumber of visas available
Immediate Relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and parents)Unlimited
1
Unmarried adult children (21 and over) of U.S. citizens
23,400 visas (plus any visas left over from the 4th pref.)
2A 
Spouses and minor children (under 21) of LPRs
87,900 visas (plus any visas left over from the 1st pref.)
2B
Unmarried adult children (21 and over) of LPRs
26,300 visas (plus any visas left over from the 1st pref.)
3
Married adult children (21 and over) of U.S. citizens
23,400 visas (plus any visas left over from 1st and 2nd preferences)
4
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens
65,000 visas (plus any visas left over from the previous preferences)

The family petition process

As you begin the process to petition for your immediate family member, we suggest you consult with an immigration attorney or an accredited representative

You can visit the USCIS website to learn how to apply for a green card for your family member. Boundless and CitizenPath have online walkthroughs to help guide you in this process.

Depending on where your family member is residing, they will go through one of these processes:

  • Consular processing. This means that the application will be reviewed abroad by a U.S. consulate or embassy; this applies to:
    • A family member living outside of the U.S.
    • A family member who entered the U.S. without inspection of a Customs and Border Protection agent at a port of entry.
      • These family members will need to file a waiver (USCIS Form I-601A) to prove that denying the  immigrant visa will cause extreme and unusual hardship to a qualifying U.S. citizen relative, such as a spouse, child, or parent.
  • Adjustment of status process allows the family member to apply for legal permanent residence when they are currently present in the U.S. without having to return to their home country. You start this process with the local USCIS office. Here are important things to consider in adjustment of status:
    • An immigrant visa must be immediately available to use this process. That is why it is mostly used when a U.S. citizen is petitioning for an immediate relative.
    • Adjustment of status can be filed by U.S. citizens and LPRs who are petitioning for certain family members living in the U.S. 
      • It can be used if your family member (the beneficiary) was inspected, admitted, or paroled by a U.S. immigration official ; or, if the beneficiary qualifies under section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).
    • Adjustment of status can be used when the petitioner is currently serving in the military and meets certain requirements. Learn more at USCIS.

5. The process is different based on your immigration status

If you are a refugee or asylee and want to petition for your family members, please visit our family reunification page for refugees and asylees

Steps to begin your family petition

The process to initiate your family immigration petition can be very confusing. Here are some important steps to take. Remember, each immigration case is different. Make sure to consult with an immigration expert if you need help.

  • Make sure you can petition for your family member. Review the list of  family members U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents can petition.
  • Gather the documentation you will need; these are some of the documents you will need:
    • Proof of legal status of the person making the petition (green card, naturalization certificate, U.S. birth certificate, etc.)
    • Proof of family relationship between the petitioner and the relative (birth certificate, medical records, passport, etc.)
    • Proof of financial support
  • Consider which process you should file under, adjustment of status or consular processing. We recommend that you speak with a legal representative to help you determine the best option for you.
  • Once your application has been submitted, check your account online often to see the status of your case. You should also make sure to keep your address current with USCIS. This will ensure that you receive notices to your address in a timely manner.

US citizenship for your children

A child of a US citizen can qualify for citizenship at birth and before they become 18 years of age. 

To obtain citizenship; a foreign-born child of a US citizen living in the United States needs to:

  • Have at least one US citizen parent (by birth or naturalization).  
  • Be a US resident.
  • Be under 18 years old.
  • Live in the United States under the legal custody of the US citizen parent.

To obtain citizenship; a foreign-born child of a US citizen living outside the United States needs to:

  • Have at least one US citizen parent (by birth or naturalization).
  • Have a parent who meets physical presence requirements.
  • Be under 18 years old.
  • Live outside the United States under legal and physical custody of the US citizen parent.
  • Have been lawfully admitted and maintain lawful status in the USA.

When you become a U.S. citizen, you can apply for a U.S. passport for your eligible child.

Learn more about Citizenship through US parents.

Military members

Military spouses and other qualified family members must go through the same immigration processes as everyone else. However, there are some benefits. Family members of a U.S. military member may adjust status quickly and without departing the United States.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2004 created special immigration survivor benefits for spouses, parents, and unmarried children of U.S. military relatives who died due to an injury or disease resulting from combat.

The law creates a “self-petition” process to allow an immediate family member to file or continue in the family-based immigration process. Family members must file their petitions within two years of the U.S. military relative’s death. Surviving members seeking immigration benefits are given special consideration in the processing of their application for permanent residence.

Each family petition case is different. You may want to consult with an immigration attorney or an accredited representative to review your case.

An accredited representative is a non-attorney who has demonstrated to the Department of Justice that they have the education and experience in immigration law to provide immigration legal services. Accredited representatives must work for a non-profit organization providing immigration legal services to low-income clients.

You can find legal resources here:

  1. Search for a low-cost lawyer on ImmigrationLawHelp.com or the CLINIC legal directory.
  2. Search for an accredited representative in the Department of Justice.
  3. Find legal assistance near you on our FindHello App.

Ask questions

You may already have a lot of questions about the family petition process. It is important to write them down and ask your legal representative. If you are not satisfied with the answer provided by your legal representative, you can ask again or seek a second legal opinion.

The important thing is for you to feel comfortable with the answer and confident you have the best legal assistance possible.

Be aware of notarios and scams

The immigration process can be long, complicated, and expensive. Make sure that the legal assistance you are receiving is from a licensed immigration expert. 

In Latin America, “notarios” are trained professionals with legal expertise. That is not the same in the United States. In the USA, “notarios” are individuals who register with state authorities to witness the signing of official documents. These individuals may refer to themselves as immigration experts or consultants, but they are not authorized to practice law in the USA.

Immigration scams are a common occurrence. You can learn how to stay safe by visiting the Federal Trade Commission.

The information on this page comes from the Proyecto Inmigrante ICS., Inc., US Department of State, USCIS, American Immigration Council, and other trusted sources. It is intended for guidance and is updated as often as possible. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice. If you are looking for a free or low-cost lawyer or legal help, we can help you find free and low-cost legal services.