Chart: What to Expect When Sponsoring a Fiancé or Spouse for a Green Card

Find out how long it takes to get a fiancé or spouse visa -- and how to do it.

If you are married to, or plan to marry, someone from another country, there's no easy answer to the question of, "What will happen and by when will the immigration process be done? A great deal depends on both your and your spouse's place of current residence, immigration status or history, and more. This article will break down the various possibilities and summarize what to expect for each.

Caution Be warned. The time averages mentioned below can change dramatically, based on factors both within and outside your control.

Scenario #1: Immigrant is living overseas and engaged to be married: U.S. fiancé is a U.S. citizen living in the United States.

Average time -- Six months or longer to get the fiancé visa; another three to six months or longer to get the U.S. green card.

Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by mailing a Form I-129F visa petition (Petition for Alien Fiancé) to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Dallas “lockbox” (from where it will be routed to another USCIS office for processing). After the petition is approved, the immigrant submits a visa application form online and attends an interview at a local U.S. consulate with various documents. Soon after the interview he or she may be approved for a fiancé visa to enter the United States. The immigrant will have 90 days in the U.S. in which to get married and apply for a green card at a local USCIS office. The immigrant will be called in for fingerprinting, then to an interview at which the green card should be approved.

Scenario #2: Immigrant is living overseas and married: U.S. spouse is a U.S. citizen living in the United States.

Average time -

One to six months or longer to get a Form I-130 visa petition (Petition for Alien Relative) approved by USCIS; another three to six months or longer to get an immigrant visa to come to the United States.

Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with a USCIS lockbox in Phoenix or Chicago (depending on where the U.S. citizen lives). Once it's approved, the immigrant submits a visa application form online and submits documents to the National Visa Center (NVC). When the NVC is satisfied that all documents are available, it sends the file to the U.S. consulate in the immigrant’s home country. An interview at the consulate will be scheduled, soon after which the immigrant spouse should be approved for an immigrant visa (and then a green card when he or she gets to the United States).

The “K-3” visa option. U.S. immigration laws provide the possibility of obtaining a temporary visa (called a “K-3”) for the immigrant spouse to come to the United States while the application process for permanent resident status is happening. Theoretically, this could reunite you and your spouse sooner, since getting a K-3 visa should not take as long as it takes to get an immigrant visa. Unfortunately, currently you will find that if you file a petition for K-3 classification on Form I-129F at the same time as or after your I-130 (as you must), USCIS will not act on your K-3 petition. Rather, it will hold your K-3 petition and just work on your I-130. When it approves your I-130, your spouse can start applying for a visa. Because your spouse can apply for the immigrant visa, there is no longer any need (and indeed, under the law, no way) to apply for a K-3 visa.

Scenario #3: Immigrant is living overseas and married: U.S. spouse is a U.S. citizen living overseas with the immigrant.

Average time -- Potentially a bit shorter than Scenario #2.
Summary of the Process -- Check with your local consulate -- it may allow the entire immigrant visa application process to be done through its office.

Scenario #4: Immigrant is living overseas and married: U.S. spouse is a lawful permanent U.S. resident living in the United States.

Average time -- Three to six months or longer for approval of Form I-130; currently up to two years on the waiting list; another three to six months or longer to get the immigrant visa.

Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by mailing a Form I-130 to USCIS. After the petition is approved, the immigrant is placed on a waiting list to apply. When the wait is over, the immigrant will submit a visa application form online and submit documents to the NVC. Even though the NVC can accept the application, the State Department cannot actually give a visa until a certain date (according to when you filed the I-130), so there might be a delay of several months at this point. When the visa becomes available, an interview at the consulate will be scheduled, soon after which the immigrant spouse should be approved for an immigrant visa.

Scenario #5: Immigrant is living in the U.S. and married: U.S. spouse is a lawful permanent U.S. resident living in the United States.

Average time -- Three to six months or longer to get the Form I-130 approved; currently up to two years on the waiting list, and the rest depending on various complicated circumstances.

Summary of the Process -- The U.S. permanent resident starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with USCIS. After the petition is approved, the immigrant is placed on a waiting list to apply. To determine whether the immigrant spouse can apply from within the United States or must go back to his or her home country to get a visa may require an attorney's help, however, because unless the immigrant has a separate, unexpired visa or other status, he or she cannot legally wait in the United States. Even after the wait, he or she may be unable to apply for the green card without leaving the United States -- which might expose the immigrant to penalties preventing return for several years.

Scenario #6: Immigrant is living in the United States after a legal entry (a visa or visa waiver, regardless of whether the expiration has passed), and married: U.S. spouse is a U.S. citizen living in the United States.

Average time -- Six months to a year.
Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen and immigrant prepare a packet of documents, including a Form I-130 and an "adjustment of status" application on Form I-485, and submit it all at once to USCIS. The immigrant will be called in to a local USCIS office for fingerprinting, and later for an interview, at which the green card should be approved.

Scenario #7: Living in the United States after an illegal entry, and married: U.S. spouse is a U.S. citizen living in the United States.

Average time -- One to six months or longer for approval of the Form I-130, and additional time depending on individual circumstances.

Summary of the Process -- The U.S. citizen starts the process by filing a Form I-130 with USCIS. However, you'll probably need to see a lawyer, because the immigrant may be unable to apply for the green card without leaving the United States -- which could expose the immigrant to penalties preventing return for several years.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Connect with local attorneys

Legal Information & Books from Nolo

NOLO-web2:DRU1.6.8.23.20160804.41205