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Understanding Family-Based Green Card Categories: Immediate Relative and Preference Categories

Immigrating to the United States through family sponsorship is one of the most common pathways to obtaining lawful permanent residency, commonly known as a green card. In the last few fiscal years, there has been an increase in employment-based green cards, due to COVID shutting down the family-based processing abroad, and those new employment-based lawful permanent residents may be looking at potentially sponsoring family members. The U.S. immigration system categorizes family-based green cards into two main groups: Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas and Family Preference Immigrant Visas. This article will provide a general overview of these categories, explaining their differences, eligibility requirements, and the application process. From the outset, it is important to recommend you contact a qualified immigration lawyer to review your options prior to pursuing a family-based green card.

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas

Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas are reserved for certain close family members of U.S. citizens. These visas are not subject to annual numerical limits, which means there is no waiting period for visa availability, making them the fastest way to obtain a green card through family sponsorship. Put another way, immediate relatives are not subject to the Department of State visa bulletin. The Immediate Relative categories include:

  1. IR-1: Spouse of a U.S. Citizen
    • This category is for the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen. The U.S. citizen spouse must file Form I-130, Petition for Alien Relative, to start the process. The foreign spouse can then apply for an immigrant visa at a U.S. consulate abroad or adjust status to permanent resident if already in the U.S. on a non-immigrant visa. Given that this category is current, a non-immigrant spouse of a U.S. citizen can concurrently file an I-485 with the I-130 and request the work and travel authorization associated with a pending I-485.
  2. IR-2: Unmarried Child Under 21 Years of Age of a U.S. Citizen
    • This category applies to children under 21 who are not married. Like the IR-1, the process begins with the U.S. citizen parent filing Form I-130. The child can then apply for an immigrant visa or adjust status in the U.S. Like IR-1, an IR-2 applicant can concurrently file the I-485 and seek work and travel authorization. 
  3. IR-3: Children Adopted Abroad by a U.S. Citizen
    • This category is for children adopted abroad by U.S. citizens. The adoption process must meet the requirements set by both the U.S. and the child’s home country. Entire articles can be written about the adoption and immigration process, but generally speaking U.S. citizens must work with an adoption organization that is accredited and approved by the United States, file an I-800A with USCIS, and once approved and you are matched with a child, file for the visa for the child abroad.  
  4. IR-4: Children to be Adopted in the U.S. by a U.S. Citizen
    • IR-4 is similar to IR-3, but allows the child to enter and live in the United States prior to the adoption being completed. Here, the US citizen and child can return to the US before the adoption application is finalized and can complete the adoption within the US. This involves filing Form I-600A, Application for Advance Processing of Orphan Petition, and once the family has been matched with a child, they file a Form I-600.
  5. IR-5: Parent of a U.S. Citizen Who is at Least 21 Years Old
    • U.S. citizens aged 21 or older can sponsor their parents for a green card. The process starts with filing Form I-130, after which the parent can apply for an immigrant visa or adjust status if they are already in the U.S. Like IR-1 and IR-2, the parents can concurrently file for an I-485 and the interim benefits for work and travel authorization.

Family Preference Immigrant Visas

Unlike Immediate Relative Immigrant Visas, Family Preference Immigrant Visas are subject to annual numerical limits. This means that even if a petition is approved, beneficiaries may need to wait for a visa to become available based on the visa bulletin. If a visa is available based on the visa bulletin, you can either concurrently file the I-130 and I-485, or, if the I-130 is already approved, file the I-485. Additionally, you can always consular process[1] the green card if the individual is outside of the United States.

It is worth nothing, that there is significant backlogs for all preference categories currently:

The Family Preference categories are divided into four preference levels:

  1. F1: Unmarried Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
    • This category includes unmarried adult children (21 years or older) of U.S. citizens. Form I-130 must be filed by the U.S. citizen parent.
  2. F2: Spouses, Children, and Unmarried Sons and Daughters of Lawful Permanent Residents
    • This category is divided into two subcategories:
      • F2A: Spouses and unmarried children (under 21) of lawful permanent residents.
      • F2B: Unmarried adult children (21 years or older) of lawful permanent residents.
    • Form I-130 is filed by the permanent resident, and the beneficiaries must wait for visa availability.
  3. F3: Married Sons and Daughters of U.S. Citizens
    • This category is for married children of U.S. citizens, regardless of age. The process begins with filing Form I-130 by the U.S. citizen parent. Due to the visa cap, this category often has long waiting periods.
  4. F4: Brothers and Sisters of Adult U.S. Citizens
    • U.S. citizens aged 21 or older can sponsor their siblings. The process involves filing Form I-130, and the waiting period for visa availability in this category can be extensive, often stretching into several years.

Application Process for Family-Based Green Cards

The application process for both Immediate Relative and Family Preference categories involves several steps:

  1. Filing the Petition (Form I-130)
    • The U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident sponsor must file Form I-130 with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to establish the qualifying relationship. The form must be accompanied by evidence of the relationship, such as marriage certificates, birth certificates, or adoption decrees.
  2. Petition Approval and Visa Availability
    • Once USCIS approves the petition, it is forwarded to the National Visa Center (NVC) for further processing. For Immediate Relative categories, the next step can proceed immediately. For Family Preference categories, the beneficiary must wait until their priority date becomes current, as indicated in the Visa Bulletin published monthly by the Department of State.
  3. Consular Processing or Adjustment of Status
    • Beneficiaries living outside the U.S. will undergo consular processing, which involves submitting the necessary forms and documents to the NVC, attending a visa interview at a U.S. consulate or embassy, and receiving an immigrant visa. Once they enter the U.S., they become lawful permanent residents.
    • Beneficiaries already in the U.S. may apply for Adjustment of Status (AOS) by filing Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, along with supporting documents. This process culminates in an interview at a USCIS office, after which the applicant may receive their green card.
  4. Medical Examination and Biometrics
    • All applicants must undergo a medical examination by a USCIS-approved physician and submit the results as part of their application. Additionally, they must attend a biometrics appointment to provide fingerprints, photographs, and signatures.
  5. Interview and Final Decision
    • An interview is generally required for both consular processing and adjustment of status. The interviewing officer will verify the authenticity of the relationship and the applicant’s eligibility for a green card. If the interview is successful and all requirements are met, the green card is granted.


Family-based immigration is a cornerstone of the U.S. immigration system, allowing citizens and lawful permanent residents to reunite with their loved ones. Understanding the distinction between Immediate Relative and Family Preference categories is crucial for prospective immigrants and their sponsors. Immediate Relative categories offer a faster route to obtaining a green card due to the lack of numerical limits, while Family Preference categories are subject to annual caps, resulting in potential waiting periods.

Navigating the application process requires careful attention to detail, proper documentation, and adherence to timelines. For those seeking to bring family members to the U.S., consulting with an experienced immigration attorney can provide valuable guidance and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.

Reddy & Neumann, P.C., located in Houston, Texas, has been serving the business community for over 25 years and is Houston’s largest immigration law firm focused solely on U.S. Employment-based immigration. We work with employers, employees and investors helping them navigate the immigration process quickly and cost-effectively.

By: Steven Brown

Steven Brown is a Partner at Reddy Neumann Brown PC where he works in the Non-immigrant visa department and leads the Litigation Team. His practice covers all phases of the non-immigration visa process including filing H-1B, L-1, E-3, H-4, and H-4 EAD petitions. In the last two years, Steven has successfully handled over 1,000 non-immigrant visa petitions including filing petitions, responding to any necessary Requests for Evidence, and drafting motions and appeals. He has also become a key resource for F-1 students that seek guidance on properly complying with the F-1 visa regulations and any OPT or CPT issues they may have. Additionally, Steven holds a weekly conference call for companies that are part of one of the largest organizations for IT Services companies in America.