If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from Germany, and you would like to sponsor your German husband or wife for a U.S. green card (lawful permanent residence), you will find some important legal and practical guidance below.
(Warning: This is a general overview of how the U.S. immigration process works for most people. Your situation may present complications or qualify for exceptions; see an experienced attorney for a full analysis.)
Immigration Eligibility Based on Engagement or Marriage
Let’s start with a bit of background on U.S. immigration law. Marriage to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident gives foreign-born persons a direct path to U.S. immigration. Contrary to popular rumor, however, the foreign national does not immediately or automatically receive a green card or U.S. citizenship.
If you are a U.S. citizen and already married or soon to be, your new spouse becomes your "immediate relative" in the language of U.S. immigration law. He or she may receive a green card as soon as the two of you successfully complete the application process; thought that can, by itself, take several months.
If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in Germany, you can, if you are a U.S. citizen, petition for your fiancé to enter the U.S. on a K-1 visa in order to get married in the United States. After the wedding, your new spouse can apply for a green card, if desired. You can also choose to get married first in Germany or in another country, and then apply for an immigrant visa with which to enter the U.S.– the equivalent of a green card.
If you are a U.S. lawful permanent resident, your German spouse is considered a "preference relative," in category 2A of the visa preference system. Your spouse can complete the process of applying 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 waits of many years. The application process itself adds more months to the process.
U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés.
Application Process for Getting a Green Card Based on Marriage
The application process for a marriage- based green card involves multiple steps, most notably submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose is to prove to the U.S. government that:
- the U.S. petitioner is a citizen or permanent resident
- you have entered into a valid marriage (or will, if you're applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
- the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not just a sham to get a green card), and
- 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 a full explanation.)
You and your German fiance or spouse may, however, have more than one option as to where and exactly how to 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 K-1 visa, which is a temporary (90-day) visa with which your fiancé can enter the U.S. in order to hold the wedding.
The U.S. citizen starts this process by filing 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 Frankfurt, Germany. Your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa through the consulate. This involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with a consular official. You, the 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 Germany on an Immigrant Visa
If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in Germany, you will start the green-card application process by filing Form I-130 with USCIS. After USCIS approves the I-130, what happens next depends on your, the petitioner's status. If you are a U.S. citizen, your German spouse can continue on with visa processing. If you are a permanent resident, your spouse must wait (an average of two years) until a visa is available in category 2A.
The next step is for your spouse to 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 Frankfurt, Germany. (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.
At Which U.S. Consulate in Germany the Interview Will Be Held
Although the U.S. has various consulates and diplomatic missions in Germany, only the one in Frankfurt handles immigrant and fiance (K-1) visas.
You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in Germany, and can also check its website for information.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Germany, 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 entered the U.S. on a nonimmigrant visa (such as a fiancé, student, or tourist visa), and you are a U.S. citizen, he or she can most likely 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 be 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, however, your 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 necessarily 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 Germany
If you have married, or plan to get married in Germany, you will first need to look into the country's requirements for legal marriage.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, the only "legal" German marriages are those performed at a registrar's office called a Standesamt. You may, if you wish, also hold a religious ceremony, but it won't count for U.S. immigration purposes.
At a minimum, you (and in some instances, your German fiance) will need to prepare the following:
- Copies of each of your birth certificates, issued within the last six months and containing an official government Apostille stamp. It would be best to obtain your birth certificate before leaving the U.S., because the U.S. consulate cannot handle this for you. See "How to Obtain Vital Records and Other Documents for Immigration Applications" for details. You will likely also need to have it translated into German, by a state-authorized translator.
- An "Ehefähigkeitszeugnis" (Certificate of Free Status) for the U.S. citizen or permanent resident, in which you take an oath stating that you are legally able to marry. Unless you are living in Bavaria, you will need to get help with this from a U.S. consulate.
- If either of you has been previously married, proof that the marriage was legally terminated, i.e. through death or divorce. (Again, any certificates must have been issued within the last six months and contain an Apostille stamp.)
- Your U.S. passport and proof that you have a visa or lawful residence in Germany.
- Any other documents or other requirements by the Standesamt (such as blood tests, witnesses at the wedding, and a waiting period). This agency requires that you make an appointment in advance of your marriage in order to discuss its particular requirements in your case.
- Processing fees.
Obtaining a valid certificate of your marriage is critical for purposes of U.S. immigration. The U.S. government keeps track of what documents are considered legally valid from each country, Germany included, and will reject yours 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 Germany it considers valid. (Choose Germany from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section on “Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificates.”) Not surprisingly, the required certificate comes from the Standesamt.
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.