What Relatives Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor?

Updated on April 4, 2024

At a Glance

  • U.S. citizens or permanent residents can sponsor immediate relatives, including parents, spouses, and minor or unmarried children, as well as certain family preference relatives.
  • Family preference relatives may include unmarried adult children, married children, and siblings.
  • Spouses and children under 21 can apply for Lawful Permanent Resident Status immediately.
  • Other family members, such as parents, may have longer wait times due to visa availability.

Both naturalized and U.S.-born citizens receive many benefits from the U.S. government; one of them is the ability to bring their foreign-born relatives to the States. This is through family-sponsored green cards that are issued each year by the USCIS. But not every relative can immigrate to the U.S. There are requirements and restrictions. In this article, we’ll explain which relatives you can sponsor as U.S. citizens.

Who Can You Sponsor as a U.S. Citizen?

You can file a petition to bring your family members into the U.S. to live with you. From your side, the main requirement is you must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. Who you can sponsor also depends on your age and financial status.

The people you can sponsor can be divided into two categories:

  • Immediate Relative. These are people directly related to you: your parents, spouse, and minor or unmarried children.
  • Family Preference Relative. These are more distant members who you can sponsor.

A U.S. citizen can sponsor the following members as a family preference relative:

  • Unmarried sons and daughters who are over 21 years old
  • Married children of any age
  • Brothers and sisters (only if you’re at least 21 years old)

Immediate relatives can sponsor the following as a family preference relative:

  • Their respective spouses
  • Their unmarried children

The family members thus eligible are described in the following “preference category”:

  • First preference (F1) – Unmarried children of the U.S. citizen
  • Second Preference (F2A) – Spouses and unmarried children of LPR
  • Second Preference (F2B) – Unmarried children of LPR
  • Third Preference (F3) – Married children of U.S. citizen
  • Fourth Preference (F4) – Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizen

Sponsoring Your Spouse and Children

Your spouse and your children (under the age of 21) are your immediate relatives. This means they’re eligible to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident Status right away.

The best part is you can safely file a petition for them when you’re a green card holder and are in the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. This will also help them immigrate faster since their applications will be processed with yours simultaneously. If not, then you can file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, with the USCIS.

As mentioned above, your spouse will receive first preference, followed by unmarried children. But if your children are already over 21 years old, they become “first preference relatives.”

Sponsoring Other Family Members

Other family members include your parents and family preference relatives. After you’ve become a U.S. Citizen, you can start filing a petition for them. Your parents will receive the fastest immigration process since they are recognized as immediate relatives. Please note that you cannot file a petition for family members like grandparents, aunts, cousins, nephews, etc.

How Long Must Your Relatives Wait to be Sponsored?

When applying for a family-based green card, you need to understand that there are currently 4 million applications on the waiting list. But some family members can get their application processed faster.

Immediate relatives enjoy the fastest processing time. Plus, they shouldn’t worry about the visa-availability waiting list since there is no cap on green card applications for immediate relatives. Your spouse and unmarried children under the age of 21 can expect a wait time of at least six to seven months. If the beneficiary is already living lawfully in the U.S., there is no need for wait time. You can make a one-step adjustment.

Preference relatives, on the other hand, should expect much longer wait times extending several years. This is because the number of accepted immigrants from this category is capped at 226,000 per year. Furthermore, a certain percentage of this category of green cards is allotted to one country each year. The rest is shared among all other countries.

Because of the limits and the uncertainty of how many applications are filed each year and in which preference, the wait times are nearly impossible to predict. Fourth preference applicants sometimes have waited for as long as 15 years to get their application approved.

How to Start the Application Process

The process can be initiated by either the U.S. citizen or the permanent resident relative (for family preference relatives). For this, you need to file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative. You should submit it with all the necessary documents like birth certificate, marriage certificate, proof of U.S. citizenship, etc. These documents are also used to assert that a family relationship exists between the sponsor and the beneficiary.

The USCIS needs to approve this petition before you can move forward. That’s where the wait time comes in. Since there is a minimal wait time for immediate relatives, their applications will be processed faster.

Subsequent steps:

  • The USCIS informs you of the status of your application. If it is approved, it will be forwarded to the National Visa Center.
  • Preference relatives will need to wait until a visa becomes available.
  • Once your visa petition is approved, the immigrant needs to apply for a green card. This involves filing a lot of paperwork, undergoing a medical examination, and attending interviews. This process is known as “consular processing.”

Most family-based immigrant visa applications are for immediate relatives, with spouses comprising 39% of the applicants.

Read More


The United States has focused on reuniting families. So, the USCIS will try the best in its capacity to process your application at the earliest. You should ensure the accuracy of the information you provide so the application won’t be delayed or rejected. Also, make sure you have signed every document that asks for a signature. Any unsigned forms will be rejected.

If you have any trouble applying or filling out the form or are confused about preference, we advise you to consult an immigration attorney.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

1. Who Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor for Immigration?

U.S. citizens can sponsor certain relatives for immigration to the United States. These include:

  • Immediate Relatives: U.S. citizens can sponsor their immediate relatives, including spouses, unmarried children under 21, and parents (if the sponsor is at least 21 years old). Immediate relatives have priority in the immigration process and do not face numerical limitations.
  • Family Preference Categories: U.S. citizens can also sponsor certain family members in preference categories. These include unmarried adult children (F1), married adult children (F3), and siblings (F4). These categories have annual numerical limits, and waiting times can vary.

2. Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor a Same-Sex Spouse?

Yes, U.S. citizens can sponsor same-sex spouses for immigration benefits just like opposite-sex spouses. The U.S. recognizes same-sex marriages for immigration purposes, provided the marriage is legally valid in the place where it occurred.

3. Is There a Waiting Period for Sponsoring Relatives?

Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, such as spouses and children under 21, do not face waiting periods and have immediate visa availability. However, family preference categories, such as adult children and siblings, may have significant waiting times due to annual numerical limits.

4. Can a U.S. Citizen Sponsor Stepchildren?

Yes, U.S. citizens can sponsor stepchildren (children of their spouse) for immigration benefits as long as the marriage creating the stepchild relationship occurred before the child’s 18th birthday.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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