Permanent residence status may be obtained in several ways, but the overwhelming majority of immigrants receive their “green cards” either through close family ties to U.S. citizens and permanent residents or via joint efforts with their current or prospective U.S. employers.

There are a total of 480,000 family visas available each year. These visas are divided among several family groups and into four different categories aptly named “preferences” as they are treated in descending rank of preferential treatment. Atop the pyramid of preferences sits the most privileged group designated as “immediate relatives.” This group includes the closest family members of a U.S. citizen and is not subject to any numerical limitations, except to the overall cap for family-based immigration established by Congress. The other four preferences are subject to different quotas within the overall cap of 480,000 and are designed to limit the total level of immigration.

The Immediate Relatives of a U.S. Citizen Category consists of parents, spouses, and unmarried minors under 21 years of age.

The First Family Preference (F1) covers the unmarried children of U.S. citizens.

The Second Family Preference is divided into two subcategories with different visa quotas and significantly different delays in visa availability.

(F2A) Covers spouses and children (under immigration regulations, the term “children” has always possessed a more narrow meaning, denoting only unmarried minors under 21).

(F2B) Refers to unmarried sons and daughters (21 years old and older) of U.S. permanent residents.

The Third Family Preference (F3) covers married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens.

The Fourth Family Preference (F4) deals with brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens.


Husbands and Wives

Spouses of U.S. citizens quite understandably enjoy preferential treatment under the immigration laws and are not subject to any country limitations or numeric quotas, except the overall yearly cap for all types of family immigration. Husbands or wives of U.S. citizens may be granted permanent green cards or green cards subject to a two-year condition depending on the length of their marriage on the day their status becomes adjusted (i.e., they become legal permanent residents through the process of adjustment of status while physically in the United States). The same principle applies to spouses admitted as immigrants at any of the U.S. border crossings following the immigrant visa processing completed at any of the U.S. consulates. If on that day they have been married for less than two years, the permanent status is granted conditionally. The conditional residence does not differ in any other sense from the regular one except for a strict obligation to file a special application to remove the condition within 90 days before the second anniversary of the granting of the permanent legal status.

In most situations, such a petition should be filed jointly. Failure to do so results in automatic termination of the status. A self-petition submitted without cooperation from the U.S. citizen spouse is possible but burdened with additional requirements that add a new layer of complexity. Professional assistance in that type of situation is a must.

Children of U.S. Citizens

The “immediate relatives of U.S. citizens” category does not allow for any derivative beneficiaries. As a consequence, all persons claiming the immediate relative status must qualify independently, which, in turn, requires filing separate and independent applications for each family member. For example, a recently naturalized father of four, instead of filing a one-family application on behalf his wife and the four “derivative” offspring (as is the case under the rules pertaining to the U.S. permanent residents) must prepare five separate family applications with, what naturally always follows, five separate processing fees. On the upside, the immediate relative category dispenses with the otherwise multi-year visa line. The actual granting of the status is dictated only by current delays in processing of adjustment applications or caseload calendars of the territorially appropriate U.S. consular office.

Adopted children may also qualify and may be petitioned for provided the adoption occurred before the child’s 16th birthday.

A citizen-father may petition for a child born out of wedlock if he married the child’s mother before the child turned 18, legitimated the child (the law of the child’s residence rules in this matter), or if he is able to provide evidence of parental involvement (either financial or emotional) in the child’s life before the child reaches the age of maturity established for this purpose at 21 years old. Under the long-established tradition, which presumably makes a married person mature, a child who marries before reaching the age of 21 can no longer be legalized as the immediate relative.

Stepchildren qualify if the underlying relationship (i.e., marriage of the U.S. stepfather to the child’s biological mother) took place before the child turned 18.

Parents of U.S. Citizens

To petition for a parent, one must be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years old. U.S. permanent residents cannot petition for parents. U.S. citizen stepchildren can petition for their stepparents if the underlying relationship (marriage to their biological mother or father) took place when they were still under 18 years old. Similarly, adopted children can petition for their adoptive parents provided they are now at least 21 year old, were adopted while under 16 years old, and resided with their adoptive parents who had legal custody over the them for at least two years either before or after the adoption.


The First Family Preference sets aside 23,400 visa numbers each year for the sons and daughters of U.S. citizens who while still unmarried are nevertheless over the age of minority (older than 21) and do not qualify under the immediate relative category.


This category reserves 114,200 immigrant visa numbers each year and is divided into two subcategories: (F2B) covering spouses and minor children (less than 21 years old and unmarried) of U.S. permanent residents and (F2B) unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. permanent residents who are 21 years old and older.


This category reserves 23,000 visa numbers each year, plus all unused numbers from the first and the second preference, for married sons of U.S. citizens regardless of age. Spouses and their own minor children can immigrate as derivative beneficiaries.


The fourth and final family preference category sets aside 65,000 visa numbers each year for the brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens. The 65,000 limit may be enlarged in each fiscal year by visa numbers not required by the first three preferences (the proviso has no practical meaning as all the upper echelon categories have been oversubscribed as long as one can remember). Prospective immigrants under this category have to be committed and patient as the visa line (time it takes from application filing to visa number availability) varies between roughly 11 plus years to 23 years for the citizens of Philippines! Only 21 year old or older U.S. citizen siblings can file under this preference