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

A marriage-based visa or green card is available to someone who is legally married to a U.S. permanent resident, who has an approved I-130 petition, 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.

A Wait for a Green Card Based on Marriage to a U.S. Permanent Resident

Spouses of permanent residents are in family preference category "F2A," in which demand always outstrips supply. That means there are more people who qualify for permanent residence in category F2A than the law allows to become permanent residents that way each year. If there's no permanent resident (visa or green card) "space" open to someone in the F2A category when their I-130 petition is approved, they get put on a waiting list. As of early 2016, people in category F2A must wait about seven months before the government will allow them to start the application process for permanent residence, and then another 10 months after that before they can actually get the visa or green card.

The only good thing about a long wait is that, when you ultimately get your permanent residence, it most likely will be unconditional, and not the two-year conditional type. That will save you the time and expense of applying to remove the conditional nature of the green card and having to prove once again that your marriage is real. Why would your green card likely be unconditional? Because conditional green cards are only given to people who have been married less than two years, and by the time you get through the application and approval process for your green card, you probably will have been married for two years. 

The application procedures for permanent residence as the spouse of a green card holder 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 U.S., unless the petitioner indicated on the form that the spouse would be adjusting status (in which case USCIS keeps the file). The immigrant waits until the NVC or USCIS says he or she can apply for permanent residence (through an immigrant visa or adjustment of status). For spouses overseas, the State Department publishes a "Visa Bulletin" to let you know when your application date is approaching. (See How Long Is the Wait for Your Priority Date To Become Current?) If the immigrant is living in the U.S. and is eligible to adjust status, he or she should check the USCIS website to see how soon a green card application can be filed.

Step 3: For spouses overseas, when it's your time to apply, the NVC contacts you to begin the visa application process. A lot of it is done online, but you may have to send documents to the NVC through the postal mail as well. When the NVC is satisfied that your case is ready to be looked at, it transfers the file to an overseas U.S. consulate. For spouses who are adjusting status without leaving the U.S., the immigrating spouse sends an application to USCIS on Form I-485. See a lawyer if you are unsure whether you qualify to adjust status.

Step 4: The State Department and USCIS generally allow you to start the application process many months before the law allows them to actually give you permanent residence. After finishing the application process, you might have to wait a few more months for a permanent resident "space" to open up. Once it does, if you're overseas, you will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in your home country, and hopefully get approved for an immigrant visa. The visa comes in a sealed envelope, which must remain unopened until you reach the United States. If you filed an application to adjust status, USCIS will approve the application and send you a green card.

Step 5: Overseas applicants become permanent residents, and get a green card, after they pay a $165 green card production fee to USCIS and enter the United States. They present their immigrant 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, and the green card will come in the mail a few weeks later.

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:

• one to six months for approval of the initial visa petition (Step One), unless there are doubts about how real your marriage is—in which case it can take a lot longer

• another six months to a year before you're allowed to begin the application process (Step Two)

• about another year to get through the visa or green card application process and for an immigrant visa or green card to actually become available to you (Step Three). This can take longer, because how long it takes you to collect documents and fill out forms is largely up to you; and

• if you're overseas, the time it will take you arrange to take Step Five and enter the United States. (Your visa generally is good for only six months.)

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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