Who Is Eligible for a Family-Based Green Card?

Uniting U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (green card holders) with their overseas family members is an important goal of U.S. immigration law. But that doesn’t mean that every relation of a U.S. citizen or permanent resident will qualify for a U.S. green card. The law sets strict guidelines for which family relations are green-card eligible – and in some cases, how many people will be allowed into the U.S. per year based on that category.

As a general rule, it is impossible to obtain U.S. green cards for one’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and more extended relations – unless you can create a chain of relationships so that a more immediate family member can petition for them. For example, instead of petitioning for a grandparent, a U.S. citizen could petition for his or her parents; and they could, after receiving a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship, petition for their parents (your grandparents). But this strategy almost always requires very long-term planning, because obtaining both a green card and eventually U.S. citizenship tends to take several years, depending on a variety of factors.

One important variable is that, in the visa categories subject to annual limits (in what is called the “preference” categories), the number of people applying invariably exceeds the supply of available visa numbers (green cards). The result is that applicants must wait a long time until a visa number is available. The average wait is from five to 25 years, depending on the visa category and the country from which the immigrant is applying (due to per-country limits).

Immediate Relatives

An unlimited number of green cards can be issued to immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Immediate relatives are defined as:

  • spouses of U.S. citizens, including recent widows and widowers and, as of 2013, same-sex couples whose marriage is legal in the state or country where it took place
  • unmarried people under the age of 21 who have at least one U.S. citizen parent
  • parents of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen child is over the age of 21
  • stepchildren and stepparents, if the marriage creating the stepparent/stepchild relationship took place before the child’s 18th birthday, and
  • parents and children related through adoption, if the adoption took place before the child reached the age of 16. All immigration rules governing natural parents and children apply to adoptive relatives, but there are some additional procedures to be followed.

Fiance(e)s of U.S. citizens are also just a few steps away from a green card. But if the fiance is overseas and they wish to hold the marriage in the U.S. before applying for a green card, the first step is to apply for a temporary (90-day) U.S. visa called a K-1 fiance visa.

Other, “Preference” Relatives

Certain other family members of U.S. citizens or permanent residents are also eligible for U.S. green cards. However, only a limited number of green cards are available to these applicants. They have to wait many years to get them, based on their place in the following preference categories:

  • Family first preference. Unmarried people, any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family second preference. 2A: Spouses of green card holders and unmarried children under age 21; 2B: unmarried sons and daughters (who are over age 21) of green card holders.
  • Family third preference. Married people, of any age, who have at least one U.S. citizen parent.
  • Family fourth preference. Sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens where the citizen is over 21 years old.

The U.S. family member must show interest in petitioning for and financially sponsoring the immigrant before he or she will be allowed to apply for a U.S. green card.

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