The Truth About Adjusting Status After Coming to USA with ESTA or Tourist Visa (Don’t Buy the Hype!)

I want to talk about the truth about the often mentioned online strategy about coming in with a tourist visa or using your ESTA and then adjusting your status after getting married in the United States. Apparently there are a lot of people out there, even lawyers, who are advising people to do that. It’s a terrible idea.

I see so many disasters because of this. In the past, this was something that was done more frequently and the government was much more relaxed with it. Now under today’s environment with the administration we have, the changes that have been made, the government has very explicitly said that they’re really cracking down on this. Not only have they said that and made changes to their employee manuals as far as how people review the situation, but I’ve actually seen a lot of cases where it’s caused people trouble.

It just breaks my heart that I have people crying in my office saying, “We heard this was a thing you could do. Everyone said they already did. It was so easy. And then what happened to me was I got caught at customs and sent back.” Sometimes even with an actual equivalent of a deportation order that’s going to require a waiver for fraud just because I tried to follow this terrible plan. That’s not really a good idea.

Let me explain a little bit about the reason why you shouldn’t do it. Legally, there are two different types of intention that you can have when you come into the United States. You can be intending to be an immigrant, which means I’m intending to move to the US as my new home. Or you can be coming as a non-immigrant, which means I’m coming just to do something specific and then I’m going back home to my own country. I want to go to college or I’m going on vacation to visit someone or something like that. Those are all non-immigrant types of categories.

Some types of jobs have non-immigrant visas whether it’s a limited-time period job that you’re just going to be coming in to do that job and then leaving after that. The problem with the strategy about coming in on a tourist visa or with ESTA is that a tourist visa, ESTA, or any other non-immigrant visa has a basic requirement that you’re not intending to stay in the United States. You’re saying to the US government by your actions of presenting that visa whether they interview you or not, I’m not intending to stay in the United States.

If you are not intending to stay in the United States and then later on your circumstances change or maybe you’re going to college and you eventually meet somebody after you’re here. Well, that’s a different situation because at the time when you came, you did not have the intention to stay longer than you were supposed to. You were just coming to do your thing that you had a specific visa for and you were going to go back to your home country.

If you’re in a situation where you are consciously planning I’m gonna say I’m just coming to visit and then I’m going to instead say, “Actually, I changed my mind and now I got married.” The government is going to ask you a lot of questions about that because it’s not super common that that happens especially in a short period of time. You might think that you can just kind of be sneaky about it but there are usually a lot of tells that that was your intention.

I’ve seen people who had like a wedding dress in their bag and they said they’re coming on vacation. That’s a terrible idea. Don’t do that. But there are lots of other ways that you may have wound down your life: quit your job or sold your property or told your friends goodbye, things like that. Evidence that’s on your phone you’ve been emailing people about this. All sorts of things ways that they can catch you doing this and believe me it is not worth it.

Because if you get turned around in most cases, you’re going to need to start over completely. In some cases, you then have significantly higher barriers where you’re needing waivers. We’re talking years of extra wait time, thousands of extra dollars of legal fees. Everyone thinks lawyers are always trying to find a complicated way to do things to get more legal fees but believe me I would not wish this on anybody.

If you are outside of the US and you want to get married, your options are a fiancé visa or a spouse visa and we can talk with you about what those options look like. You will just sleep better at night and be at significantly lower risk if you just do it the right way. Even though the process is annoying, you’ll know this is going to work because I’m doing it the right way. I’m not creating any additional barriers in my case.

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