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The ABC's of U.S. Immigration | The Real Solution | Family-Sponsored Immigration   Employment-Based Immigration | Naturalization 

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Family-sponsored immigration is the way U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents bring family members from other countries to live permanently in America.  Citizens may sponsor only their spouses, children, parents (if the citizen is older than 21 years), and brothers and sisters (if the citizen is older  than 21 years).  Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) may sponsor only their spouses and unmarried children.  Neither citizens nor LPRs may bring in more distant family members, such as aunts, uncles, and cousins.  In all, nearly three-quarters of regular immigration to the U.S. is family-sponsored.

Our immigration system divides the family members eligible for sponsorship into two tiers.  Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens?that is, spouses, unmarried minor children and parents, but not brothers and sisters or unmarried and married adult children?are admitted as their applications are processed.  There is no ceiling on the number of immigrant visas allotted for immediate relatives.  In recent years, more than 350,000 have immigrated per year.

All other immigrants who come here through family sponsorship fall into the "family preference system" which, in recent years, has been capped at 226,000 visas per year.

Immigration Based on Family Relationships

Immediate Relative
U.S. Citizen
spouses, unmarried minor children and (if the U.S. citizen is 21 years or older), parents
not numerically limited (more than 300,000 have been issued annually in recent years)
1st Preference
U.S. Citizen
unmarried adult children
(21 years or older)
23,400 visas/year, plus any visas left from the 4th preference
2nd A Preference
spouses and minor children
87,900 visas/year. Unused visas from the 1st preference may be added to the 2nd.
2nd B Preference
unmarried adult children
(21 years or older)
26,300 visas/year
3rd Preference
U.S. Citizen
married adult children
23,400 visas/year, plus any left over from the 1st and 2nd preferences
4th Preference
U.S. Citizen
(21 years or older)
brothers and sisters
65,000 visas/year, plus any left over from the previous preferences

Worldwide Ceilings and Limits on Immigrants from One Country

All ?immediate relatives? plus all of the family preference categories must fit within an overall ceiling for family-based immigration of 480,000.  This ceiling can be exceeded, however, due to the fact that a minimum of 226,000 visas per year are reserved for the family preference categories (non-immediate relatives), coupled with the fact that immediate relatives are not capped.  In addition to these category limits, the ceiling on the number of people we allow in from any one country is approximately 25,600.  This ceiling includes immigrants in the family-preference categories and immigrants who are coming here through the sponsorship of an employer.  There are some exceptions to the per country limits. 

Screening of Immigrants

When an immigrant inside the U.S. applies for an immigrant visa, he or she must submit information and documentation that is carefully checked by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security.  On the application form itself, there are questions asking about criminal activity.  The immigrant must report all places of residence and employment over the past five years.  Information about parents, spouse, and children are also collected on the application form.  Along with the application, an immigrant must submit photos and a copy of his or her birth certificate.  He or she must appear for fingerprinting, and these fingerprints are checked against an FBI database of persons with criminal records.  In some cases, police clearances must accompany the application.  Finally, the immigrant must have a medical examination.  Persons waiting outside the U.S. for an immigrant visa must go through a similar screening process performed by a State Department Consular Office.

When Visas are Not Available

The law requires that family preference visas be issued to eligible immigrants in the order the petitions are filed.  When there are more applicants applying for visas in a preference category than there are visas available, the preference category is considered "over-subscribed."  Applicants must then wait until a visa becomes available before they can immigrate to the United States.  Currently, all visa categories are oversubscribed to varying lengths.  For example, an LPR wishing to reunite with a spouse or minor child must wait more than four years before his or her family member can obtain a permanent immigrant visa.  U.S. citizens petitioning for their siblings are waiting between 12 and 22 years, at a minimum, depending on their sibling's home country.  In most cases, family members must wait outside the United States until a visa is available, and thus remain separated from their families.  Typically, a foreigner with an application pending for an immigrant visa will not be allowed into the U.S. even for a visit with family members because the State Department, which issues visitor visas, may believe that the person will not leave when the visitor visa expires.

Revised January 2005