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Family Immigrant Visa Waiting Period Varies Dramatically

Keeping families together has long been one of the core principals of U.S. immigration policy. Each year, there are 480,000 family-based visas available to foreign nationals hoping to join relatives already living in the United States. Family-based visas fall into one of two categories: visas granted to immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and visas granted through the family preference system.

Family Visa Types

There is no cap on the number of immediate relative visas available each year, but only certain family members are eligible. These include:

  • Spouses of U.S. citizens
  • Children of U.S. citizens (if the applicant is unmarried and under age 21)
  • Parents of U.S. citizens (if the U.S. citizen is age 21 or older)

Family members who do not qualify as immediate relatives can apply through the family preference system. Eligible family members include:

  • Adult children of U.S. citizens, whether married or unmarried
  • Brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens (if the U.S. citizen is age 21 or older)
  • Spouses of green-card holders, also known as lawful permanent residents, or LPRs
  • Unmarried children of LPRs, whether minor or adult

The exact number of family preference visas available varies from year to year depending on a complicated formula, but by law it is required to be at least 226,000.

Backlog Creates Long Waiting Periods

Family visas are granted in the order of application, but there are often more qualified applicants than available visas in a given year. When this occurs, a backlog develops and applicants must wait in line for a visa to become available - a process that routinely takes years and sometimes even decades.

The waiting period for a family preference visa depends largely on the applicant's country of origin and relationship to the family member who is sponsoring his or her visa application. Applicants from countries with a significant backlog face longer wait times than applicants from other countries.

Thus, of the applicants whose visas became available in January 2012, some had been waiting for less than three years while others had been waiting for more than 23 years. However, each case depends on the applicant's specific circumstances, and numerous exceptions and waivers may apply that could affect the waiting period. People interested in applying for an immigrant visa or sponsoring a relative should consult with an experienced immigration lawyer about their options.

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