How can I get a green card by marrying a U.S. citizen?
Congratulations! You just married, or are about to be married to an American citizen. This means you are one step closer to obtaining permanent residency in the United States – also known as a green card. Spouses of United States citizens are considered “immediate relatives,” which means they are immediately eligible for a green card without having to wait for one to become available. In legalese, this means that the foreign national’s priority date is current. However, getting a green card requires consideration of a few things.
Consular processing v. adjustment of status
Consular processing is the process in which the United States citizen spouse files a petition to sponsor the foreign spouse from within the United States. Once the petition is approved, the foreign spouse will be interviewed at the United States consulate abroad and then issued permanent residency papers, thereby allowing him/her to move to the United States.
Adjustment of status applies to foreign spouses who are currently in the United States, and who wish to adjust their current immigration status to that of permanent residency.
I’m currently married to a U.S. citizen and outside the United States
Most foreign spouses outside the United States will apply for a green card from abroad through consular processing. This often means that the foreign spouse has to remain abroad during the pendency of the application – thereby resulting in prolonged periods of separation from the United States citizen spouse.
To minimize separation time, the United States citizen spouse can travel to be with the foreign spouse abroad during the pendency of the application. The foreign spouse can also apply for a K-3 visa, which is intended to shorten the physical separation between the spouses by having the option to enter the United States to await approval of the immigrant visa petition.
The foreign spouse may also attempt to enter the United States on a temporary non-immigrant visa and apply for a green card through adjustment of status. For example, a foreign spouse may have a job offer from a United States employer and enter under an H-1B work visa. Once in the United States, the foreign spouse will adjust his/her status from H-1B to permanent residency.
However, entering the United States on a non-immigrant visa such as a visitor visa (B-2) could result in a finding of preconceived intent when filing for adjustment of status. Preconceived intent means that there is evidence that the foreign spouse had intent to permanently immigrate to the United States at the time he/she entered on a temporary visa. Such a finding could result in a denial of permanent residency. While preconceived intent can be rebutted, foreign spouses should nevertheless be careful if electing to enter the United States on a temporary visa.
I’m currently engaged/unmarried and outside the United States
If you are outside the United States and not yet married, you have a few option options: 1) get married abroad and apply for your green card from abroad through consular processing; 2) enter the United States under a fiancé visa (K-1), get married in the United States, and then apply for adjustment of status; or 3) enter the United States under a non-immigrant visa and then adjust your status, provided that there are no preconceived intent issues.
If you are engaged, the United States citizen can file a petition for alien fiancé to allow the foreign spouse to enter the United States. The couple will have 90 days to get married, after which the foreign spouse can apply for adjustment of status.
If the foreign citizen enters the United States under a non-immigrant visa, such as a visitor or a work visa, he/she may still be able to adjust to permanent residency after the marriage provided that there are no preconceived intent issues.
I’m currently married and in the United States
If the foreign citizen is legally in the United States (i.e., visitor visa, student visa, work visa, etc.) and married to a United States citizen, the United States spouse can file a petition for alien relative while the foreign spouse concurrently files for adjustment of status.
Documented v. undocumented foreign spouse
If the foreign spouse had entered the United States legally (entered with inspection) but overstayed his/her visa, then he/she can still file for adjustment of status. However, if the foreign spouse is undocumented and entered the United States without inspection, then he/she will not be eligible for adjustment of status. As a result of their status, undocumented spouses are subject to a ban from the United States for up to ten years before being eligible for a green card. In some cases, the foreign spouse may be eligible for a waiver of the ban.
Issues relating to the application
Prior to filing the necessary documents, the couple should be aware of a few prerequisites. First, the foreign spouse will have to undergo a medical exam and a criminal background check. Adverse health conditions or a criminal history may render the foreign spouse inadmissible. Potential applicants should discuss all medical and criminal history issues with their attorneys prior to filing.
In addition, the United States citizen spouse must sign an affidavit of support indicating that he/she is willing and able to support the foreign spouse financially. To do so, the United States citizen spouse must meet a certain income level as established by the USCIS (presently $18,912.00 for a household of two). If the United States citizen spouse is unable to meet this income requirement, the couple may use a joint sponsor who does. The joint sponsor does not have to be related to the couple.
After the documentation is submitted, the couple will be asked by the USCIS to attend an interview, at which time the officer will asses whether the marriage is legitimate and bona fide. There is no checklist of questions that are asked at the interview. Contrary to popular belief, the couple is not always sequestered and interrogated in separate rooms about what the other spouse had for breakfast that morning. The interview is informal, often taking place in a small office, and may last anywhere from five minutes to an hour.
Two-year conditional residency
Once the green card is approved, the foreign spouse’s status is adjusted to conditional permanent residency. This status confers all of the rights and benefits of permanent residency, with the caveat that both spouses jointly file to remove the condition before the second year anniversary of receiving conditional residency. Once the condition is removed, the foreign spouse becomes a permanent resident.
Unlike those who obtained permanent residency through employment or investment based green cards, marriage-based green card holders are eligible to naturalize as United States citizens after three years of being a permanent resident.
Learn more about marriage-based green cards.