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Family-based Green Card

Getting a family-based Green Card is one of the most common ways of becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident of the United States. Family-based immigration, however, is a complex topic with many different categories, conditions, and waiting times to consider. We’ll break it down to the most important facts.

Who is eligible for a family-based Green Card?

Every year, the American authorities issue family-based Green Cards to more than one million people. Spouses, children, or other close relatives qualify for the much sought-after Green Card, which grants them permanent residency in the United States.

The process of getting a family-based Green Card starts with a person already living in the US, who is usually referred to as a sponsor or petitioner. The sponsor can either be a US citizen, or a Green Card holder. The person who seeks to immigrate to the US is known as the beneficiary.

To get the family-based Green Card process going, the sponsor needs to file Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative) on behalf of the beneficiary. What steps the beneficiary needs to take depends on whether they are still abroad or already in the USA. Detailed and current information about all required documents can be found on the website of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Categories for family-based Green Cards

The US Immigration Law distinguishes between two main categories of family-based immigration:

  • Immediate Relatives (subcategories IR-1 to IR-5), and
  • Family Preference Categories (subcategories F-1 to F-4)

Only relatives of US citizens are covered by the Immediate Relative category. Family Preference Categories, however, exist for relatives of US citizens as well as for relatives of Green Card holders.

The main difference between these categories is the amount of Green Cards issued per fiscal year. While there is no cap to the number of family-based Green Cards issued for Immediate Relatives, only a limited number of applications from the Family Preference Categories are processed each year. Therefore, for some groups in the latter category, there may be long waiting periods of several years or even decades.

Let’s take a look at those categories in detail.

Family-based Green Card for Immediate Relatives

More than two-thirds of all family-sponsored Green Cards issued each year go to applicants from the Immediate Relative category. Only close family members of US citizens fall into this category. They can be:

  • spouses of US citizens,
  • unmarried children of US citizens under 21 years, or
  • parents of US citizens (if the US citizen is 21 years or older).

Officially, there are no waiting times and no limited contingents for Green Card applicants from the Immediate Relative category. In reality, however, it can take several months before the Green Card is issued.

The Immediate Relative category is further divided into five subcategories:

IR-1: Spouses of US citizens

Spouses of US citizens belong in the IR-1 category. This also applies to same-sex marriages. Family-based Green Cards are issued to spouses if the marriage is legally contracted.

Attention: It is not legal to arrange a marriage solely for the purpose of immigrating to the US!

Special case C-1: Conditional Green Card

Family-based Green Cards are issued conditionally for marriages that were concluded less than two years before the Green Card petition was filed. These conditional Green Cards are called CR-1.

Before the conditional Green Card expires, the holder has to file Form I-751 (Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence). The Green Card application will then be re-evaluated, and if successful, Permanent Residency will be granted.

If the US spouse of a CR-1 holder dies while the applicant's Green Card is still conditional, the latter does not have to leave the United States. He may file Form I-751 prematurely but must still prove the authenticity of the marriage.

Special case K-1: Fiancés of US citizens

A couple who is not yet wed but would like to marry in the US can apply for a K-1 visa. To do so, the sponsor must file a petition on Form I-129F with USCIS. The waiting time can range from 5 to 18 months.

If approved, the fiancé can enter the US and must marry their American partner within 90 days. Form I-485 can then be used to file for an adjustment of status to obtain a family-based Green Card.

IR-2: Unmarried children under 21 years

The IR-2 category includes all biological children of US citizens who are under 21 years of age. However, adopted children are also eligible for a family-based Green Card if they are:

  • already fully adopted
  • under 21 years and unmarried
  • over 21 years, but are protected by the Child Status Protection Act
  • live outside the United States
  • have lived with their adoptive parents for at least two years

IR-3 / IH-3: Children adopted outside the US

Children adopted by US citizens outside the United States fall into the IR-3 or IH-3 category. To obtain a family-based Green Card, the adoption must have been recognized in the child's country of origin and the United States. Also, at least one parent must have had physical contact with the child during the adoption process.

IR-4 / IH-4: Children to be adopted in the US

The IR-4 or IH-4 category includes children who are still abroad but are to be adopted by US citizens in the United States.

IR-5: Parents of US citizens

Parents of US citizens also qualify for the Immediate Relative category and may enter the United States through family-based immigration. The sponsor must be over 21 years of age and reside in the United States.

Stepparents and adoptive parents can also apply for a family-based Green Card.

Family Preference: Relatives of US citizens

Family-sponsored Green Cards issued to people belonging to one of the “Family Preference Categories” are limited to 226,000 per year. As the demand for Green Cards always exceeds supply, there are usually long waiting times of several years or even decades.

For relatives of US citizens, there are three subcategories:

F-1: Unmarried children over 21 and their minor children

This category includes unmarried children of US citizens who are older than 21 years and their minor children. Depending on the country of origin of the beneficiary, the waiting period for this category can range from 7 to 20 years.

F-3: Married children and their spouses and minor children

The F-3 category includes all married children of US citizens as well as their spouses and minor children. Applicants in this category can expect significant waiting times of 12 to more than 20 years.

F-4: Siblings and their spouses and minor children

The F-4 category includes siblings of US citizens as well as their spouses and minor children. Very long waiting periods of 14 to more than 20 years can be expected in this category.

The Green Card contingents and waiting times for Family Preference Categories at a glance:



Waiting time


~ 23,400

7 - 23 years


~ 88,000

1 - 3 years


~ 26,000

6 - 22 years


~ 23,400

12 - 24 years


~ 65,000

14 - 22 years

Family Preference: Relatives of Green Card holders

Not only relatives of US citizens, but also the spouses and children of Lawful Permanent Residents qualify for family-based immigration.

The number of family-based Green Cards issued to relatives of Lawful Permanent Residents is limited to about 114,200 per year, which also produces long waiting times. However, if the sponsor becomes a US citizen during the application process, the category of the beneficiary automatically changes as well.

If the sponsor is a Green Card holder, there are two subcategories:

F-2A: Spouses and unmarried minor children

In the F-2A category are spouses and unmarried children up to 21 years of Green Card holders. This group faces waiting periods of between one and three years.

F-2B: Unmarried adult children

Unmarried children over 21 years fall into the F-2B category and must expect a waiting time of about seven years. Stepchildren and adopted children of Green Card holders also belong to this category.

Visa Bulletin - the Green Card “waiting list”

Every month, the US Department of State publishes a Visa Bulletin. For people who belong to one of the Family Preference Categories, the bulletin can be understood as a waiting list. It indicates which groups of Green Card applicants are “current” and therefore eligible to advance in the process.

The waiting times also vary greatly depending on the country of origin. While Europeans can expect faster processing, waiting times can be very long for petitioners from countries like China, India, Mexico, or the Philippines.

Are the waiting times for family-based immigration too long for you? Then register for the Green Card Lottery! With a little luck, you will get into the United States much faster and easier.