The Petition for Alien Relative, or Form I-130, is the first step in the legal process that allows relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to obtain a U.S. green card (permanent resident). The I-130 establishes the relationship between the U.S.-based relative and their foreign-born spouse, parents, children, or siblings. (For exactly who qualifies, see "Eligibility for a U.S. Green Card."
Once the I-130 is approved, the next step depends on the relationship between you and your relative. Immediate relatives such as mothers, fathers, spouses, and unmarried children under 21 of U.S. citizens don’t have to wait for an available visa number, because unlimited approvals are allowed in their category. This means that they are allowed to apply for an immigrant visa, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), as soon as the I-130 is approved--or even concurrently to filing the I-130, if they are in the U.S. and eligible to apply using the procedure known as "Adjustment of Status." (See "Green Card Application Processes" to understand the difference between consular processing for overseas relatives and adjustment of status for certain relatives already in the U.S.)
However, other relatives who are not considered "immediate" but are in a preference-based category (subject to annual limits on visa numbers) must, after their I-130 has been approved, wait in line until an immigrant visa becomes available. This is tracked based on something called a "priority date," which is explained in the article "How to Track Your Priority Date." Once it’s their turn, they can go through the same process as immediate relatives.
It's important to note that, after approval of an I-130 but before a visa number has been available, the intending immigrant has no right to live in the United States -- and can in fact jeapordize his or her chances of receiving a green card by staying here illegally. Speak to an immigration attorney to find out whether you fall into an exception to this rule.
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