Risks of Entering the U.S. as a Tourist, Then Applying for Marriage-Based Green Card

You could be accused of visa fraud when applying to adjust status (get a green card) if you entered the U.S. as a tourist.

By , J.D. · University of Washington School of Law

Many fiancés and spouses of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who are planning to immigrate from overseas wonder why they cannot simply enter the United States as a tourist, then deal with the rest of the green card application process once they're here. After all, they would doubtless have to spend months or years outside the United States waiting for a proper immigrant visa, possibly oceans away from their U.S.-based fiancé or spouse. Meanwhile, they know that a tourist visa (a B-2 visitor visa) can be gotten in a few days from a local U.S. consulate, or if they're from any of certain countries, they can enter on their passport, using the Visa Waiver Program (VWP).

But there are two big problems with the idea of coming to the U.S. as a supposed visitor and then trying to apply for a marriage-based green card, namely that:

  • Visitor visas, the VWP, and most other nonimmigrant visas are truly meant only for use by foreign visitors intending a temporary stay; to do anything else with them is considered fraud, which is a sufficiently serious violation to destroy your eligibility for a green card, and
  • In the case of spouses of lawful permanent residents, the length of permitted stay following the visitor entry might not be long enough to keep your stay legal while you await an available visa (otherwise known as a current Priority Date).

We'll delve into both of these concerns below.

Using a Tourist Visa While Intending Permanent Stay in the U.S. Is Fraud

To reiterate, if you pose as a tourist (whether with a B-2 visa or on the VWP) with the secret intention of staying in the United States for an indefinite time, you will have committed visa fraud. Visitor visas, or indeed any temporary visas, are for people who intend to stay temporarily—then leave. They are not for people who plan to marry and live happily ever after in the United States.

If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) chooses to make an issue of it, your misuse of a tourist visa could lead to your losing the right to obtain not only a marriage-based green card, but most any other type of U.S. visa or immigration benefit.

Why does the U.S. government care if you come to the U.S. to wait for your marriage-based green card process to finish up? Because there is no guarantee that you'll be successful in getting the green card. If you aren't approved for permanent residence, then you'll be in the U.S. unlawfully, and U.S. immigration authorities might have to take steps to force your departure.

Does that mean no one who ever uses a visitor visa or VWP program to enter the U.S. ever gets a green card based on the marriage? No. Exceptions and waivers are possible, as discussed next.

Exception for Foreign Nationals Whose Intention Upon U.S. Entry Was Truly a Temporary Stay

If, upon entry to the U.S., the foreign national hadn't yet decided to marry and/or apply for a green card, it might be excusable, as the next two examples show.


Boris enters the United States on the Visa Waiver Program, marries Sarah (a U.S. citizen) a week later, and they apply for his green card in Chicago. At their green card interview, the officer asks, "When did you decide to get married?" Boris answers, "Oh, I asked Sarah to marry me during a phone call last month, and when she said yes, I was so happy that I packed my bags, got on the earliest cheap plane flight, and we were married in the Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas the following Monday." This is an unfortunate answer, because it practically forces the immigration officer to notice that Boris committed visa fraud.


Gregor enters the United States as a tourist, marries Eileen (a U.S. citizen) three months later, and they apply for his green card in New York. At the green card interview the officer asks, "What was your intention when you entered the United States?" Gregor says, "Our relationship was going very well long-distance, so I decided to travel to the United States to see Eileen in person. Frankly, it was also time for a vacation. A few weeks after I arrived, we realized we were truly in love. And when that feeling didn't wear off, we decided to marry." This answer has promise. Even if this couple was contemplating marriage before Gregor arrived, his candid answer, plus the fact that they waited over two months to get married, shows that Gregor did not just use the tourist visa to get around U.S. immigration laws.

It looks especially bad if you get married within the first 90 days of entering the United States. USCIS will be suspicious about fraud, and you will need to convince the agency that it was not your plan to adjust status when you got the tourist visa. While applicants have been able to convince the officer who interviewed them for the green card that when they entered the U.S. on a temporary visa, they really planned a short stay (and only decided to marry or apply for a green card after arrival), you'd really want a lawyer's help in making such an argument. And because you'll also have to document that your marriage is real (bona fide), you wouldn't, for example, want to be handing USCIS copies of wedding invitations or catering contracts that are dated before you entered the United States.

Waiver of Applicant's Misuse of Tourist Visa Available in Some Cases

If USCIS remains inclined to think you've committed visa fraud, you can ask it to forgive your error. Obtaining such forgiveness (in legalese, a "waiver of inadmissibility") is not easy, however, and will require a lawyer's assistance.

Your Permitted Stay as a Tourist Might Not Last Until a Green Card Is Available to You

The second problem with using a tourist visa for U.S. entry is that, if your U.S. fiancé or spouse is a U.S. permanent resident (not a citizen, but a green card holder), you might, because of annual limits on visa allotments, have to spend time on a waiting list until a visa number is available and you are thus eligible for permanent residence or a green card. The wait is typically two to five years long in your category (2A). Exactly how long you'll wait is based on your "priority date" (the date your spouse submitted Form I-130 to USCIS for you) and on how many other intending immigrants are in line ahead of you.

That means that if you come to the United States as a tourist and your permitted stay under your visa runs out (as shown on your Form I-94 from Customs and Border Protection or CBP), you will be here illegally for all of the months or years of waiting. During that time, you run the risk of being deported (removed) from the United States. Deportation comes with an automatic bar on returning to the United States, usually at least five years long.

For More Information

Many types of visas and immigration benefits are available for temporary and permanent U.S. residence. Though in many cases they apply only to narrow categories of people, you might want to check out detailed information in U.S. Immigration Made Easy, by Ilona Bray (Nolo).

And for a personal analysis of your immigration situation, your best bet is to schedule a consultation with an experienced immigration attorney. See Choosing, Hiring, or Firing an Immigration Attorney.

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