If you are applying for a visa, green card, or other immigration benefit, you have probably already noticed that you will be asked to fill out a number of forms. In truth, however, the bulk of the packets of paperwork that you will need to submit to the immigration authorities are likely to be documents to accompany these forms.
At a minimum, you are probably going to need to submit a copy of your birth certificate to complete your visa or green card application. You will also need proof of any family relationships upon which you might be basing your application. For example, if applying for a green card based on marriage, you will need to submit a copy of your marriage certificate (and if you've been married before, of death or divorce certificates showing that the previous marriage ended). If applying for a visa as the dependent of a primary visa holder -- for example, an F-2 visa if your spouse or parent is coming to the U.S. as an F-1 student -- you will need your birth or marriage certificate showing your relationship to the primary visa applicant.
When it’s time for your visa or green card approval, you will need a passport from your own country (either to travel to the United States or to hold a stamp showing your residence status). If you get married in your home country and you change your name, make sure your passport is either updated or is still considered valid with your maiden name in it.
Within the United States, official copies of birth, death, marriage, and divorce certificates can usually be obtained from the Vital Records office (called the Registrar’s or Recorder’s office in some areas) of the appropriate county or locality. Even if you already have your own copy of these items, it is a good idea to request a certified copy from the Vital Records office. That’s because your copy may not have been given all the official governmental stamps necessary for the immigration authorities to accept it as authentic.
You can find more state-by-state links on the Centers for Disease Control website. Or, check the blue pages of a U.S. phone book. There are also services that will order your vital records for you upon payment of a fee, such as www.Vitalchek.com.
U.S. passports are available to U.S. citizens through the State Department; see www.state.gov (near the bottom, under "Travel," click “Passports”) or the federal government pages of a U.S. phone book.
Outside of the United States, records should be obtained from official, government sources wherever possible. The sources that USCIS and the State Department consider acceptable are listed in the State Department’s Reciprocity by Country pages.
If you are overseas and do not have Web access, talk to your local U.S. consulate about what form of record will be acceptable, particularly if you need to document an event for which your government does not issue certificates.