The most common way by which a person can become a lawful permanent resident of the United States is through a family relationship. The filing of a visa petition by a United States Citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident relative (the Petitioner) is the first step in this process. Depending upon the relationship of the family member who is being sponsored (the Beneficiary), he or she will qualify either as an "immediate relative" or in a "preference" category. The classification is very important in determining how long the process will take.
I. Immediate Relatives include:
- Spouse of United States Citizens (and in limited circumstances, a widow or widower of a United States Citizen)
- Unmarried children under 21 years of age (step-children and adopted children may often qualify)
- Parents of United States Citizens
II. Preference categories:
- Unmarried sons and daughters (21 or older) of U.S. Citizens
- [2A] Spouses and children (under 21) of a Lawful Permanent Resident
[2B] Unmarried sons and daughters (21 or older) of a Lawful Permanent Resident
- Married sons and daughters (21 or older) of a U.S. Citizen
- Brothers and sisters of a U.S. Citizen
[Notice that a Lawful Permanent Resident (green card holder) cannot petition for his or her parents or married son or daughter]
Visas are always available for immediate relatives, and so there is no wait for a visa to become current. Persons who fall in the family preference categories usually will have to endure a wait for a visa to become available as there are only a limited number of visas per preference category and per country. A "Visa Bulletin" is published each month by the State Department which keeps track of visa availability by preference category and country. The general rule is that a person's country of visa chargeability is their country of birth, however a different country may be used in certain circumstances.