The 6 Steps of the Marriage Immigration Process

Congratulations

Congratulations on entering this exciting time in your relationship and your life! Whether you’ve just gotten engaged, are already married, or are still dating and simply starting to look into what the process will entail down the road, we would be honored to help you obtain your marriage-based green card. We understand that all of your future plans depend on your ability to get through immigration process as quickly and smoothly as possible.

From the time you start your initial application for a fiance or spouse petition until the time you become a U.S. citizen (if you choose), there are numerous legal steps that need to be taken over a period of years. We’ve helped thousands of clients through their visa journey! Read on for details about what you can expect along the way.

Congratulations

Congratulations on entering this exciting time in your relationship and your life! Whether you’ve just gotten engaged, are already married, or are still dating and simply starting to look into what the process will entail down the road, we would be honored to help you obtain your marriage-based green card. We understand that all of your future plans depend on your ability to get through immigration process as quickly and smoothly as possible.

From the time you start your initial application for a fiance or spouse petition until the time you become a U.S. citizen (if you choose), there are numerous legal steps that need to be taken over a period of years. We’ve helped thousands of clients through their visa journey! Read on for more detail about what you can expect along the way.

couple

STEP 1: CHOOSING YOUR PATH

The first step in the process will be to determine which of the different legal routes is the best for you and your significant other to take. You might be surprised to hear that there are multiple different ways to obtain lawful permanent resident status through your relationship. However, we cannot overemphasize how critical it is to take the time to identify what option is best for you before you take any actions with the government, fill out any forms, or pay any filing fees. It is unfortunately fairly common for us to speak with couples who have started taking steps that they believed would help their cases but instead have complicated their legal position and needlessly wasted hundreds or thousands of dollars of filing fees doing unnecessary things. It’s also a good idea to select the process you’ll be using as early as possible because none of these options are fast, and you’ll want to get started as soon as makes sense in your situation.

The 4 Most Common Ways to Get Permanent Residence through Your Spouse

The four most common legal paths that immigrants can take to get their marriage green cards are: Adjustment of Status, a Fiance Visa, a Spousal Visa (aka Consular Processing), and a Direct File Abroad. Each of these options has its own procedures and requirements. The best option for you will depend on factors including the stage of your relationship, where both you and your significant other are currently physically located in the world, whether the immigrant has any other visa or status within the United States, the immigrant's prior immigration history, your wedding plans, your timeline, your frequency of international travel, and your line of work, among other things. We’ll discuss a brief overview of each of these options now to give you an idea of how they work. However, the rules behind each option are complex and we recommend signing up for a consultation with one of our attorneys so you can get an expert opinion on which of the paths would be best in your situation specifically. You'll receive instant access to a comprehensive video course on these marriage-based options when you schedule your consultation on our website.

Ways to Get a Green Card

Adjustment of Status

Adjustment of status is the technical term for a green card application in a situation where the immigrant is already inside the United States on a temporary legal status. For example, maybe you came to the US as an international student on an F1 visa or are currently working as an engineer on an H1B visa. In many cases, you may be able to complete the adjustment of status application, which allows you to do the whole process inside of the United States without going back to your home country. It also allows you to do the whole process in one step, and depending on which local immigration office you live by, it may be the fastest option as well. Adjustment of status has certain eligibility requirements that are stricter than those for consular processing, so some immigrants don’t qualify to do an adjustment of status even if they live inside the United States.

Spousal Visa (aka Consular Processing)

If a couple is already married or plans to be married outside of the United States, and they do not qualify for adjustment of status or choose not to go that route, then they will most likely consular process. This option is a multi-step process that begins by filing a petition at an office in United States. The file then moves to an intermediary office called the National Visa Center (NVC), and culminates in an interview of the immigrant at the consulate in the U.S. Embassy in their home country or whichever foreign country they reside in. Once the case is approved, the immigrant gets an immigrant visa stamped in their passport which allows them to move to the U.S. in the next six months. They receive a green card in the mail once they arrive in the U.S., and they do not have to go through any additional paperwork in the U.S. other than removal of conditions and naturalization.

K-1 Fiance Visa + Adjustment of Status

A K-1 fiance visa is an option that can be used for a couple who is not yet legally married in any country in the world, and the immigrant fiance does not live in the United States currently. The fiance has to get a visa from a U.S. Embassy abroad so that they can travel to the United States and get married here within 90 days of arriving. You may have seen parts of this process by watching the reality TV show 90-Day Fiance, although they tend to cut out all of the boring legal stuff and focus on the interpersonal relationships on the show. That’s understandable for entertainment’s sake (we love the show, too!), but you have to remember that it makes the fiance visa process look deceptively simple.

After the marriage, the fiance then must also go through the adjustment of status process inside of the United States to become a permanent resident and receive the green card.

Direct Filing with a U.S. Embassy Abroad

If you and your fiance or spouse both live in a foreign country outside of the United States, there is a chance that you may have a fourth marriage-based option that others do not have based on your residence abroad. It is similar to consular processing, but much faster.  This option is not available for all couples living abroad; it depends on the location of the foreign offices that are involved in these procedures and whether the couple’s country of residence is within the jurisdiction of one of those offices. The U.S. government has been severely limiting this option in recent years and even closing down foreign offices recently, so we believe this option of direct filing will become more and more rare in the future.

Employment-based, investor, or humanitarian

There are other ways that immigrants can legally obtain green cards in the United States that do not involve their marriages. For example, there are several options for obtaining green cards based on being employed in U.S. or having special types of skills and abilities. In addition, some immigrants become green card holders by investing in businesses or creating businesses inside of United States. There is even something called the diversity visa lottery which gives immigrants who qualify a random chance to be able to come to the U. S. if they are from a country with a currently low level of immigration to the U.S. Sometimes couples will ask us about options other than applying through the marriage. For example, you may be on an H1B visa and already have a pending petition from your employer. In most cases, the preferable option is still to apply through the marriage due to the faster timelines and better options generally. However, all cases are different and certainly there are circumstances under which It might make sense to carry through with an alternate process to obtain the green card. Sometimes it is even okay to leave multiple avenues pending at the same time! Our firm helps lots of immigrants already in the U.S. on other visa types obtain their green cards through marriage. However, if you want to apply for your green card through an entirely non-marriage option such as an investor or employee or through a humanitarian program, you should seek a different immigration law firm that focuses their work in these other areas.

Step 2: Analyzing Admissibility

“Admissibility” is a technical term in immigration law that basically means the same thing as eligibility for a green card. An immigrant might be married to a US citizen and generally look like they qualify to apply, but if they are in admissible, then they will have additional problems in their case. This is the underlying reason why some people are married to US Citizens and still can never become green card holders or citizens of the United States. So what types of problems might a person have that would make them in admissible? There is a huge long list of grounds of inadmissibility in the immigration laws. The most commonly seen grounds of inadmissibility involve criminal history or immigration problems like having been unlawfully present, misrepresenting or failing to give accurate information to immigration officers, or having been deported. However, there are numerous other grounds of inadmissibility that prohibit everything from an intention to overthrow the government of U. S., to being a Nazi, to being a terrorist, or being a communist.

So what if you’re from a communist country like China and you’ve been registered with the party before? Or what if you overstayed your visa previously? Or someone helped prepare your tourist visa application and the information on it was wrong? The fact that you are inadmissible does not necessarily mean that there’s no way to resolve your situation. Some grounds of inadmissibility have certain exceptions or they have ways to overcome the ground, such as by waiting for a certain number of years to pass or by applying for special types of waivers to be forgiven for whatever the action was that caused you to become inadmissible. The details of admissibility are very technical and we can help you figure out whether you are inadmissible or can do something to fix your situation to become admissible.

It’s important to note that many people think “I don’t have any problems with my immigration case,“ or “I’ve always done everything legally so I’ve got nothing to worry about.“ Unfortunately, we see plenty of people who are actually inadmissible and they didn’t even realize it! One of the most common reasons for that is that they may have used the incorrect type of visa when traveling to U.S. previously or done something else on an application or in a discussion with a Customs Officer that actually creates inadmissibility for a misrepresentation to the government. Those tiny details of immigration cases can be really important.

Step 3: Proving You Qualify

So it’s one thing to know that you're really eligible, and it is quite another thing to gather all of the evidence to convince the government that you are eligible. Every part of your case and your eligibility will have to be shown first on paper, and then in most cases types also during an in-person interview of the immigrant and sometimes the immigrant and the spouse together. The actual process of which forms to fill out in which order and where to send them depends on which green card method you use. In all cases, the main types of evidence you’ll be gathering will be proof of your identity, proof of your admissibility, and proof that your relationship is legitimate (and not just a marriage in order for you to get a green card). The rules for immigration cases say that is the immigrant's responsibility to convince the government. This is different from, for example, a criminal court case, where the government is the one that has the responsibility to show that they are right. So if the government isn’t convinced by your evidence or you can’t find enough evidence that exists to prove any of the necessary details, then you won’t be able to win your case. That’s why it’s really important to bring together the most important things all at the beginning so you’ll be prepared. But don’t worry - We provide all of our clients with document lists showing what they should collect and detailed information about what types of evidence are the most convincing and why. Whether you hire us for full representation or DIY Support, you'll also never submit anything to the government without one of our lawyers looking at it first to make any needed corrections or improvements.

Step 4: Becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident

Yay! After a lot of hard work, hassle and patience, you will finally receive your green card. This means that you now have a legal status as a lawful permanent resident of the United States. What does this actually mean for your life together as a couple? Permanent residence gives you the ability to live and work in U.S. indefinitely as long as you continue to follow all the legal rules. It’s important to know that even criminal activity that you might believe to be minor (like a misdemeanor and being sentenced to community service) can sometimes lead to the deportation of a green card holder. There are also rules relating to how much time you physically spend inside the United States. As a permanent resident, you shouldn’t leave the United States for trips of six months or more, because the government can try to take your green card away by saying that you have legally abandoned your residence here. You also are not eligible to vote or do anything else that only U.S. citizens can do. You have the responsibility to pay taxes and always update your home address when you move with the government database.

Some immigrants will initially receive a green card that is valid for only two years. This is because they are classified as "conditional permanent residents." Other immigrants will receive a green card that’s valid for 10 years and their residence will not have any conditions attached to it. You will receive a two-year card if, at the time you receive your green card, you've been married less than two years to your U.S. citizen spouse. If you’ve already been married two years or more, then you will get the normal 10-year green card, and you do not have to go through any extra procedures other than renewing your green card when the 10 years are up or applying for U.S. citizenship when you’re eligible.

Step 5: Removal of Conditions on Permanent Residence

Conditional permanent residents are for the most part almost identical to regular permanent residents. However, they have one crucial extra responsibility: They have to go through an extra application process that begins in the 90-day period before their green card expires. If they do not file their removal of conditions application before the deadline, the government is required to automatically begin trying to deport them. So it’s super important! The application basically requires the couple to again show that the relationship continues to exist and that it is a legitimate or bona fide relationship. But what happens if a couple is having relationship difficulties And they're no longer together by the time the deadline comes around? There are alternative types of applications called waivers that allow an immigrant to apply for themselves even if they have separated from their spouse or if their spouse refuses to sign the removal conditions documents. We have helped many immigrants maintain their green cards and become full permanent residents even though their marriage unfortunately did not work out, or in some cases, their U.S. citizen spouse tragically passed away.

Step 6: Citizenship and the Naturalization Process

Some immigrants who get green cards choose to simply remain permanent residents indefinitely by renewing their green cards every ten years. However, in most cases it is best to become a U.S. citizen as soon as you are eligible. Most immigrants are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship once they’ve had a green card for five years. Fortunately, there is a special advantage for immigrants married to U.S. citizens — they only need to wait for three years.

The main advantage of becoming a U.S. citizen is that it’s not something that can be undone by the U.S. government in the future except in rare cases where there was something fraudulent in your initial green card application. (By the way, that's one more reason to make sure everything is done 100% correctly during your green card application process!) You can also votein U.S. elections, run for office, or even travel outside of United States for years at a time and always be able to re-enter as a U.S. citizen. Most countries in the world do not require you to give up their citizenship when you become a U.S. citizen, and so you would become a dual citizen of your home country and the U.S. However, there are a few countries such as Russia, China, and India that do revoke your native citizenship if you choose to become a U.S. citizen.

If you have children who are under 18 years of age and live with you as green card holders at the time that you go through the naturalization process, they may automatically become US citizens as well. There are procedures for obtaining a Certificate of Citizenship for your children to prove that they have also become U.S. citizens.

The actual process for naturalization involves a written application, background check, and an in-person interview with a test about U.S. history and government. Most applicants must also be able to speak, read, and write in English. After the application has been approved, the immigrant formally becomes a U.S. citizen during a special legal proceeding called an oath ceremony. After the oath ceremony, it's finally time to apply for a U.S. passport! You also may be able to apply for your parents or other family members to get their green cards as well, although the process can take years.

Make Your Action Plan

  • Make a concrete plan

    Now that you have an idea of the whole big picture of what your immigration journey will entail, you may be feeling just a tad bit overwhelmed. That's normal! But don't let the emotion prevent you from taking action to move yourself forward. Make a commitment to yourself right now that you'll take at least one concrete step forward, and set a timeline for when you'll take that action. We've listed below a few ideas for good first steps.

  • Educate yourself about the process

    If you're just getting started, a good first step might be to learn more about the process overall or the specific path you think you'll take. Be sure to use reliable sources (because there is definitely a lot of crazy or outdated advice out there!) You can access reliable information at the government website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. We also have a lot of resources on our YouTube channel and other social media accounts. If you haven't yet signed up for our free mini-course (go to the bottom of this page) on How to Prove Your Relationship to Immigration, that's another great place to start.

  • Start collecting documents

    Even before you begin your case, there are some documents you might want to start setting aside. You'll need to have original documents (or certified copies) for all of your major life stages for you, your spouse, and your kids. That includes original birth certificates, certified marriage certificate, and divorce decrees from prior marriages. You might want to renew your passports, too, if they're going to expire soon. Another major category of documents you'll need is evidence of your relationship. Our mini-course on proving your relationship goes into detail about the best evidence and even includes a list!

  • Get a customized strategy

    General educational materials are a good way to start investigating your options, but you'll soon come to a point where you just need to hash out your strategy with an actual expert. You can schedule yourself for a phone or Skype consult with one of lawyers, who will create a customized plan for you that takes into account the details of your unique love story! Even if you plan on doing your case 100% yourself, a consult will be invaluable to your peace of mind because you'll know you're heading in the right direction.

  • Find trustworthy help

    While some couples go it totally alone for their cases, that's rare. Most couples will seek some kind of assistance since their entire future depends on things going well on the first try. Our firm offers a range of services, from our flat fee cost-effective DIY Support packages to full representation. If you're facing extreme financial hardships, you may also be able to find a non-profit organization to help you. We have to caution you that there are also some scams out there, unfortunately. Learn more about avoiding scams here. There is also a subset of the industry that refers to themselves as "document preparers," "visa services," or "notarios." Their websites tend to be plastered with unbelievable statistics, guarantees, and meaningless A+ ratings from the Better Business Bureau. The sketchiness level of different services varies, but there are big drawbacks even if you use the more reputable ones: You'll be giving them highly personal information that is not legally protected like it is when you give it to a lawyer or doctor. The CEO of one of the new immigration tech companies even recently admitted his business plan is to obtain a large data set on immigrants in the U.S. and monetize it! Yikes. Read more about this issue here.

Make Your Action Plan

  • Make a concrete plan

    Now that you have an idea of the whole big picture of what your immigration journey will entail, you may be feeling just a tad bit overwhelmed. That's normal! But don't let the emotion prevent you from taking action to move yourself forward. Make a commitment to yourself right now that you'll take at least one concrete step forward, and set a timeline for when you'll take that action. We've listed below a few ideas for good first steps.

  • Educate yourself about the process

    If you're just getting started, a good first step might be to learn more about the process overall or the specific path you think you'll take. Be sure to use reliable sources (because there is definitely a lot of crazy or outdated advice out there!) You can access reliable information at the government website for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. We also have a lot of resources on our YouTube channel and other social media accounts. If you haven't yet signed up for our free mini-course on How to Prove Your Relationship to Immigration, that's another great place to start.

  • Start collecting documents

    Even before you begin your case, there are some documents you might want to start setting aside. You'll need to have original documents (or certified copies) for all of your major life stages for you, your spouse, and your kids. That includes original birth certificates, certified marriage certificate, and divorce decrees from prior marriages. You might want to renew your passports, too, if they're going to expire soon. Another major category of documents you'll need is evidence of your relationship. Our mini-course on proving your relationship goes into detail about the best evidence and even includes a list!

  • Get a customized strategy

    General educational materials are a good way to start investigating your options, but you'll soon come to a point where you just need to hash out your strategy with an actual expert. You can schedule yourself for a phone or Skype consult with one of lawyers, who will create a customized plan for you that takes into account the details of your unique love story! Even if you plan on doing your case 100% yourself, a consult will be invaluable to your peace of mind because you'll know you're heading in the right direction.

  • Find trustworthy help

    While some couples go it totally alone for their cases, that's rare. Most couples will seek some kind of assistance since their entire future depends on things going well on the first try. Our firm offers a range of services, from our flat fee cost-effective DIY Support packages to full representation. If you're facing extreme financial hardships, you may also be able to find a non-profit organization to help you. We have to caution you that there are also some scams out there, unfortunately. Learn more about avoiding scams here. There is also a subset of the industry that refers to themselves as "document preparers," "visa services," or "notarios." Their websites tend to be plastered with unbelievable statistics, guarantees, and meaningless A+ ratings from the Better Business Bureau. The sketchiness level of different services varies, but there are big drawbacks even if you use the more reputable ones: You'll be giving them highly personal information that is not legally protected like it is when you give it to a lawyer or doctor. The CEO of one of the new immigration tech companies even recently admitted his business plan is to obtain a large data set on immigrants in the U.S. and monetize it! Yikes. Read more about this issue here.

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