There is a lot of information to navigate, but we are your one-stop shop. There are caps (numerical limits) on the number of immigrants that can come in under each immigrant visa category, so even if your application is approved one year, you may not be able to actually immigrate until there is an Immigrant Visa Number available to you. The amount of time between that approval and an available visa number all depends on the category which is applicable to you, and your country of origin.
This article is intended to give you an overview of the various Immigrant Family Preference Categories that exist, the amount of visas available in each category annually, and how the caps and previously issued visas affect the number of visas that might otherwise be available in any given category. This article is meant to complement it’s sister article, Adjustment of Status and Consular Processing Routes for Family Preference Immigrant Visas. We encourage you to start with this article, before moving on to that one.
Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens
If you are the spouse, parent, or unmarried minor child of a U.S. Citizen, you fall into this category. A spouse means that you are legally married to the U.S. Citizen in whatever jurisdiction, so the marriage could have been in the U.S., or it could also have been in your home country. The important part is that the marriage was legally done. A minor child means a person who is under twenty-one years, related either by blood or adoption to the parent, and whom is not married. The benefit of being an Immediate Relative of a U.S. Citizen, is that you are exempt from any caps which apply to other people applying to immigrate through the Family Preference System. There is no limit to the number of Immediate Relatives that can immigrate each year. Thus, the wait time, once your documents are submitted, is only the paperwork processing time (which, since it is a large government bureaucracy, can be around a year).
Family Preference System
If you are not the immediate family member of a citizen, you can still immigrate to the U.S., but you are subject to the caps (numerical limitations). There is a general formula for determining how many people can immigrate within the Family Preference System and each category has differing numbers. The formula is 480,000 – the number of immediate relatives admitted the year before + available unused Employment Visas from the year before. There are four family preference categories, which are defined and detailed below. They are called preference categories, because it is hierarchical. The government has determined that those who fall into category 1 are more important to let in to the United States, than those in category 4 for example. All of these preferences categories are backed up with delays, but in particular, immigrants from China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines have the longest delays. These countries have large numbers of immigrants coming in through employment categories and other means, and oftentimes would like to bring their families with them.
F1: The Unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens and Their Children
The first category or preference, is the unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. Citizens. That means you can be over twenty-one with a U.S. Citizen parent and still immigrate. Any minor children of these unmarried sons and daughters are eligible to come with their parent. 23,400 F1 Immigrant Visas are allocated per year + any unused F4 Visas.
F2: Spouses, Children, and Unmarried Sons and Daughters of LPRs and Their Children
This is a very full category, with many people who apply or are qualified and so Congress divided this category into two halves. There are F2as and F2bs. The formula for calculating the number of visas available to this category is a base of 114,200 Visas + any unused F1 Visas.
F2a: Spouses and Children of LPRs
Spouses mean someone legally married to a Lawful Permanent Resident and children of LPRs. Children (as a reminder) are unmarried, they must be under twenty-one years old, and related by either blood or adoption. The spouses or children must be related to a Legal Permanent Resident (green card holder).
F2b: Unmarried Sons and Daughters of LPRs
Unmarried sons and daughters means they can be older than twenty-one, but obviously cannot be married. They must be related by either blood or adoption. If your LPR parent becomes a U.S. Citizen during the process, then your petition is transformed into an F1 petition, once you have updated your information.
F3: Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens are eligible to immigrate under the third preference category. These married sons and daughters are allowed to apply for their spouses and children to get a visa as well since they are what are called derivatives. The number of F3 Immigrant Visas changes every year, and the formula is a base of 23,400 Visas + any unused F1 and F2 visas.
F4: Siblings of U.S. Citizens
Siblings means that you can be the sister, brother, half-sister, half-brother, stepsister, stepbrother, or adopted brother or sister of a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old. Any spouse or children are also eligible to come with you. There are 65,000 F4 Immigrant Visas issued per year + any unused F1, F2, and F3 visas.