If you are marrying someone from Colombia, 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.
(NOTE: This article provides a general overview of how the process works for most couples. Your situation may present complications or qualify for exceptions to the rules stated here; see an experienced immigration attorney for a full evaluation.)
Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage
First, some 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, your foreign fiancé or spouse will not immediately or automatically receive a green card 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 several months.
If you are not yet married and your fiancé is still in Colombia, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for him or her to enter the U.S. as a fiancé in order to get married in the U.S. – after which your new spouse can apply for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence). You can also choose to get married first in Colombia or another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which your new spouse can enter the United States. Upon U.S. entry, he or she would become a permanent resident.
If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident (not a citizen), your new spouse becomes a "preference relative," in category 2A, and can apply for a green card (and enter the U.S.) only after a visa number has become available. Annual limits on the number of visas given out in category 2A create years-long waits. The application process itself typically adds more months to the process. Permanent residents cannot petition for foreign-born fiancés to come to the United States and get married.
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 underlying purpose is to prove:
- the status of the U.S. petitioner (as a citizen or permanent resident)
- that a valid marriage has taken place (or will, in the case of a fiancé visa)
- that the marriage is bona fide (not just a sham or fake 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 for the immigrant visa or green card, 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 with which the foreign-born fiancé can enter the U.S. in order to hold the wedding.
The U.S. citizen must start this process. To do so, you would file a visa 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 U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and attending a visa interview with a consular official. You, the U.S. petitioner, are allowed to attend this interview, though it is not required.
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 Colombia on an Immigrant Visa
If you and your husband or wife are already married, and your spouse is currently in Colombia, you would start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. After USCIS approves the I-130, spouses of U.S. citizens can move forward with visa processing. Spouses of U.S. permanent residents, however, will hit a delay; they will need to wait (on average two years) for a visa to become available in their visa category (2A).
Next, your spouse will go through consular processing for an immigrant visa. This means your spouse will need to submit paperwork to, and attend an interview at, a U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia. (As the U.S. petitioner, you may attend, but are not required to.)
Upon approval for the immigrant visa, your spouse can enter the U.S., at which time he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident.
Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From Colombia on a K-3 Visa
If you and your husband or wife (who lives outside the U.S.) have married, another option is to apply for a K-3 visa. This is sort of a hybrid of the fiancé visa and an immigrant visa, allowing the immigrant to enter the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (temporary) visa and then apply to adjust status within the United States.
After filing and getting a USCIS receipt notice for Form I-130, you would submit a separate fiancé visa petition to USCIS, on Form I-129F. Then your spouse will attend an interview at a U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia, where the K-3 visa will presumably be granted.
After entering the U.S. on the K-3 visa, your spouse can apply to USCIS to adjust status. The two of you will attend the final green card interview at a local USCIS office.
At Which U.S. Consulate in Colombia the Interview Will Be Held
The U.S. currently has one embassy in Colombia, located in Bogota. It handles immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applications.
You will be given instructions on preparing for the interview when your case is transferred to the embassy in Bogota, and can also check the embassy’s website for information.
If your spouse happens to be living in another country than Colombia, 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 initially came to the U.S. on a nonimmigrant (such as on a fiancé or student visa or as a tourist), and either you are a U.S. citizen or your spouse is still in valid and lawful status, he or she can apply to adjust status in the United States. The main form for this is an 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.)
IMPORTANT WARNING: If your foreign-born spouse entered the U.S. without inspection or by using a fake visa, or you are a permanent resident rather than a citizen, 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 Colombia
If you have married, or plan to get married in your fiancé or spouse’s home country, you will first need to look into Colombia’s requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, Colombian weddings can be legally performed as either a civil or a religious ceremony. For a civil ceremony, you would contact a Colombian official called a notary (or “notario” in Spanish). Bizarrely enough, Colombian marriage laws are so unclear that different notaries may tell you different things as far as what is required for your marriage. Shop around!
For a religious wedding, you will need to get in touch with the particular religious organization for details and requirements. After the ceremony, you will need to register the marriage at a notary's office.
Regardless of the type of wedding, you are likely to be asked for, at a minimum:
- Certified copies of your and your intended spouse’s birth certificates. If yours was issued in the U.S., you will need to obtain a Spanish-language translation, complete with an international authentication known as an apostille.
- Proof that each of you is eligible to marry – in particular, that neither is already married to someone else. For your Colombian fiance, this merely involves requesting a copy of his or her civil registration from the Colombian National Registry, which shows marital status. It will be tougher for the U.S. half of the couple, because the U.S. doesn’t issue such documents. You will have to discuss with the Colombian notary what substitute documents will be acceptable. Expect to have to provide proof of the termination of any past marriages, such as death or divorce decrees. You may also be asked for notarized letters from friends or family, swearing that you are not married. If prepared in the U.S., be sure to also have these letters translated into Spanish and stamped with an apostille.
After the ceremony, you will need to obtain an official certificate of the marriage for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, Colombia included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department’s "Country Reciprocity Schedule" to get further details on what documents from Colombia it considers valid. (Choose Colombia from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section on “Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates.” You’ll note, for example, that it states, “religious records are not sufficient.”)
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.