US Family Visas: Joining Loved Ones in the USA
For those of you looking to travel to the US to visit relatives, or would like to live in the United States with an immediate family member, either in the short or long term, the following guide provides an overview of the options available for US dependants.
We identify some of the most commonly sought after US family visas, looking at how long these last, what they allow and who can apply. We also look at the procedure involved although, in some cases, you may even be able to travel to the United States visa-free.
What are the different types of US family visas?
When it comes to US family visas, there are various options available for non-citizens wanting to apply for a visa on the basis of a family relationship, although these can be broadly divided into two different categories: immigrant and nonimmigrant visas.
An immigrant visa is a visa granting the successful applicant lawful permanent residence in the United States, also commonly known as a green card, whereas a nonimmigrant visa is one allowing 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, ie; as an overseas visitor.
Additionally, if you are a citizen of a qualifying country, you may be eligible for a visa waiver under the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), allowing you to travel to the United States to visit a loved one for a maximum period of up to 90 days.
US family visa requirements
Nonimmigrant US family visas are temporary visas for those typically looking to travel to the US to join or accompany their partner or parent who may be working or studying there. This could be, for example, as the spouse or dependent child of either a treaty trader or treaty investor. It could also be as the spouse or child of an overseas professional working in a specialty occupation, or of someone who possesses extraordinary ability or achievements in certain fields. Below we look briefly at each of these examples of US family visas.
US family visas under E classification
A US family visa under E nonimmigrant classification is for either the spouse or dependent child of someone engaging in substantial trade in the United States (an E1 treaty trader) or overseeing the running of a US business in which they have invested a substantial amount of capital (an E2 treaty investor). This classification of visa can also cover the spouse or child of a senior or essential employee of the principal trader or principal investor.
If you are granted an E-derivative visa, the length of your visa will be directly tied to that of the principal applicant or visa-holder who is bound for or already based in the States. This means that if your application is approved, you will generally be granted the same period of stay as your partner or parent. Even though the initial grant of leave will be for no more than 2 years, there is no limit to the number of extensions an E1 or E2 nonimmigrant may be granted, provided they maintain an intention to depart the US when their status expires.
As an E1 or E2 spouse, there will generally be no restrictions on where you can work, provided you can provide proof of status to your US employer. This is because, on the grant of a visa under E classification, you will usually be considered employment-authorised incident to status. E1 and E2 children can also undertake part-time or full-time study.
To apply for an E-derivative visa, you do not need to hold the same nationality as the E1 or E2 visa-holder. However, you must be able to prove that you have a qualifying relationship with the principal applicant or primary visa-holder, ie; your partner or parent. This means that you must be able to provide proof of your marriage or that you are an unmarried child under the age of 21 of a treaty trader/investor or employee.
You will need to complete Form DS-160 (Online Nonimmigrant Visa Application) and attend an in-person interview with your local US Embassy or Consulate. If you are already in the US and and seeking a change of status under E1 or E2 dependent classification, you may apply by filing Form I-539 (Application to Extend/Change Nonimmigrant Status).
US family visas under H classification
A US family visa under H nonimmigrant classification is for the spouse or dependent child of the principal applicant or primary visa-holder on one of various H-category work routes. This derivative visa is specifically described as the H4 dependant visa.
There are a number of different work routes under H classification, including the H1B visa, for overseas professionals working in specialty occupations; the H2A visa, for agricultural workers filling temporary or seasonal job roles; the H2B visa for non-agricultural workers filling job roles for which there are not enough domestic workers; and the H3 visa, for nonimmigrant trainees to receive vocational training not available in their home country. The H4 visa is available to qualifying dependants of any one of the above H visa-holders.
As with other derivative visas, the H4 visa will allow eligible dependants to live in the United States for the same duration as the H nonimmigrant worker. For example, if your partner or parent has permission to work in the US for 3 years, you should also be granted a 3-year visa. Equally, if your partner or parent applies to extend their stay from within the US, you can also apply for an extension in line with that of the principal applicant.
However, following the maximum permitted of stay under H-classification, your family may be required to depart the US and live overseas for a short time before seeking re-admission.
Importantly, as an H4 spouse, you will not usually be permitted to work during your stay, not unless your partner has started the process of applying for lawful permanent residence in certain cases, although H4 dependent children will be allowed to go to school or college.
To apply for an H4 visa, you will again need to file Form DS-160, submit various documents in support and attend an in-person interview with your local US Embassy or Consulate. If you are already in the US and and are seeking a change of status, you can file Form I-539.
US family visas under O classification
A US family visa under O nonimmigrant classification is for the spouse or dependent child of an O1 or O2 principal applicant or primary visa-holder. This derivative visa is specifically described as the O3 dependant visa. The O1 visa is a temporary visa for overseas nationals who possess extraordinary ability in certain fields, or have been recognised nationally and/or internationally for their achievements, including those working in the fields of sciences, arts, education, business, athletics, or the television and film industry. The O2 visa is for anyone accompanying an O1 athlete or artist to assist in specific events or performances.
The length of stay for O3 dependants is again directly linked to that of the O1 or O2 nonimmigrant worker, although the length of stay will be limited to the length of professional engagements to be undertaken. This time can be extended, but any extension will only be to reflect the time necessary to accomplish the initial event or activity.
As an O3 nonimmigrant you will not be allowed to work whilst in the US, although O3 children will be able to continue their education for the duration of their stay.
As with other derivative visas, an application for an O3 visa must be made by filing Form DS-160, together with supporting documentation, and by attending an interview, or by filing Form I-539 to change to O classification from within the United States.
US family green card requirements
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. However, when it comes to immigrant US family visas, you will need to be sponsored by either a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident with whom you have an immediate or qualifying relationship ‘and’ have a petition approved by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Only upon the successful grant of a petition, which can take months or even years, can you apply for a visa. This could include the IR1 spouse visa, the IR2 dependent child visa or the IR5 parent visa, as well as various family-preference immigrant visas. Family preference immigration categories can include adult children or even siblings. As the spouse or dependent child of an employment-based immigrant under EB1 to EB5 immigrant classification, you may also be able to apply to accompany or join your partner or parent.
Additionally, the K1 fiancé(e) or K3 spouse visa are important options when it comes to US family visas. Strictly speaking, these are nonimmigrant visas, albeit for immigration-related purposes. This is because these visas will allow you, as the fiancé(e) or spouse of a US citizen, to live with them in the US while awaiting approval of an immigrant petition to adjust your status to permanent residency. The K1 visa will allow you to live with your new spouse, provided you marry within 90 days of arriving in the US, while the K3 visa is designed to shorten the physical separation between you and an existing spouse.
The process of applying for a family-based green card can be complex, time-consuming and costly, so it is always best to seek advice from an immigration expert from the outset.
US family visit visa requirements
If you are only planning to visit family in the US, rather than to live with them, you can apply for a visit visa in your own right. A family visit visa is referred to as a B2 visa.
To apply for a B2 visa, as with any other nonimmigrant visa, you will need to file Form DS-160, submit a number of documents and attend an interview at your local US Embassy or Consulate. On the successful grant of a B2 visa, this will enable you to travel to the US, where an immigration official will stamp your passport with your period of stay. This could be anything up to 6 months, depending on how long you plan on staying with your family.
A visit visa is not a visa strictly sought on the basis of a family relationship. As such, you do not need to be a close relative of the US-based family member that you are looking to spend time with. In fact, you can apply for a visit visa to travel to see either a distant relative or even a friend that is living in the United States. The intended purpose of your trip to visit friends and family will need to be cited within your application, but there is no relationship requirement when it comes to US visit visas. In this way, the visit visa represents the most straightforward option when it comes to US family visas.
As US visa law does not recognise common-law relationships, if you are the unmarried partner or fiancé(e) of a US-bound or US-based overseas worker or student, you will not be eligible to apply for a derivative visa, but you will be able to apply instead for a visit visa. For completeness, in the context of derivative status for same sex-marriages, if your marriage is valid in the US state or foreign country where it took place, it will be valid for US visa purposes. As such, if you are applying for a visa in a category where derivative visa status may be accorded to spouses, you may apply for a visa based on your marriage.
Traveling visa-free under ESTA
If you are a citizen of one of several participating countries, and meet the other qualifying requirements, you may be able to travel to the US visa-free under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, to qualify for a visa waiver under the VWP, you must:
- hold a valid e-passport and a return or onward ticket
- not be ineligible to receive a visa under US immigration law
- be planning to travel to the US to visit friends and family for less than 90 days.
If you are eligible for visa-free travel, you will need to obtain an ESTA visa waiver prior to boarding a US bound air or sea carrier at least 72 hours before you depart. However, if you do not qualify for visa-free travel under the VWP, or if your application for an ESTA authorisation has been denied, you will still need to apply for a US family visit visa.
US family visa FAQs
Who is eligible for family visa USA?
US family visas, also commonly referred to as derivative visas, are for either the spouse or any unmarried children under the age of 21 of a principal applicant or primary visa-holder.
Unfortunately, US visa law does not recognise common-law relationships.
How long does family visa take USA?
The length of time it takes to apply for, and receive a decision on, a family visa for the USA will depend on the type of visa sought. In some cases, a qualifying non-citizen may be eligible for visa-free travel.
What type of visa is a family visa in USA?
A family visa could include a temporary (nonimmigrant) visa for the spouse or dependent child of an overseas worker in the USA. It could also include a permanent (immigrant) visa for the spouse or child of a US citizen.
This article does not constitute direct legal advice and is for informational purposes only.