If you are marrying someone from Nigeria, 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 involve complications or qualify for exceptions; see an attorney for a full analysis.)
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 Nigeria, 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 Nigeria or 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 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 Nigeria. Permanent residents cannot petition for fiancé(e)s.
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:
Procedurally, you may have more than one option as to where and how you apply, as described below.
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 your fiancé(e) can 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 this petition, it will transfer the case to the National Visa Center (NVC), which then transfers the case to the U.S. consulate in Lagos. Your fiancé(e) 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.
If you and your husband or wife have already married, and your spouse is currently in Nigeria, you would start the green-card application 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 on with visa processing. Spouses of U.S. permanent residents will hit a delay at this point. As of early 2016, the wait to apply 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, a U.S. consulate in Lagos. (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.
Although the U.S. currently has two consulates in Nigeria, located in Abuja and Lagos, all immigrant visa decisions are made at the consulate in Lagos. (Fiancé visas, which technically are not immigrant visas, are processed like they are immigrant visas, so the only place to get one is in Lagos.)
The NVC will let you know when your case file is transferred to Lagos. 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 www.ustraveldocs.com/ng.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than Nigeria, the consulate there would likely be the one to handle the case.
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.
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.
If you have married, or plan to get married in Nigeria, you will first need to look into Nigeria’s requirements for legal marriage to a noncitizen. The consulate may be able to provide you with some guidance, or a local attorney. Nigeria’s Marriage Act is also available online.
After the marriage 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, Nigeria included, and will reject your marriage certificate if it doesn't come from the proper source. Check the State Department’s Country Reciprocity Schedule for Nigeria to get further details on what documents from Nigeria it considers valid. (Click on “Marriage, Divorce Certificates.”)
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 Nolo's rundown of 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.