Family immigration to the USA

What is family immigration?

The United States has a family immigration program that allows families to be reunited in the USA legally. U.S. citizens, green card holders (permanent residents), military members, refugees and asylees can petition for certain relatives to join them in the USA. 

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 put laws in place that prioritizes family reunification.

Types of visas for family immigration 

An immigrant visa allows noncitizen family members to change their immigration status to become U.S. permanent residents (green card holders). This allows them to travel to the United States and live in the USA legally.

The U.S. government offers two types of family-based immigrant visas:

Immediate relatives visas are for a spouse, unmarried child, or parent of a U.S. citizens over the age of 21 . There is no limit on the number of visas available for immediate relatives.

Family preference visas are for an unmarried adult child, married child, or sibling of a U.S. citizen over 21. They are also for a spouse or unmarried child of a U.S. green card holder over 21. There is a limited number of family preference visas available.

Same-sex spouses who are legally married are recognized as a spouse for family-based visas.

Family preference visa categories

The family preference visa is broken up into different categories. There is a total of 226,000 available visas for all of the categories combined. You can check the availability on the visa bulletin.  

Preference category
Family members
Number of visas available
First preference (F1)
Unmarried adult children (21 and over) of U.S. citizens
23,400 visas (plus any visas left over from the 4th pref.)
Second preference (F2A)
Spouses and minor children (under 21) of LPRs
21,984 visas (plus any visas left over from the 1st pref.)
Second preference (F2B)
Unmarried adult children (21 and over) of LPRs
26,266 visas (plus any visas left over from the 1st pref.)
Third preference (F3)
Married adult children (21 and over) of U.S. citizens
23,400 visas (plus any visas left over from 1st and 2nd preferences)
Fourth preference (F4)
Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens
65,000 visas (plus any visas left over from the previous preferences)
Immediate relative visa (not a preference category)
Spouses, unmarried children under 21 years of age, and parents of U.S. citizens

How to apply for a family-based visa 

We always suggest starting any U.S. immigration process by reviewing your options for legal help. Many organizations and lawyers offer free or low-cost legal services.  

Applying for family-based immigration has two main parts. It starts with petitioning for a family member to get a green card and then the family member applying for the green card. 

Petitioner: the person who files an application asking for their family member to get a green card.
Beneficiary: the family member for whom the petitioner has filed the application. They are considered the applicant.

The steps to apply for a family member to get a visa include:

1. You must submit a petition for your family member to get a green card by filing Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. If your petition is approved, then your family member can apply for a visa.

2. USCIS will transfer your case to the National Visa Center (NVC) for processing.
– If you are applying for a family preference visa, you must then wait for a visa to be available on the bulletin.

3. Pay two processing fees with a U.S.-based bank:
– Immigration Visa Application Processing Fee
– Affidavit of Support Fee

4. You must file Form I-864, Affidavit of Support and provide documents to show you have a certain income and can financially support your family member, the applicant. 

5. Your family member files Form DS-260, Online Visa Application and provide certain documents such as birth certificates or police records.
– If documents are not in English, they must have certified translations.  

6. Your family member must attend an interview at a U.S. Embassy or Consulate. The consular officer will ask them questions from the application to decide whether they qualify for an immigrant visa. They will receive instructions on which documents they need to bring to the interview. 

7. Get a decision. The consular officer will approve, deny, or put their application on hold for more evidence. If their application is approved, they will get information about how their passport and visa will be returned to them and the next steps. 

If your family member is already in the USA, they can apply for a green card through adjustment of status. They can file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Learn more about the green card application process.  

Other forms of family immigration and reunification

Relatives of refugees and asylees 

Refugees and asylees can apply for their spouse and unmarried minor children to get derivative refugee or asylum status. You must apply for family reunification within two years of getting your refugee or asylee status. 

Relatives of military members

Military members can petition for their spouse, unmarried children, and parents to apply for an adjustment of status. The military member must first file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. If the petition is approved, the foreign national family member can then file Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent or Adjust Status to apply for a green card. 

If you are the spouse, child, or parent of a U.S. citizen military member who died while on active duty, you can still apply for an adjustment of status. You can apply for a green card by filing Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant. You must file your application within two years of your family member’s death. 

Sponsorship of Ukrainian family members

In response to the Russian invasion, individuals and organizations in the U.S. can sponsor certain Ukrainian citizens to come to the USA. Learn more about humanitarian parole through Uniting for Ukraine.  

Families reunification at the U.S.-Mexico border 

If you have been separated from your family member at the U.S. border, learn about the Family Reunification Task Force.

Benefits by status and forms

Relative (Beneficiary)
Benefit For Relative
U.S. citizens
Spouse, children, parents, siblings 
Green card (permanent residence) 
U.S. citizens
Fiance and their children under 21
Fiance visa 
Green card holders (lawful permanent residents)
Spouse and unmarried children
Green card
Refugee or asylees
Spouse and unmarried children under 21 
Refugee or asylee status 
Military members 
Spouse, children, parents, siblings 
Green card
Families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border 
Parent, legal guardian, child
Humanitarian parole

If you are not eligible for any form of family immigration, you may qualify for other immigration benefits

The information on this page comes from USCIS 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.