Applying for relatives

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute

When you are a U.S. Citizen or Legal Permanent Resident (green card holder), you can apply for certain family members to get lawful permanent residency (a green card). The process if your family member is already in the U.S. with a different type of legal status (TPS, DACA, etc.) is different from the process if your family member is living in another country.

Immigration law can be complicated. It is important to talk to a good immigration lawyer before applying.

Who can I apply for?

In the legal process, to “apply” is often called to “petition.” If you are a U.S. citizen, you can petition for:

  • Your spouse,
  • Your children,
  • Your brother or sister (if you are 21 or older), or
  • Your mother or father (if you are 21 or older).

If you are a legal permanent resident, you can petition for:

  • Your spouse or
  • Your unmarried children
How do I apply for family members living in another country?
  1. File a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
  2. Once this is approved, the case is sent to the National Visa Center (NVC) of the State Department.
  3. You and the family member do other applications with the NVC.
  4. The family member is interviewed in the U.S. consulate or embassy closest to where they live.
How do I apply for family members who are already in the U.S.?

Some of your family members may already be living in the U.S. This might be because they already have a form of legal status, like Temporary Protected Status (TPS), U Nonimmigrant Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or another type of visa. 

But if they: 

  • entered the U.S. without inspection,
  • committed a crime or offense in the U.S. (even minor offenses), or 
  • have a prior order of deportation,

talk to an immigration lawyer before you fill out any applications.

If your family member does not have one of these issues, you can file a petition to change their status. You need to provide proof of your immigration status and proof of your relationship with your family member.

If you are a U.S. citizen and applying for an immediate family member who entered the U.S. with inspection (parent, spouse or unmarried child under 21), you need to:

If you are a U.S. citizen and applying for an immediate family member who has not entered with inspection (i.e., walked across the border not at a proper entry point) or a non-immediate family member (married children, children age 21 and older, and siblings), you need to:

If you are a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) applying for family members, you need to:

If you are applying for your spouse, you will probably have an interview with an immigration official to make sure you are in a marriage of “good faith.” This means you plan to have a life together. You are not just marrying for immigration benefits. See examples below.

When it is time to file the I-485 for your family member, you also need to file:

When you file for a family member you have to show that you, or someone else - a joint sponsor - can financially support them. You will provide this information in the Affidavit of Support. See more instructions on Affidavits of Support below. Also see detailed instructions about these applications on the USCIS website.

What if my family member is already living in the U.S. but without any legal status?

Some of your family members may be living in the U.S. and have no immigration status. If your family member:

  • has an expired immigration status, or 
  • has never had immigration status, or 
  • violated any of the terms of a temporary visa,

talk to an immigration expert to see if you can apply for them. They may need to apply for a waiver, or special permission, so they can qualify to change their status. If your family member has any prior criminal or immigration offenses, talk to an immigration expert.

How long does this process take?

The entire process can take anywhere from a year to over a decade. It depends on a number of factors. Case times depend on if the applicant is a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident, the relationship, and if the children who are over 21 are married or not.

The quickest case is for a U.S. citizen applying for a parent, a spouse, or a child (unmarried and under the age of 21) who entered the U.S. with inspection.

The slowest is generally for a U.S. citizen seeking to bring in a brother or sister, or for adult children.

Some countries also have longer waits than others. See this Visa Bulletin website for up-to-date information.

How much does this cost?

If you are applying for an overseas family member, you have to pay for the I-130. After a form I-130 is approved, the National Visa Center (NVC) charges 2 fees: the Affidavit of Support fee and the visa application fee.

If you are applying for a family member who is already in the U.S., you have to pay for the I-130. You also have to pay for the I-485, but this cost depends on your age. 

USCIS changes fees often. Check the USCIS website for the most up-to-date information.

I don’t make much money. Can any of these fees be waived?

No. Some immigration fees can be waived, but the I-130 and I-485 can’t. NVC fees can’t be waived either.

What documents do I need to start the process with Immigration?

You will need to:

  • File your I-130 petition.
  • You may need to file an I-485 petition, depending on if your relative is in the U.S. See the sections above for details. 
  • Show proof of your immigration status. 
  • Show proof of the family relationship. Things like original or certified birth certificates, or marriage certificates. 
  • Any document that is not in English must be translated into English by a competent translator. And it must have a translation certificate.

Applying for a spouse

If you are applying for a spouse, immigration wants more proof of the relationship. You need to show that you got married in “good faith” and not just for immigration benefits. Some examples of proof include:

  • A copy of your marriage certificate.
  • If you or your spouse were married before, copies of your divorce certificate.
  • Passport style photos of you and your spouse. You can get these at local drugstores or the post office.
  • Documents showing you own property together like a copy of your mortgage or documents showing you live together like a lease, bills in both of your names, or a letter from your landlord.
  • Birth certificates of children the two of you had or adopted together.
  • Affidavits of friends, family members, pastors, or any one else who can swear that your relationship is in good faith. These affidavits should have the name, address, birthday, and place of birth of the person making the sworn affidavit. They should be signed. If possible, have them notarized.
  • Any other documents to prove it is an ongoing and real relationship. Like photographs of important events, or messages or emails sent between you and your spouse.

Some of this evidence can be hard to get because of financial situations. You may not have a lease, or life insurance, or a bank account. If your spouse is overseas, this evidence can also be hard to get. But immigration should review any proof that you give them. You can explain if there are financial or other reasons why you don’t have certain documents.

It may look suspicious to USCIS if you don’t have much evidence of a good faith marriage. If you find yourself without much evidence to show that your marriage is real, talk with an immigration lawyer before petitioning for your spouse.

I have an approved I-130 petition for my family member in the U.S. What do I do next?

If you are a U.S. citizen and your family member is an immediate relative (parent, spouse, or unmarried child under 21), you should have filed an I-485 Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status. Immigration will let you know if they need more information or if you have to do an interview with them.

I have an approved I-130 petition for my overseas family member. What do I do next?

You should get mail or an email notification from the National Visa Center (NVC). If you have a lawyer, they might get it. It says that the case was transferred from Immigration to the NVC. You or your lawyer should then get 2 bills from the NVC. One is for the Affidavit of Support processing and the other is for the Immigrant Visa processing. You need to follow the directions for paying electronically.

What happens after I pay the fees to NVC for my overseas family?

Once you pay the fees, the NVC will update your case on their online system with the receipt showing you paid. It also has instructions for what to do next. You must:

  • Submit the visa application Form DS-260. This has to be submitted online. Note: Form DS-260 needs a lot of detailed information about the immigrant’s family, education and work experience. All of this information needs to be gathered before you start working on the form. Talk to the person and work on the form together. USCIS will ask them in detail about the information on the form at their interview.
  • Submit the Affidavit of Support Form I-864. This form must also be submitted online and has to be sent along with the most current year’s federal income tax return and proof of income. See below for a more detailed explanation of the Affidavit of Support.

Upload the supporting documents you need. Like birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce certificates, military records, unexpired passports, court and prison records or police clearance letters. Your relative should bring originals to their interview.

What happens after all of the information is successfully submitted to the National Visa Center (NVC)?

You as the petitioner and the overseas applicant should get an email or letter from the NVC. This letter states that NVC got all the documents they needed to be able to process the case. The NVC arranges with the U.S. Consulate or Embassy for a scheduled interview. Your family member probably needs to do more things, like get a medical exam. The consulate or embassy will let them know what to do next.

What is the Affidavit of Support?

The Affidavit of Support, also known as Form I-864, must be filed for each person wanting an immigrant visa. Basically, it is a contract between the signer/sponsor and the federal government. It says that if the immigrant gets cash help from the government in the future, you (the signer/sponsor) are responsible for paying the government back. You have to do this because you didn’t give enough financial support to the immigrant. Note: This does not apply to health insurance or SNAP food benefits.

The Affidavit of Support requires a sponsor to have a family income of at least 125% of the federal Poverty Guidelines. The Guideline amounts change depending on family size. You count the immigrant you are sponsoring as part of the family. For example, in 2023, a family of 4 needed an annual income of at least $37,500 for the Affidavit of Support to be accepted.

What happens if my family income is too low for the Affidavit of Support to be accepted?

If your family income is too low, you must still file an Affidavit of Support. Then you need to find another person who has the right amount of income. That person is called a Joint Sponsor. The Joint Sponsor must either be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The Joint Sponsor signs the Affidavit of Support and must provide proof of legal status and income. This includes the most current year’s income tax return, W-2 and employment letter.

Warning: If your family member, including your spouse, is in the U.S., or traveled to the U.S. and 

  • entered without inspection or 
  • their temporary status has expired,

your family member may need a Waiver of Inadmissibility. In these cases, it is best to talk to an immigration lawyer. They can help walk you through the process. 


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