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Family Visa USA: A Comprehensive Guide

By Nita Nicole Upadhye

Table of Contents

Family-based visas allow US citizens and Green Card holders to sponsor their relatives to join them in the USA. Their role is to facilitate family reunification while also supporting immigrants to build a new life in the US with their loved ones, while contributing to American society.

Under the US immigration system, there are various family-based visas to help US citizens and Green Card holders reunite with their family members. These visas are divided into two main categories: Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas and Family Preference Immigrant Visas. Each category has specific criteria and eligibility requirements, catering to different familial relationships.

In this guide to US family visas, we set out the routes to join US-based family members on a permanent basis, including the eligibility and procedural stages you’ll need to follow to secure permission to join your loved one in the US.

As the process of applying for a family-based green card can be complex and time-consuming, our US attorneys are on hand to provide specialist advice and guidance to applicants.

 

Section A: Types of Family-Based Visas

 

There are various options available for foreign nationals wanting to apply for a US visa on the basis of a family relationship.

Immigrant visas, or green cards, are highly sought after, giving the successful visa-holder the right to live in the US on a permanent basis.

To apply, the applicant will need to be sponsored by either a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident with whom they have an immediate or qualifying relationship and have a petition approved by USCIS.

Only upon the successful grant of a petition, which can take months or even years, can they then apply for a visa.

The types of US family visas for the US are:

 

1. Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas

 

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas are available to close family members of US citizens. These visas are not subject to numerical limits, making them a preferred choice for those eligible.

 

a. IR-1: Spouse of a US Citizen: This visa allows US citizens to bring their foreign-born spouses to the United States. The couple must prove the legitimacy of their marriage and meet all necessary legal requirements.

 

b. IR-2: Unmarried Child Under 21 of a US Citizen: US citizens can sponsor their unmarried children under the age of 21. Proof of parent-child relationship and the child’s age are required for this visa category.

 

c. IR-3: Orphan Adopted Abroad by a US Citizen: This visa is for children adopted by US citizens outside of the United States. The adoption must meet the legal requirements of both the child’s home country and the US.

 

d. IR-4: Orphan to be Adopted in the US by a US Citizen: This visa applies to children who will be adopted in the United States. The prospective adoptive parents must comply with the legal requirements and processes in both countries.

 

e. IR-5: Parent of a US Citizen (who is at least 21 years old): US citizens who are at least 21 years old can sponsor their parents to immigrate to the United States. Proof of the parent-child relationship and the sponsor’s age is required.

 

2. Family Preference Immigrant Visas

 

Family Preference Immigrant Visas are available to more distant family relationships and are subject to annual numerical limits. These visas have different preference categories, each with specific eligibility requirements.

 

a. F1: Unmarried Sons and Daughters of US Citizens: This visa is for unmarried adult children (21 years or older) of US citizens. The US citizen parent must prove their relationship to the applicant.

 

b. F2A: Spouses and Children of Permanent Residents: Permanent residents (Green Card holders) can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children under 21. This category has a higher priority compared to other family preference categories.

 

c. F2B: Unmarried Sons and Daughters (21 years or older) of Permanent Residents: This visa is for the unmarried adult children of Green Card holders. Proof of the parent-child relationship and the applicant’s unmarried status is required.

 

d. F3: Married Sons and Daughters of US Citizens: US citizens can sponsor their married children of any age. The sponsor must prove their relationship and the marital status of the applicant.

 

e. F4: Brothers and Sisters of US Citizens (who are at least 21 years old): US citizens who are at least 21 years old can sponsor their siblings. The applicant must provide evidence of their sibling relationship and the sponsor’s age.

 

Section B: Family Visa Eligibility Requirements

 

When applying for family-based visas to the United States, you will need to meet specific eligibility requirements to ensure a successful application process. These include:

 

1. Relationship Proof

 

You will need to submit evidence that proves your familial relationship with your sponsor, establishes the authenticity of the relationship and avoids delays or denials with the application.

The specific documentation required varies depending on the type of family-based visa, for example:

 

a. Spouses (IR-1, F2A): A valid marriage certificate, joint financial documents, photos together, and affidavits from friends and family attesting to the relationship.

 

b. Children (IR-2, F2A, F2B): Birth certificates showing the names of the parents, adoption decrees (if applicable), and any legal documents proving custody or guardianship.

 

c. Parents (IR-5): The sponsor’s birth certificate showing the names of the parents and any other documents proving the parent-child relationship.

 

d. Siblings (F4): Birth certificates of both the sponsor and the sibling showing at least one common parent and any other documents supporting the sibling relationship.

 

2. Financial Requirements (Affidavit of Support)

 

Sponsors must demonstrate their ability to financially support the applicant to prevent them from becoming what is considered a ‘public charge’. This requirement is met by submitting an Affidavit of Support (Form I-864).

The sponsor’s income must be at least 125% of the federal poverty guidelines for their household size. This calculation includes their income, the immigrant’s income, and other household members’ income, if applicable. Supporting documents are essential to prove income level and financial stability. These documents typically include recent tax returns, pay stubs, employment letters, and bank statements.

If the sponsor does not meet the income requirement, a joint sponsor can also submit an Affidavit of Support, provided they meet the financial criteria.

 

3. Background Checks and Medical Examinations

 

Family visa applicants have to undergo thorough background checks and medical examinations as part of the application process.

All applicants are subject to security checks, including fingerprinting and criminal background checks, to identify any past criminal activity, security threats, or immigration violations.

Applicants also have to undergo a medical examination by a US-approved physician to ensure they do not have any communicable diseases, vaccination requirements are met, and they are generally in good health. The results are submitted using Form I-693.

 

Section C: Family-Based Visa Application Process

 

The application process for family-based visas involves several critical steps, from filing the initial petition to attending the visa interview. Each step requires careful preparation and attention to detail to ensure a successful outcome.

 

Step 1: Filing the Petition

The first step in the family-based visa application process is filing a petition to establish the qualifying relationship between the sponsor and the beneficiary.

Form I-130 Petition for Alien Relative is used by US citizens or Green Card holders to establish a familial relationship with the beneficiary seeking to immigrate to the United States. The form requires detailed information about both the petitioner (sponsor) and the beneficiary, including personal information, relationship details, and other relevant data.

 

Step 2: Supporting Documents

Supporting documents are necessary to establish the validity of the familial relationship and the sponsor’s eligibility. Proof of relationship is demonstrated through documents such as marriage certificates, birth certificates, and adoption decrees. These documents confirm the family ties between the sponsor and the applicant.

Proof of status is also required, which includes providing a copy of the sponsor’s US passport, naturalization certificate, or Green Card. These documents verify the sponsor’s legal status in the United States.

Additionally, other documents may be necessary to support the validity of the relationship. This includes evidence of any name changes, previous marriages, and other relevant documents that help establish the authenticity of the familial connection.

 

Step 3: Visa Processing

Once the Form I-130 petition is approved, the next phase involves visa processing, which includes steps handled by the National Visa Center (NVC) and, if applicable, consular processing or adjustment of status.

 

a. National Visa Center (NVC) Processing

After USCIS approves the I-130 petition, the case is transferred to the NVC. The NVC assigns a case number and provides instructions for the next steps, including the collection of additional documents and fees.

The NVC requires submission of civil documents (birth certificates, marriage certificates, police certificates), financial documents (Affidavit of Support, Form I-864), and any other required forms.

 

b. Consular Processing (if applicable)

If the beneficiary is outside the United States, they will undergo consular processing at a US Embassy or Consulate in their home country. The NVC forwards the case to the appropriate embassy or consulate, where the beneficiary will attend a visa interview and submit biometric information.

 

c. Adjustment of Status (for those in the US)

Beneficiaries already in the United States may apply for adjustment of status (Form I-485) to become a permanent resident without leaving the country. This involves submitting Form I-485, attending a biometrics appointment, and possibly an interview with USCIS.

 

Step 4: Interview and Approval

The final step in the application process is the visa interview, followed by the decision on the visa application.

You should be prepared to answer questions about the relationship with the sponsor, background information, and other relevant details. Also, bring all original documents, copies submitted with the application, and any additional documents requested by the consulate or USCIS.

 

Step 5: Possible Outcomes and Next Steps

If the visa is approved, the beneficiary will receive their visa and instructions for entering the United States.

If the visa is denied, the consulate or USCIS will provide reasons for the denial and information on possible appeals or additional steps.

 

Section D: Common Challenges

 

When preparing to apply for a US family visa, applicants should consider the following factors and challenges to avoid issues or delays with their application:

 

1. Processing Times and Visa Bulletin

Processing times for family-based visas can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the type of visa, the service center handling the case, and the applicant’s country of origin. These times are not fixed and can change, making it essential for applicants to stay informed. USCIS and the Department of State regularly update their websites with current processing times. Monitoring these updates is crucial for applicants to have realistic expectations about the timeline for their visa processing.

The Visa Bulletin, published monthly by the USS Department of State, provides crucial information on visa availability and priority dates for family preference categories. Each family preference category has a priority date, which is the date when the petition was filed. Applicants use the Visa Bulletin to determine when their priority date becomes current, indicating when they can proceed with the next steps in the visa process.

Immediate Relative visas are not subject to numerical limits and, therefore, do not appear in the Visa Bulletin. In contrast, Family Preference visas are subject to annual numerical limits, making the Visa Bulletin a critical resource for tracking the availability of these visas. Understanding the Visa Bulletin and priority dates helps applicants plan their immigration journey more effectively.

 

2. Documentation Issues

Incomplete or incorrect documentation can lead to significant delays or even denials of a visa application. It is essential to ensure that all required documents are accurate and complete. Missing documents or errors can cause complications, so careful attention to detail is crucial. Additionally, any documents not in English must be accompanied by a certified translation to meet the application requirements.

 

3. Financial Requirements

Meeting the financial requirements is a critical aspect of the visa application process. Sponsors who do not meet the necessary criteria for the Affidavit of Support can use a joint sponsor to fulfil this requirement. It is important to ensure that all financial documents, including tax returns, pay stubs, and bank statements, are up-to-date and accurately reflect the sponsor’s income.

 

4. Background Checks and Medical Examinations

Applicants must undergo security clearances and medical examinations as part of the visa process. Those with criminal records or past immigration violations may face additional scrutiny, so providing honest and complete information is essential. Additionally, applicants should ensure that all required vaccinations are current and address any health concerns that might affect their eligibility.

 

5. Interview Preparation

Thorough preparation for the visa interview can help alleviate nervousness and reduce the risk of miscommunication. Practising common interview questions and gathering all necessary documents in advance can improve the chances of a successful interview. Being well-prepared can make the process smoother and more efficient.

 

6. Delays and Backlogs

Delays and backlogs are common in the visa application process. Regularly checking the status of your application on the USCIS or Department of State websites is important to stay informed. Being proactive by following up on any delays or additional requests for information can help keep the process moving forward and address any issues promptly.

 

Section E: Temporary Family Visas

 

While this guide focuses on permanent immigrant family visas, the US also offers temporary options known as nonimmigrant visas.

A nonimmigrant visa allows the visa-holder to temporarily accompany to the US or follow to join their loved one. These are typically referred to under US immigration law as derivative visas.

A derivative visa is essentially a visa where the applicant is seeking permission to come to the US on the basis of their immediate relationship with the principal applicant or primary visa-holder, such as a partner or parent. You can apply for a derivative visa at the same time that your partner or parent applies for a visa under the same classification or, alternatively, apply at a later date to join them in the States. However, depending on your circumstances, including what activities you plan to undertake in the US and how long you plan to stay, you may also be eligible to apply for a visa in your own right, e.g. as a skilled worker.

Some of the common temporary visa routes for family members include:

 

1. F-2 Visa (Dependents of F-1 Students)

The F-2 visa is designated for the spouse and unmarried children under 21 of F-1 student visa holders. To qualify, the F-1 visa holder must be enrolled in an academic program in the US, and the F-2 applicants must demonstrate sufficient financial support. However, F-2 visa holders are not allowed to work or engage in full-time study, though they can enrol in recreational or part-time classes.

 

2. J-2 Visa (Dependents of J-1 Exchange Visitors)

The J-2 visa is available for the spouse and unmarried children under 21 of J-1 exchange visitors. Eligibility requires the J-1 visa holder to participate in an approved exchange program, with J-2 applicants providing evidence of financial support. J-2 visa holders can apply for work authorization from USCIS after arriving in the US and may study full-time or part-time while in the country.

 

3. H-4 Visa (Dependents of H-1B, H-2A, H-2B, and H-3 Visa Holders)

The H-4 visa is for the spouse and unmarried children under 21 of H-1B (specialty workers), H-2A (agricultural workers), H-2B (non-agricultural workers), and H-3 (trainees) visa holders. The primary H visa holder must maintain valid status, and H-4 applicants must prove their relationship and financial support. Certain H-4 visa holders, especially those married to H-1B visa holders, may be eligible for work authorization if the H-1B visa holder has an approved I-140 petition or has extended their status beyond the six-year limit. H-4 visa holders can also enrol in educational programs without restrictions.

 

4. L-2 Visa (Dependents of L-1 Intracompany Transferees)

The L-2 visa is for the spouse and unmarried children under 21 of L-1 visa holders who are intracompany transferees. To qualify, the L-1 visa holder must work for a qualifying multinational company, and L-2 applicants must demonstrate their relationship and financial support. L-2 spouses can apply for employment authorization from USCIS and can study full-time or part-time while in the US.

 

5. K-4 Visa (Children of K-3 Visa Holders)

The K-4 visa is designated for the unmarried children under 21 of K-3 visa holders, who are spouses of US citizens. The K-3 visa holder must have a pending immigrant visa petition filed by their US citizen spouse, and K-4 applicants must prove their relationship. Once in the US, K-4 visa holders can apply for adjustment of status to become permanent residents.

 

6. TD Visa (Dependents of TN Visa Holders)

The TD visa is available for the spouse and unmarried children under 21 of TN visa holders, who are Canadian and Mexican citizens working in the US under the NAFTA agreement. The TN visa holder must be employed in a qualifying profession, and TD applicants must demonstrate their relationship and financial support. TD visa holders are not permitted to work in the US but can study without restrictions.

 

Section F: Summary

 

Family reunification is a fundamental aspect of US immigration policy, reflecting the country’s commitment to maintaining strong family bonds. However, you should prepare for the process of obtaining a family visa to be complex and protracted.

Taking professional advice is the best way to ensure you opt for the most appropriate route, follow the correct procedures and provide the necessary evidence to support your application.

 

Section G: Need Assistance

 

NNU Immigration are attorneys specializing in US immigration, residency and citizenship applications.

We have specific expertise in complex cases, such as when an applicant has past immigration issues, issues a criminal record, or requires detailed guidance through the process.

Contact us for expert guidance.

 

Section H: FAQs on Family Visa USA

 

What is a family-based visa?

A family-based visa allows US citizens and Green Card holders to sponsor certain family members to immigrate to the United States. These visas are designed to promote family reunification by enabling relatives to live together in the US.

 

Who can sponsor a family member for a visa?

US citizens can sponsor their spouses, children, parents, and siblings. Green Card holders can sponsor their spouses and unmarried children. Each type of relationship has specific visa categories with distinct requirements.

 

What is the difference between Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas and Family Preference Immigrant Visas?

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas (IR visas) are for close family members of US citizens and are not subject to annual numerical limits. Family Preference Immigrant Visas (F visas) cover more distant family relationships and are subject to annual quotas, meaning there may be a waiting period based on visa availability.

 

How long does the family-based visa process take?

Processing times vary based on the type of visa, the applicant’s country of origin, and the workload at the USCIS and consulates. Immediate Relative visas typically have shorter processing times, while Family Preference visas can take several years due to numerical limits and backlogs.

 

What documents are required to file Form I-130?

To file Form I-130, you need proof of the relationship (e.g., marriage certificate, birth certificate), proof of the sponsor’s US citizenship or Green Card status, and any other relevant documents like previous divorce decrees or name change certificates.

 

What is the Affidavit of Support (Form I-864)?

Form I-864 is a document that the sponsor must submit to demonstrate they have sufficient income or assets to support the immigrant relative and prevent them from becoming a public charge. The sponsor’s income must be at least 125% of the federal poverty level for their household size.

 

What happens after Form I-130 is approved?

Once Form I-130 is approved, the case is transferred to the National Visa Center (NVC) for further processing. The NVC will request additional documents and fees and then schedule a visa interview at a US Embassy or Consulate if the applicant is abroad. If the applicant is in the US, they may apply for adjustment of status.

 

What is the Visa Bulletin, and how do I use it?

The Visa Bulletin, published monthly by the US Department of State, shows the availability of visas in the family preference categories. It includes priority dates, which indicate when applicants can proceed with their visa applications. Applicants must monitor the Visa Bulletin to know when their priority date becomes current.

 

What are common reasons for visa denials?

Common reasons for visa denials include insufficient proof of the familial relationship, failure to meet financial requirements, incomplete or incorrect documentation, security concerns, or medical issues. Thorough preparation and legal assistance can help mitigate these risks.

 

Section I: Glossary

 

Adjustment of Status (AOS): The process that allows an eligible individual already in the United States to apply for a Green Card (permanent residence) without having to return to their home country to complete visa processing.

Affidavit of Support (Form I-864): A legally binding document signed by the sponsor to accept financial responsibility for the immigrant, ensuring they will not become a public charge.

Beneficiary: The foreign national who is the recipient of an immigration petition and seeks to obtain a visa or adjustment of status.
Consular Processing: The process of applying for an immigrant visa at a US Embassy or Consulate in a foreign country, typically used when the beneficiary is outside the United States.

Form I-130 (Petition for Alien Relative): The form used by US citizens and Green Card holders to establish a qualifying relationship with an eligible relative who wishes to immigrate to the United States.

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas: Visa categories that are not subject to numerical limits, available to close family members of US citizens, including spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents.

Family Preference Immigrant Visas: Visa categories subject to annual numerical limits, available to more distant family relationships such as married children and siblings of US citizens, and certain relatives of Green Card holders.

National Visa Center (NVC): A US Department of State facility that processes immigrant visa applications after they are approved by USCIS and before they are sent to the consulate or embassy for final processing.

Priority Date: The date when the Form I-130 petition was filed, used to determine an applicant’s place in line for visa processing in family preference categories.

Public Charge: An individual who is likely to become primarily dependent on the government for subsistence, considered during the visa application process to ensure applicants can financially support themselves.

Sponsor: A US citizen or Green Card holder who files an immigration petition on behalf of a relative and provides financial support through the Affidavit of Support.

USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services): The federal agency that oversees lawful immigration to the United States, including the processing of immigrant petitions and applications for naturalization.

Visa Bulletin: A monthly publication by the US Department of State that provides information on visa availability and priority dates for family preference and employment-based immigrant visas.

Visa Interview: A required meeting at a US Embassy or Consulate where the applicant must present their case and documents to a consular officer to determine their eligibility for an immigrant visa.

Visa Waiver Program (VWP): A program that allows citizens of specific countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for stays of 90 days or less without obtaining a visa.

 

Section J: Additional Resources

 

USCIS Family Immigration
https://www.uscis.gov/family
Comprehensive information about family-based immigration options and requirements.

 

Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative
https://www.uscis.gov/i-130
Detailed instructions and the form required to establish a qualifying family relationship.

 

Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status
https://www.uscis.gov/i-485
Instructions and form for adjusting status to become a permanent resident.

 

US Department of State (DOS) Visa Bulletin

https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/legal/visa-law0/visa-bulletin.html
Monthly updates on visa availability and priority dates for family preference categories.

 

National Visa Center (NVC) Processing
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/nvc.html
Information on the role of the NVC in the visa application process.

 

Consular Processing
https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/us-visas/immigrate/the-immigrant-visa-process/consular-processing.html
Steps for applying for an immigrant visa at a US Embassy or Consulate.

 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
https://www.cdc.gov/immigrantrefugeehealth/index.html
Health information and requirements for immigrants and refugees.

 

USCIS Designated Civil Surgeons
https://my.uscis.gov/findadoctor
Tool to locate USCIS-approved doctors for medical examinations.

 

 

Author

Founder & Principal Attorney Nita Nicole Upadhye is a recognized leader in the field of US business immigration law, (The Legal 500, Who's Who Legal and AILA) and an experienced and trusted advisor to large multinational corporates through to SMEs. She provides strategic immigration advice and specialist application support to corporations and professionals, entrepreneurs, investors, artists, actors and athletes from across the globe to meet their US-bound talent mobility needs.

Nita is an active public speaker, thought leader, immigration commentator, and immigration policy contributor and regularly hosts training sessions for employers and HR professionals.

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For specialist advice on your query, get in touch with our team of US immigration attorneys.​

Need legal advice?

For specialist advice on your query, get in touch with our team of US immigration attorneys.

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For specialist advice on a US immigration or nationality matter for your business, contact our US immigration attorneys.

For specialist advice on a US immigration or nationality matter for your business, contact our US immigration attorneys.