Applying for a Green Card Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident: Overview

Why spouses of U.S. permanent residents face a longer application process than those married to U.S. citizens.

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A marriage-based visa or green card is available to someone who is legally married to a U.S. permanent resident, and whose marriage is the real thing, not a sham to get a green card (lawful permanent residence). In addition, the person must not be inadmissible to the United States.

Long Wait for Visas Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident

Unfortunately, there are more people who qualify for visas in this category -- known as preference relatives -- than there are visas available each year. Spouses of permanent residents are in Family Preference Category 2A, in which demand always outstrips supply, leading to years-long waits for an available visa. This wait will add, on average, three to five years to the one-year (or more) application process. You will most likely have to wait outside the United States.

The only good thing about this long wait is that, when you ultimately are allowed to enter the United States, your residence status will be permanent. Here’s why: Immigrants who enter the United States before completing two years of marriage are given only conditional residence. USCIS puts their marriage through a two-year testing period to make sure the marriage is not a sham, and makes a final decision on the green card (granting permanent residency) only after those two years are up. Since it is very unlikely that the spouse of a permanent resident will get through the application and waiting within two years of the marriage, he or she won’t have to go through this two-year testing period.

The application procedures are described below.

caution CAUTION

If the petitioning permanent resident spouse has made his or her home outside the United States, this permanent resident status may now be lost. Permanent residents are expected to make their primary home in the United States. Any absence longer than six months will raise questions. Before you rely on your permanent resident spouse to petition for you, make sure this isn’t a problem.

Application Procedures for Green Card Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident

Obtaining an immigrant visa and green card through a U.S. permanent resident spouse involves five major steps:

Step 1: The U.S. spouse submits a visa petition to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Form I-130.

Step 2: After USCIS approves the petition, it transfers the file to the National Visa Center (NVC) in the United States. The immigrant waits for a visa to become available, based on his or her "Priority Date" -- that is, the date the I-130 was first filed on his or her behalf.

Step 3: When a visa is about to become available, the NVC sends the immigrant forms to fill out and instructions, and transfers the case to an overseas U.S. consulate. (Alternatively, if the immigrant is living in the U.S. in legal status, he or she may be eligible to submit all the paperwork to USCIS and attend an interview within the U.S. -- but the chances of this are slim for someone in this category. See a lawyer for a full analysis.)

Step 4: The immigrant attends an interview at a U.S. consulate in his or her home country, which approves the immigrant visa. The visa comes in a sealed envelope, which must remain unopened until reaching the United States.

Step 5: The immigrant presents the visa at a U.S. border, airport, or other point of entry. There, it is examined by an official of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), who has the last word on whether to approve the immigrant for U.S. entry. If all goes well, the person's passport will be stamped for U.S. residency.

In addition to the steps above, a few couples (or more likely the U.S.-based spouse) are required to attend a “fraud interview” if the government has doubts about their marriage being the real thing. This could happen either as part of Step One or after Step Four, above.

Now you may have a clearer picture of why your application process will take so long. The total time often (but not always) includes:

• up to three years for approval of the initial visa petition (Step One) (they’re not in a hurry, because they know you’ll need to wait even longer until a visa is available to you, as described next)

• another one to three years before a visa is available to you (Step Two)

• another month at least—or possibly many months—to receive the follow-up paperwork (Step Three) from the National Visa Center (NVC) (after which how long it takes you to collect documents and fill out forms is largely up to you)

• another four months or so after receiving all the paperwork you sent in until you’re scheduled for an interview at the consulate in your home country (Step Four), and

• no more than six months before you take your immigrant visa in hand, to take Step Five and enter the United States.

These time periods are mere educated guesses, based on averages over the last few years. Your application could go faster or slower, depending on a variety of factors including the current demand for visas, the complexities of your own case, and the efficiency and workload of the U.S. consulate in your country

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