If you are a foreign national and you and your petitioning U.S. spouse were married for less than two years at the time of your approval for marriage-based U.S. residency, you will be given what's called "conditional residence" at first, instead of "permanent residence." This means that your status will expire in two years—in fact, you will see a two-year expiration date right there on your green card.
The purpose of this two years of conditional residence is to let U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) take a second look at whether your marriage to the U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident is indeed real (bona fide) before it allows you to stay in the U.S. permanently.
It's important to get the timing right when applying to turn your conditional residence into permanent residence. If you do not follow the correct procedures to do so (described below), you risk losing your permanent resident status and could face deportation (removal) from the United States. We'll discuss how to successfully apply in this article.
During your two years of conditional residency, you will have all the day-to-day rights of a permanent resident. That means being able to work, travel in and out of the U.S., and even count your time toward the three or five years of residence you will need to accumulate before applying for U.S. citizenship (naturalization).
But if USCIS discovers that your marriage was not real or "bona fide" in the first place, it can place you in removal (deportation) proceedings and take away your green card and your immigration status.
And again, near the end of the two-year period, you will need to ask USCIS for your residence to be made permanent.
If you have only recently been approved for U.S. residency and are not sure whether you are a conditional resident or when your residency will expire, take another look at the stamp in your passport, if you were given one upon U.S. entry or approval. The notation "CR-1" indicates that you received conditional residence. The date below the CR-1 should show when your two years of conditional residency will end.
If the stamp doesn't make it clear, wait until your actual green card arrives. A two-year expiration date means you're a conditional resident. A ten-year expiration date means you're a permanent resident, but simply need to submit an application to get your card replaced every ten years.
To convert conditional status to permanent status, you will need to submit a Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence (USCIS Form I-751), complete with documents and fees, to a USCIS facility (a "lockbox," which will forward it to a "Service Center"). You'll do this within the 90 days before the date your conditional residence status expires.
When it's time for you to fill this out, see Line-by-Line Instructions for USCIS Form I-751, Petition to Remove the Conditions of Residence. Below, you'll find a checklist for preparing this petition.
If you send the I-751 petition to USCIS too soon, that is, earlier than 90 days before your conditional residence expires, you will get it right back. But if you fail to file the petition by the expiration date, your card and your conditional residence status could both expire and you could be deported. (See I Had Conditional Residence, But Turned in Form I-751 Late: Am I Illegal? for more on this.)
So you see, you have a three-month window in which to complete and file your application. Keep track of the deadline. USCIS might not tell you when the petition is due.
As discussed next, however, some exceptions and waiver possibilities exist to this filing deadline.
If you miss the deadline by a short time, don't just give up. If you are late by only a few weeks, send the application to USCIS with a cover letter, explaining the delay. The regulations allow you to file late for "good cause." Good cause might mean a family or medical crisis, a move, or changes at your job—whatever the issue, back up your explanations with documentary proof.
If it's been longer, see a lawyer right away. You've probably got about three to six months before USCIS puts you into removal proceedings, at which point continuing with your application for permanent residence becomes much harder.
For more information, see Submitting Late Form I-751, Petition to Remove Conditions on Residence.
If you are no longer married when it's time to apply to remove the condition on your green card, you can still apply. USCIS will remove the condition if you ask for a waiver of the requirement that you and your spouse apply and be interviewed together. You ask for the waiver on Form I-751. You will still need to prove that the marriage bona fide, was not a sham or fake.
The most important information you need to submit to USCIS is evidence of your bona fide marital relationship. Remember the types of documents you had to provide for your adjustment of status or consular interview? These might include copies of rent receipts, joint bank or credit card statements, and your children's birth certificates.
Include only documents covering the last two years (USCIS does not want to see items that you have already submitted in the past).
For more information, see Submitting Documentary Evidence of Good-Faith Marriage With Form I-751.
For personalized assistance with applying for lawful permanent residence based on marriage to a U.S. citizen or green card holder, consult an experienced attorney.