If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from Italy, and you would like to sponsor your Italian 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 people a direct path to a U.S. green card. Contrary to popular belief, however, the foreign national does not immediately or automatically receive U.S. citizenship, or even the right to immigrate.
If you are a U.S. citizen and are already married or soon will be, your new spouse will become your "immediate relative" in the lingo 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; though that can, by itself, take several months.
If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in Italy, 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 Italy 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 Italian 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. Because of annual limits on the number of visas given out in category 2A, waits of many years have developed. 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 applying for a K-1 fiancé visa)
- the marriage is bona fide (the real thing; not just a fake 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 Italian 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 even if you’ve held an informal ceremony that does not count as a legal 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 General in Naples, Italy. 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 in the United States.
Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From Italy on an Immigrant Visa
If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in Italy, 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 Italian 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 General in Naples, Italy. (The U.S. petitioning spouse may attend, but is not required to.)
Upon approval, your Italian 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 Italy the Interview Will Be Held
Although the U.S. has various embassies and consulates in Italy, only the U.S. Consulate General in Naples 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 Italy, and can also check its website for information.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Italy, 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 Italy
If you have married, or plan to get married in Italy, you will first need to look into the Italian requirements for legal marriage. Get ready for a lot of paperwork and visits to government offices! You may encounter particular delays in getting the various required appointments during the peak marriage season, May through September.
According to information provided by the U.S. consulate there, some advance planning will be required. For starters, you’ll need to post what are called “Civil Banns” (public announcement of the intended marriage, called “pubblicazioni” in Italian) at a Town Hall for two weeks including two Sundays before getting married.”
You (and in some instances, your Italian fiance) may be asked to prepare or bring the following to a local Ufficio Matrimoni, or Marriage Office:
- Your U.S. passport or military ID card.
- Certified copies of your respective birth certificates, issued within the six months before the wedding and showing the names of both parents. See "How to Obtain Vital Records and Other Documents for Immigration Applications" for help. You will need to have it translated into Italian, by a certified translator and stamped with a so-called "APOSTILLE" stamp by the Secretary of State in the state where the document was issued, in accordance with The Hague Convention on the legalization of foreign public documents.
- If either of you has been previously married, proof that the marriage was legally terminated, i.e. through death, annulment, or divorce. Certificates of death, divorce, or annulment from outside the U.S. must be legalized for use in Italy and translated into Italian and stamped with a so-called "APOSTILLE" stamp by the Secretary of State in the state where the certificate was issued.
- A "Nulla Osta" – that is, an affidavit by the U.S. citizen, sworn before an American Consul in Italy, stating that no legal impediment bars the marriage, based on both the laws of the state where you are a resident and the laws of Italy.
- A separate “Atto Notorio,” which is a declaration stating that according to the laws to which the citizen is subject in the U.S., no obstacle exists to the marriage. This declaration must be sworn to by two adult witnesses of any nationality, before either an Italian Consul outside Italy (for example, in the U.S., which will probably be the fastest), or in Italy, before a court official in the city where the marriage is to occur. The consul will notarize this document. Nevertheless, you may also need to take it to the “Ufficio Legalizzazione” for authentication.
- If the wife-to-be’s previous marriage was terminated within the last 300 days, she must obtain a waiver confirming that she has presented medical evidence showing that she is not pregnant. This must be obtained from the Procura della Repubblica presso il Tribunale (District Attorney's office) at the Palazzo di Giustizia (Courthouse), in the city where the new marriage will be performed.
- If the U.S. citizen is under the age of 18, a sworn statement of consent to the marriage by the parents or legal guardians, translated into Italian and authenticated by the nearest Italian consulate having jurisdiction over the place of issuance in the United States.
- A “Declaration of Intention to Marry” or Promessa di Matrimonio. The two of you must, three days before the ceremony, take all the above documents and two witnesses to the Ufficio Matrimoni (Marriage Office) of the Municipio (Town Hall) in the city where the wedding will take place, and make this declaration in front of an Ufficiale di Stato Civile (Civil Registrar).
- Processing fees.
Unless you are getting married in the Roman Catholic Church, you will need to hold a civil ceremony before any religious ceremony. (After a religious ceremony performed in the Roman Catholic Church, the priest will register the marriage with the civil authorities.) The civil ceremony is performed by a mayor or mayor’s deputy. You will need two witnesses, one of whom can also serve as interpreter. (And if you don’t speak Italian, you will need to bring an interpreter.)
If you plan to hold a religious ceremony, check separately with the church or other house of worship for its document and other requirements. The Roman Catholic Church asks for baptismal and confirmation certificates.
After the wedding, in order for your marriage to be recognized in the U.S., you will need to take the certificate of marriage to the Prefettura, Ufficio Legalizzazioni in the city where the marriage took place, and get an Apostille on the certificate.
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, Italy 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 Italy it considers valid. (Choose Italy from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section called “Marriage Decrees.”)
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.