There are 2 big steps in getting a green card when the immigrant lives abroad. This process is called “consular processing.” When the immigrant is already in the U.S. the process is “adjustment of status” and there may be one step or two, depending on the type of visa. This article deals with consular processing only.

Often the sponsor and relatives in a family petition think they’re all set when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) approves a petition.  This is not correct. The first step in the process is for the U.S. citizen or green card holder (formally called a legal permanent resident or LPR) to file a petition (application) for the foreign relative. Usually it’s an I-130 Petition for Alien Relative. The government wants to make sure the relationship between the petitioner (sponsor) and the foreign relative (beneficiary or applicant) is genuine and qualifies the relative to be sponsored.

For example, if a U.S. citizen follows approved procedures to adopt a foreign child and the child then becomes an adult and wants to sponsor her birth parents, USCIS will not approve the visa petition because the birth parents are no longer considered her parents. In spousal petitions, the government must be persuaded that the marriage is genuine. In each category of relatives, there are certain requirements that must be met.

Also, USCIS checks the criminal background of the petitioner. If he has been convicted of certain offenses, including sexual offences involving a minor, he may not be allowed to file a petition for any family member, even adult relatives. You can find more information on this and the Adam Walsh Act here.

How long does it take to get an approval? For many petition categories, including I-130 petitions for a spouse, child or parent, it currently takes about 5 months.  Other visa categories can take much longer. As of April 2016, the timeframe for a U.S. citizen petition for a married son or daughter is about 4 years, and about 5 years for a sibling. You can see the normal timeframes if you know which USCIS Service Center is processing your case. The case processing times are updated regularly by service center and visa category and posted online .

The approval is the end of the first step. The second step takes place at the Department of State and involves making sure the applicant abroad meets all requirements.  Much can go wrong in this step, often at the embassy interview after you’ve waited many years. The applicant may not be able to get a visa at all if s/he has a criminal conviction, or previously overstayed a visa in the U.S., or lied to the U.S. government, or was ever a member of the Communist party, or has used drugs, or the petitioner has died, or for many other reasons. In some cases, a visa is possible but you will have to request a ‘waiver’ or exception. The laws on waivers are very complicated and involve much more than just turning up at the interview and asking for a waiver, or writing a simple letter.

If USCIS approves the petition, they send the parties an approval notice and also send the papers on to the National Visa Center (NVC) in New Hampshire. The role of the NVC is to review the documents for the interview at the foreign embassy or consulate on behalf of the Department of State. The NVC does not make decisions on the case; only the consulate can decide whether to approve or deny a visa.

In some cases the NVC starts processing the documents as soon as they arrive there from USCIS, and in other cases, the NVC holds on to the files for years before taking any further steps because there is no visa available in the category. Visas for adult married sons and daughters (F3), or for siblings (F4), currently take over 10 years to become available for most countries, and over 20 years for Filipino and Mexican applicants. No one can speed up those dates.  If your case has been approved by USCIS in one of these categories but you haven’t heard anything for years, that’s why. The NVC starts to prepare your case when you are getting close to visa availability but not years ahead.

What can you do while you’re waiting? Here are a few steps:

  1. Make sure to notify USCIS and the NVC of any address and email changes of either party so mail and email reaches you when they are ready to contact you.
  2. Keep track of your case status online at USCIS until approval.
  3. Let the government know if your petitioner dies and send them a death certificate. There is no point in keeping this information hidden from USCIS or NVC. Your petition must be revoked by law, and the sooner you inform them the sooner you may qualify to apply for humanitarian reinstatement or other relief. Applying sooner rather than later is important.
  4. Keep track of the backlogs in your visa category monthly online by looking at the Visa Bulletin . You can also sign up for a monthly email informing you of the Visa Bulletin updates.
  5. Learn about the process in your visa category. There are many posts and pages on this site that explain step-by-step details: Green Cards for Siblings and Adult ChildrenGreen Cards for a Spouse, Parent, or ChildStep-By-Step Guide to Fiancé/e Visas , and more.

Do you need an attorney to advise you?  I’m an immigration attorney and of course I’m going to suggest you do. Some cases are much more complicated than others. Often clients don’t contact me until something has gone wrong, like a visa was denied. It can be far more difficult (and expensive), and often impossible, to fix things at that point, whereas earlier advice might have led to an approval. Immigration law involves more than filling in forms and waiting for an interview, and your cousin or friend who’s helped before might not know nearly enough to be successful in your case.

Go to the contact page to schedule an initial consultation. Look around this site for free information on visas, citizenship and Attorney Keir.