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How to apply for a family-based green card


1. Introduction

A green card is the document that proves your status as a permanent resident in the United States. With a valid green card, you can legally live and work in the United States for 10 years, as well as:

  • Travel outside the United States, without the risk of being denied entry.
  • Live and work anywhere in the United States, without the need for employer sponsorship.
  • Start a business in the United States.
  • Receive government-sponsored financial aid for education, if eligible.
  • Collect social security benefits in retirement, if eligible.
  • Sponsor certain family members for a green card.
  • Be protected by all federal, state, and local laws.
Green cards issued by category
Refugee and asylee
Diversity visa lottery

There are several different types of green cards, but most people receive them through a family member. In this guide, we’ll cover the entire path to family-based permanent residence: getting sponsored by a family member, waiting for a visa to become available, and applying for a green card through adjustment of status or consular processing.

Here we’ll show you which forms you and your sponsor will need to fill out, what types of evidence you’ll need to include, plus filing fees and wait times.

2. Before you start

Not all relatives are eligible for a family-based green card. Before you begin, we’ll cover who is eligible for a family green card and explain the steps you’ll need to complete the process. We’ll also show you how long the process might take, how much it might cost, and how a lawyer can help streamline the process.

Who can get a family green card?
  • Spouses of a US citizen
  • Parents of US citizens, if the sponsoring citizen is age 21 or older
  • Children of a US citizen
  • Siblings of US citizen, if the sponsoring citizen is age 21 or older
  • Spouses of a permanent resident
  • Unmarried children of a permanent resident

Overview of the steps

1. Get sponsored. To obtain a green card through family, a relative who is a permanent resident or citizen must sponsor their immigrant relative by filing a visa petition on their behalf. This is always the first step towards receiving a family green card, regardless of the immigrant’s current status.

2. Wait for a visa. Once the relative visa petition is approved, the immigrant must wait for an immigrant visa to become available. The waiting period could take a few months or decades depending on how many other applicants are in the US visa backlog. This is true for applicants both in or outside of the United States.

Exception: Immediate relatives of a US citizen always have a visa available and can become permanent residents as soon as their applications are approved. Everyone else, however, has to wait.

3. Apply for a green card. After an immigrant visa becomes available, the immigrant must complete a medical exam, file for adjustment of status or consular processing, and potentially attend an interview. If approved, the immigrant will officially be a permanent resident.

How long will it take?

12+ months

Processing time for immigrant visa petition: 6 months or longer

Waiting time for immigrant visa to become available: 1 year or longer*

Processing time for adjustment of status/consular processing: 6 months or longer

*This depends on your preference category, Immediate relatives of a US citizen do not need to wait for a visa to become available.

Tip: You can find out how far USCIS is into processing their backlog of applications by checking the visa bulletin. USCIS updates the bulletin on a monthly basis.

How much will it cost to apply?


Average fee total

You and your sponsor will be responsible for separate fees, paid at different times during the application process. Immigrants should expect to pay $1,445. Sponsors should expect to pay $535.

Do I need a lawyer?

Now that you’ve decided to apply for a green card, you should consider if you should hire an immigration lawyer to help you with your case. As with any immigration process, there are risks and consequences that come with applying. Here’s how an immigration lawyer can help you throughout the process:

  • Review your case: At the very start, a lawyer will look over your case file to make sure you are eligible for a green card. They will also help you understand what to expect, as well as the possible outcomes of the process.
  • Prepare the paperwork: In addition to filling out the forms, a lawyer will help you gather all the necessary files for your application. This includes evidence of your relationship, letters of support, and any other documents you might need.
  • Give advice: During the process, you may have questions or concerns about how life events affect your situation. A lawyer can help guide you through decisions and give you advice about how they may affect your application status.
  • Prepare for the interview: If you are scheduled to attend an interview with USCIS, a lawyer will help you practice answering the questions that USCIS could ask you. They can come to interview with you, to make sure you are treated fairly.
  • Advocate on your behalf: Throughout the whole process, a lawyer will work in your best interests toward a successful outcome.

If your circumstances are simple, and you have no criminal record or run-ins with immigration officials, you may find that you can complete the process on your own. There are many situations, however, where it is important that you speak with a lawyer before submitting anything to the government. Contact an immigration lawyer if:

  • You are uncertain about your eligibility
  • You have a criminal record of any kind
  • You have ever been in immigration court
  • You have ever been in removal proceedings
  • You have ever been deported
  • You are confused or unsure about any of the paperwork

Applying for a green card is often difficult and time-consuming, and like any immigration process, carries some substantial risks. Working with an experienced immigration lawyer will give you a higher chance of success and peace of mind during the process.

Tips for completing USCIS forms

All USCIS forms are available for free through the USCIS website or by calling 800-870-3676.

You can download a PDF version of the form and type in your answers electronically, or you can print it out and handwrite your answers. If you handwrite your answers, remember to use black ink and write legibly. If you make a mistake, start over with a new form. Any errors or crossed out information will delay the processing of your form.

Specific instructions for each form will vary, but remember these general tips as you complete your application:

  • Supporting documents must be in English, or include an English translation.
  • Submit copies of all documents unless instructed to submit the original. Documents submitted in your application will not be returned.
  • If you have any attachments, make sure each attached page has your name and A-Number if available.
  • Format your name and date in the exact same way on every form.

Attorneys recommend creating a cover page for your application that lists all attached forms and documents. This can help you keep your application paperwork organized and make sure USCIS sees everything you’ve included.

Once you submit your application, you should receive Form, I-797C, Notice of Action. This is a receipt that proves USCIS has received your application.

3. File a relative visa petition

Before an immigrant may apply for a green card, an eligible relative in the United States must sponsor them for a family visa.

In this section, we’ll cover eligibility, costs, and waiting times. We’ll also show you which documents and forms you’ll need to include in your application, where to send them, and what to expect next.

Who should file the petition?

Only a US citizen or permanent resident can file an immigrant petition to sponsor their family members for a visa. Note that not all relatives are eligible.

Who can be sponsored for an immigrant family visa?

Immediate relatives of US citizens.

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried child under 21
  • Parent (sponsor must be 21 or older)

Immediate relatives of permanent residents

  • Spouse
  • Unmarried child under 21
  • Parent (sponsor must be 21 or older)

Non-immediate relatives of US citizens

  • Unmarried child age 21 or older
  • Married child of any age
  • Sibling (sponsor must be 21 or older)
Tip: Immediate relatives of US citizens currently living in the United States are eligible for concurrent filing. This means you can file for adjustment of status at the same time as the relative visa petition. You do not need to wait for your visa petition to be approved.

Who cannot be sponsored for an immigrant family visa?
  • Child adopted over the age of 16, with few exceptions.
  • Adoptive parent if child hasn’t been in legal custody and living with parent for less than 2 years
  • Biological parent if US citizen child gained green card through adoption
  • Stepparent or stepchild, if marriage occurred after child’s 18th birthday
  • Spouses who have not lived together
  • Permanent residents who received their green card through a previous marriage
  • Illegitimate marriages for the purposes of status
  • Grandparents, grandchildren, extended family members

Step 1: File Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative

This is the form filed by the sponsor, to request an immigrant visa for their relative. A free PDF version of Form I-130 is available on the USCIS website.

Step 2: Attach evidence of the sponsor's status

If sponsor is a US citizen include 1 of the following:

  • A US birth certificate or equivalent
  • Naturalization certificate or equivalent
  • Form FS-240 if born abroad
  • Copy of unexpired passport or
  • Original statement from US consular officer verifying citizenship status and passport

If sponsor is a permanent resident:

  • Copy of your green card (front and back). If you haven’t received your green card, submit a copy of your passport biographic page and a copy of the page showing admission as a permanent resident

Step 3: Attach evidence of your family relationship

Who is being sponsored for a visa?

Select to see list of required documents.

Submit the following documentation:

  • A copy of your marriage certificate
  • If either you or your spouse were previously married, submit copies of documents showing that all prior marriages were legally terminated
  • A passport-style color photo of yourself and a passport-style color photo of your spouse, taken within 30 days of the date of this petition. The photos must have a white background and be glossy unretouched and not mounted. The dimensions of the full frontal facial image should be about 1 inch from the chin to top of the hair. Using pencil or felt pen, lightly print the name (and Alien Registration Number, if known) on the back of each photograph.
  • A completed and signed Form G-325A, Biographic Information, for you and a Form G-325A for your spouse. Except for your name and signature you do not have to repeat on Form G-325A the information given on your Form I-130 petition.
Note: In addition to the required documentation listed above, you should submit 1 or more of the following types of documentation that prove your marriage is valid;
  • Documentation showing joint ownership or property
  • A lease showing joint tenancy of a common residence
  • Documentation showing co-mingling of financial resources
  • Birth certificate(s) of child(ren) born to you, the petitioner, and your spouse together
  • Affidavits sworn to or affirmed by third parties having personal knowledge of the bona fides of the marital relationship. (Each affidavit must contain the full name and address, date and place of birth of the person making the affidavit, his or her relationship to the petitioner of beneficiary, if any, and complete information and details explaining how the person acquired his or her knowledge of your marriage)
  • Any other relevant documentation to establish that there is an ongoing marital union
Note: If you married your spouse while your spouse was the subject of an exclusion, deportation, removal, or rescission proceeding (including judicial review of the decision in one of these proceedings), this evidence must be sufficient to establish the bona fides or your marriage by clear and convincing evidence.
Source: USCIS

Tip: You may be required to submit other forms and evidence depending on your case. We recommend consulting an attorney before you apply, to make sure you’ve included all relevant paperwork. If you are an immediate relative of a US citizen, living in the United States, you may submit your adjustment of status application in the same envelope.

Step 4: Pay filing fee


Filing fee

Make your check or money order payable to “U.S. Department of Homeland Security”.

Where do I send the application?

You will mail your application package to the USCIS Chicago or Phoenix lockbox, depending on where you live and which forms you are filing.You will mail your application package to the USCIS Chicago or Phoenix lockbox, depending on where you live and which forms you are filing.

What are you filing?
Where are you filing from?
USCIS Chicago lockbox

For US Postal Service deliveries:
P.O. Box 804625
Chicago, IL 60680-4107
For express mail and courier deliveries:
ATTN: I-130
131 South Dearborn-3rd Floor
Chicago, IL 60603-5517

How long will it take to get a family visa?

If you are filing the petition as a US citizen for an immediate family member (such as a spouse, child, or parent) you may include their adjustment of status form in the same application packet. This is called concurrent filing. Keep in mind that while you may apply at the same time, you must pay both filing fees.

You can expect to your application to be processed sometime in the next 6 to 18 months. Once you receive confirmation from USCIS that your application has been received in the mail, you can check your application status.

If you are not an immediate relative of a US citizen, you will need to wait until an immigrant visa is available. The United States limits the number of family visas issued every year, and they are granted on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Once your petition has been approved, you will need to wait at least several months to receive a visa and proceed with your case. Waiting times will depend on the category you file under. You can find out how far USCIS is into processing their backlog of applications by checking the visa bulletin.

4. File for permanent residence

Once you have a visa number available to you, you will either file for adjustment of status or consular processing in order to receive your green card.

Immediate relatives of US citizens may include their adjustment of status paperwork in the same application package as their immigrant petition. Remember that you and your sponsor must still pay both application fees.

Who should file for adjustment of status?

If you are already in the United States and your visa petition is immediately available, you may file for adjustment of status.

Who should file for consular processing?

If you are outside of the United States, you will apply for consular processing after your relative visa petition (Form I-130) has been approved and an immigrant visa number is available to you.

5. Maintain your status

Once you become a permanent resident, you hold this status unless you apply and complete the naturalization process, or lose or abandon your status. In this section, we’ll help you prepare for your life as a US permanent resident.

Responsibilities of permanent residents

According to USCIS, all permanent residents must:

  • Carry their green card at all times
  • Obey all laws of the United States the states, and localities.
  • File your income tax returns and report your income to federal and state taxing authorities.
  • Support the democratic form of government and not to change the government through illegal means.
  • Required, if you are a man age 18 through 25, to register with the Selective Service.
  • Notify USCIS if they change their address

Actions that may risk your permanent resident status
  • Claiming to be a US citizen
  • Voting in nation, state, or local elections
  • Traveling outside of the United States for extended periods of time, usually 6 months
  • Committing a crime
  • Not paying court-ordered child support or alimony if applicable
  • Lying in order to receive public benefits
  • Not paying taxes
  • Not registering for selective service if between ages of 18 and 26

If you are concerned that your status might be at risk, contact an immigration lawyer immediately.

Renewing your green card

Most green cards are valid for 10 years after the date of issue. However, you still maintain permanent resident status even if your green card is expired. The physical card is just proof of your status. You will need to fill out Form I-90 and pay a $545 renewal fee.

Applying for naturalization

After 5 years as a permanent resident, or 3 if you’re married to a US citizen, most permanent residents are eligible to become US citizens through naturalization.

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