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

Guidance to immigration and marriage rules and procedures.

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If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from Japan, and you would like to sponsor your Japanese 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; which can take several months.

If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in Japan, 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 Japan 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 Japanese 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 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 U.S. immigration authorities 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 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 Japanese 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 atemporary (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 either Tokyo or Naha, Japan. 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 Japan on an Immigrant Visa

If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in Japan, 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 Japanese 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, a U.S. consulate in either Tokyo or Naha, Japan. (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 Japan the Interview Will Be Held

Although the U.S. has various consulates and "American Centers" in Japan, only the ones in Tokyo and Naha handle immigrant and fiance visas.

You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in Japan, and can also check the embassy’s website for information.

If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Japan, 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 Japan

If you have married, or plan to get married in your fiancé or spouse’s home country, you will first need to look into Japan’s requirements for legal marriage.

According to information provided by the U.S. consulate, the only "legal" Japanese marriages are civil marriage registrations, which take place a Japanese municipal government office. Japanese religious ceremonies are not sufficient for U.S. immigration purposes.

You, the U.S. half of the couple, must be at least 18 years old if you're a male and at least 16 if you're female (but older if that would be the requirement in your home state). Your Japanese fiance must be at least 18 as well. And if either of you is below the age of 20, you'll need parental approval for the marriage.

After a divorce or dissolution of a previous marriage, women in Japan must wait at least six months to marry again. (This has to do with establishing the identity of the father in the event of pregnancy.)

If you and your fiance are related by blood, adoption, or other marriages, you may not be allowed to marry under Japanese law.

As the U.S. citizen, you must prepare the following (with a certified translation into Japanese of any documents from the U.S., done by either the Japanese embassy in the U.S. or a Japanese notary public).

  • Sworn Affidavit of Competency to Marry, affirming that you are legally free to marry, which the U.S. consulate in Japan can notarize for you (make an appointment first).
  • Official copy of your passport, for purposes of showing the notary at the U.S. consulate.
  • Any other documents required by the local office that performs the ceremony.
  • 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, Japan 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 Japan it considers valid. (Choose Japan from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section on “Marriage Certificates.”) As of 2013, it was accepting a copy of an extract from the family register known as a koseki shohon.

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.

by: , J.D.

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