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Immediate Relatives vs. Preference System: What You Need to Know

What is U.S. family-based immigration?

U.S.¬†family-based immigration, often referred to as “family reunification” or “family sponsorship,” is a category of immigration that allows U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents (green card holders) to sponsor certain family members for immigration to the United States. The primary purpose of this immigration category is to promote family unity by allowing eligible family members to join their relatives who are already in the United States.

There are two main groups of family-based immigration categories:

  • Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens: This category includes the closest relatives of U.S. citizens, and there is no numerical limit on the number of visas available each year for immediate relatives. Immediate relatives include:
    • Spouses of U.S. citizens
    • Unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens
    • Parents of U.S. citizens (if the citizen is at least 21 years old)
  • Family Preference Categories: These categories are for more distant relatives of U.S. citizens and green card holders. There are annual numerical limits on the number of visas available for each preference category, which can result in waiting periods before a visa becomes available. The family preference categories include:
    • F1: Unmarried sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
    • F2A: Spouses and unmarried children (under 21) of green card holders
    • F2B: Unmarried sons and daughters (21 and older) of green card holders
    • F3: Married sons and daughters of U.S. citizens
    • F4: Siblings of U.S. citizens, if the U.S. citizen is at least 21 years old

The U.S. citizen or green card holder sponsoring a family member must typically demonstrate their relationship with the intending immigrant and their ability to financially support the immigrant to prevent them from becoming a public charge.

Difference between Immediate Relatives vs. Preference System

The main difference between the Immediate Relatives category and the Preference System in U.S. family-based immigration lies in the relationships they encompass and the availability of visas. Here are the key distinctions:

  • Numerical Limits:
    • Immediate Relatives: There is no annual numerical limit for immediate relatives. As long as the petitioner (the U.S. citizen) can establish the qualifying relationship and meet other requirements, immediate relatives can generally immigrate without having to wait for visa numbers to become available.
    • Preference System: The preference system is subject to annual numerical limits set by the U.S. government. Each preference category has its own annual allocation of visas. As a result, there can be waiting periods, and visa availability may vary depending on the specific preference category and the country of origin of the intending immigrant. Some categories, particularly those for siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens, can have long waiting times.
  • Priority Date:
    • Immediate Relatives: Immediate relatives do not have to wait for a “priority date” to become current because there are no numerical limits. They can proceed with the immigration process as soon as their U.S. citizen relative files the necessary petition.
    • Preference System: Individuals in the preference system must wait for their priority date to become current before they can proceed with their immigration process. The priority date is the date on which the sponsoring family member (U.S. citizen or green card holder) files the petition on their behalf. Visa bulletin updates from the U.S. Department of State determine when a priority date becomes current based on visa availability.