If you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who is marrying someone from the United Kingdom, and you would like to sponsor your British 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 rumor, however, the foreign national does not immediately or automatically receive the right to immigrate, nor U.S. citizenship.
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. That process can, however, take several months by itself.
If you have not yet married and your fiancé is still living in the United Kingdom, 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 the United Kingdom 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 British spouse is considered a "preference relative," in category 2A of the U.S. 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 are common. The application process itself adds more months to the process.
U.S. permanent residents (green card holders) cannot petition for fiancés to receive visas to the United States.
Application Process for Green Cards Based on Marriage
The application process for a marriage- based green card involves multiple steps, most notably submitting forms and documents to and attending an interview with U.S. immigration authorities. The purpose is to prove to the U.S. government that:
- the petitioner (sometimes called the sponsor) U.S. is a citizen or permanent resident
- you have entered into a legally valid marriage (or will be, 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 British fiancé 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 (a U.S. citizen) 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 – the non-citizen can apply for a K-1 visa, which is a temporary (90-day) visa with which to 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 London, where your fiancé will apply for a K-1 visa. This part of the process involves submitting forms and documents and attending an interview with a consular official. You, the petitioner, are allowed to attend this visa 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 USCIS office in the state where you live.
Procedures for Your Spouse to Come From the U.K. on an Immigrant Visa
If you and your loved one are already married, and your spouse is currently in the United Kingdom, 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 British 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 London. (The U.S. petitioner may attend, but is not required to.)
Upon approval, your spouse may enter the U.S. on an immigrant visa, at which time he or she becomes a lawful permanent resident. (The actual green card arrives some weeks later.)
At Which U.S. Consulate in the U.K. the Interview Will Be Held
Although the U.S. has various embassies and consulates in the United Kingdom, only the one in London handles immigrant and fiancé (K-1) visas. You will be given instructions (and eventually, an appointment notice) when your case is transferred to the consulate in London, and can also check its website for information.
If your spouse happens to be living in a country other than the United Kingdom, 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 the U.K.
If you have married, or plan to get married in the United Kingdom, you will first need to look into the local requirements for legal marriage. These vary between England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. A register’s office can give you the most detailed information; book an appointment with one for this purpose.
According to information provided by the British government, the basic requirements to get legally married include that each person:
- have reached the age of 16 by the wedding date (and have written consent from the parents or guardians if under the age of 18 in England or Ireland; not required in Scotland)
- in England, lived in the district where you plan to marry for at least eight full days immediately before giving notice of the intended marriage (staying in a hotel is sufficient)
- lawfully free to marry (in particular, not already be married to someone else, and not violating the rules of the foreigner’s home country – the foreigner may have to supply a “certificate of no impediment” to prove this)
- be capable of understanding the nature of a marriage ceremony and give consent to marrying (required in Scotland and Northern Ireland), and
- not be closely related to the other by birth, marriage, or adoption.
Both civil and religious ceremonies are possible, with some limitations on where they occur. Either the local register’s offices or various churches are legally empowered to perform marriages in the United Kingdom. Other “approved premises” with ceremony licenses are allowed (in England, for example, these might include a hotel or stately home; but not open air or a tent, boat, or other movable structure). You’ll need to give notice at the local register’s office before marrying at one of these premises.
If you wish to marry in the Anglican Church, expect additional requirements regarding your membership or family affiliation there. Contact the church for details. If you wish to marry in a “nonconformist church,” you will need to arrange most of the preliminaries with a register’s office.
You and in most instances, your British fiancé may be asked to prepare or bring originals of the following:
- Your passport and (in the case of the U.S. citizen or resident) proof that you have an entry clearance or lawful residence in the U.K.
- A “notice of marriage” or “banns” prepared by a registrar or minister in advance of the wedding and allowing at least enough time to meet the required waiting period (usually 14 or 15 days) and naming the venue at which the marriage will be held.
- Your respective, full-length birth certificates.
- If either of you has been previously married, certificates or “decrees absolute” showing that the marriage was legally terminated, i.e. through annulment, divorce, or death. (Be aware that some churches refuse to marry divorced persons.)
- 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, the U.K. 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 the United Kingdom it considers valid. (Choose “United Kingdom” from the menu, then scroll down the page to the section called “Birth, Adoption, Marriage, and Death Certificates.”)
Obtaining Documentation of a Valid Marriage in the U.S.
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.