Marrying a Citizen of China? How to Get a Green Card for Your New Spouse

Special instructions for U.S. citizens and permanent residents wishing to petition for a fiancé or spouse from China

If you are marrying someone from China, and plan to sponsor your new husband or wife for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), here is some important legal and practical information.

(Warning: This is a general overview of how the process works for most people. Your situation may contain complicating factors or qualify for exceptions; see an attorney for a full analysis.)

Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage

First, a little background on U.S. immigration law. Marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident provides foreign-born persons a direct path to U.S. immigration. Contrary to popular rumor, however, they do not immediately or automatically receive green cards or U.S. citizenship.

If you are a U.S. citizen, your new spouse becomes your "immediate relative," and may receive a green card as soon as the two of you make it through the application process. This can take six months to a year, or even longer.

If you are not yet married and your fiancé(e) is still in China, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for him or her to enter the U.S. as a fiancé(e) in order to get married in the U.S.—and then your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired. You can also choose to get married first in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the United States. (This visa is the equivalent of a green card. The actual card will arrive some weeks after your fiancé(e)'s entry to the United States.)

If you are a lawful permanent resident, your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category F2A, and can get an immigrant visa or green card only after space for a permanent resident in category F2A becomes available. Annual limits on the number of persons who can become permanent residents in each category and from each country create this wait, which fortunately, as of early 2016, is not that long for persons form China. Permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s.

Overview of Obtaining a Green Card Based on Marriage

The application process for a green card based on marriage involves multiple steps, such as submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose of all this is to prove:

  • the status of the U.S. petitioner (as a citizen or permanent resident)
  • that a valid marriage has occurred (or will occur, in the case of a fiancé visa)
  • that the marriage is bona fide (not a sham to get a green card), and
  • that the immigrant is not inadmissible to the U.S. for medical, criminal, financial, or other reasons. (See Inadmissibility: When the U.S. Can Keep You Out for details.)

Procedurally, you may have more than one option as to where and how you apply, as described below.

Procedures When Applying for a K-1 Fiancé Visa

If you and your intended (who lives outside the U.S.) have not yet married—or have held an informal ceremony that does not count as an official marriage in the location where it was held—you can apply for a temporary (90-day) visa to enter the U.S. and hold the wedding.

The U.S. citizen starts this process by filing a petition on Form I-129F with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After USCIS approves the I-129F, it will transfer the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which then transfers the case to the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou. There, your fiancé(e) will apply for a K-1 visa, which involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview.

After your marriage in the U.S., your new spouse can apply to USCIS for a green card, through a process called adjustment of status. The two of you will attend a green card interview at a local USCIS office.

Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From China on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your husband or wife have already married, and your spouse is currently in China, you would start the immigration process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS, to prove you're really married and you're really a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens can continue forward with visa processing, while spouses of permanent residents must wait to apply. As of early 2016, the wait is about eight months from the time you filed the I-130. The good news is that by the time you receive approval of the I-130, some, if not all, of the eight months will have passed. USCIS will forward your file to the NVC, which will tell you when it's time for you to apply.

Next, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse submits paperwork to, and attends an interview at, the U.S. consulate in Guangzhou. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)

Upon approval, your spouse enters the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident. Assuming you've paid the $165 green card production fee, the green card arrives in the mail several weeks later.

Where in China the Interview Will Be Held

Although the U.S. has consulates in several cities in China, only the consulate in Guangzhou handles immigrant visas. (Fiancé visas, which technically are not immigrant visas, are processed like they are immigrant visas, so the only place to get one is in Guangzhou.)

The NVC will let you know when your case file is transferred to Guangzhou. The notice you get from the NVC will give you instructions on what to do next. Spouses and fiancé(e)s can also find instructions at ustraveldocs.com.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than China, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.

Procedures If Your Spouse Is Already in the U.S.

If your spouse came to the U.S. legally (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), he or she may be able to apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this is USCIS Form I-485. The two of you will attend an interview at one of USCIS’s field offices.

Information about USCIS locations or service centers can be found at its website, www.uscis.gov. (Just make sure your spouse didn’t commit visa fraud by using the nonimmigrant visa specifically to enter the U.S. and apply for a green card. See Risks of Entering the U.S. as a Tourist, Then Applying for Marriage- Based Green Card for details.)

If you're a U.S. citizen, it doesn't matter if your spouse is in legal status in the U.S. when you apply. But if you're a permanent resident, your spouse must be in legal status.

There is one other major consideration for spouses of permanent residents wishing to adjust status: before you can apply, you must reach the front of the waiting list we mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, the government will not be telling you when your wait is over—you'll have to figure it out yourself. USCIS has a web page that explains how.

If your spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or has ever been deported from the U.S., your situation is more complicated than this article can address. You may have difficulty obtaining a green card for your spouse, though it is not impossible. See an immigration attorney for details or if you have any questions about whether you qualify to adjust status.

Entering Into a Legally Valid Marriage

No matter where you marry, you will need to obtain a certificate that convinces the U.S. immigration authorities that it was legally recognized in the state or country where it took place. Below are some tips on doing that.

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in China

If you have married, or plan to get married in China, you will first need to look into China’s requirements for legal marriage.

According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, at least one member of the couple must reside in China. Your intended spouse must be at least age 22 if a man or 20 if a woman. And if your intended spouse is still in school, watch out: The school is likely to expel your spouse as soon as you have married, and one school reportedly requires its students to reimburse it for uncharged tuition and other expenses upon withdrawal for the purpose of marriage to a foreigner.

Also make sure that your intended spouse is legally free to marry a foreigner. Certain categories of Chinese citizens, such as diplomats, security officials, and others whose work is considered to be crucial to the state, are not.

Procedurally, you will need to register your marriage with the marriage registration office of the local civil affairs bureau (民政局Min Zheng Ju). You, the U.S. citizen, will need to submit a current passport and an affidavit of marriageability; the latter can be obtained from the U.S. consulate, but you may need to have it translated into Chinese by a service authorized by the civil affairs office. The documents your spouse must submit dpeend on what the local office requires.

After the ceremony, you will need to obtain a certificate of that marriage for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. What the U.S. is currently looking for is a so-called “notarial marriage certificate” (Jie Hun Gong Zheng or Zheng Wing Shu). Check the State Department's Country Reciprocity Schedule to get further details on what documents from China it considers valid. (Click on “Marriage, Divorce Certificates.”)

Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the United States

If you will hold your wedding in the U.S., you need to follow the laws of the state where you marry. For a summary, see Marriage Laws in Your State. You will need to obtain a marriage certificate from a local government office. A church certificate, for example, is not enough.

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